Updated: Jul 28, 2022
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my strength and my redeemer. (Psalm 19:14) AMEN
Today’s gospel reading, the parable of the Good Samaritan, is one of the most beloved stories in the Bible. We all have heard it so many times that we no longer really pay attention to it. It has become, in many ways, a religious cliché. The phrase ‘good samaritan’ has become a cultural shorthand expression for someone who is kind to others. The term is now the name for numerous hospitals, a type of public law, and even the world’s largest RV club. I want to take a closer look at this passage to see what it is, or is not, saying, and how this matches with our pre-conceived understanding of the parable. By casting the Jewish priest and Levite as villains, and making the hero a Samaritan (a people the Jews viewed as heretics), Jesus has chosen a provocative metaphor that would have startled the listening crowd.
A traditional interpretation of this passage would argue that the priest and the Levite failed to act, not because they were uncaring, selfish jerks, but because the religious code they both observed prevented them from doing anything. The Jewish laws were very strict about coming into contact with human blood, which meant the priest and Levite had to avoid the injured man (passing by on the other side) because they would have risked ritual defilement and thus been unable to do their jobs in the temple in Jerusalem. From this perspective, the chief point of Jesus’ parable would seem to be a harsh criticism of Jewish laws for forcing people to act in an inhumane manner and ignoring human suffering in order to remain ritually pure. There are plenty of times in the Gospels when Jesus makes this argument, so it would not be a surprise if the parable of the Good Samaritan were another example of it.
However, this interpretation of the parable gets tripped up by a seemingly insignificant detail, the fact that the passage twice mentions the people were “going down from Jerusalem.” For most people that phrase means nothing, but for people familiar with the geography of Jerusalem and the surrounding area it has a special meaning, and it would have jumped out to the people listening to Jesus speak. To offer a modern example, how many people here remember the movie The Graduate? It starred Dustin Hoffman and featured the famous soundtrack by Simon & Garfunkel. In the movie, Hoffman plays a young man who falls in love with young woman, named Elaine, who is a student at UC Berkeley (and yes, I am skipping over a lot of the plot in the interest of time). At one point in the film, Hoffman drives his Alfa Romeo convertible across the upper deck of the Bay Bridge to see Elaine in Berkeley. It is a beautiful camera shot, but I think every person who has ever lived in the Bay Area would immediately say the same thing, “Hey, he’s driving in the wrong direction! He’s heading into San Francisco, not Berkeley.”
In a similar manner, the phrase “going down from Jerusalem,” would jump out to the people listening to Jesus, because the city of Jerusalem sits on a mountaintop, and so when you are leaving the city you literally go down a road. If the priest and the Levite in this parable are going down from Jerusalem, that means they are heading away from their work not towards it, and therefore the ritual purity laws would be far less of an obstacle to them helping the injured man. So why did they not help? Perhaps they really were just uncaring, selfish jerks. We do not know, the parable provides no motive, and in many ways, it is incidental to the point of the story. What it does mean is that the strict nature of the Jewish laws is not the focus of Jesus’ attention in this parable. (“Bearing False Witness: Common Errors Made About Early Judaism,” from The Jewish Annotated New Testament [Oxford, 2nd edition, 2017].)
There is, however, a reason why Jesus uses the pattern ‘priest, Levite, and Samaritan,’ when telling his parable. In the local speaking pattern at that time the phrase ‘priest, Levite, and Israelite,’ was used frequently, in much the same way the phrase “a priest, a rabbi, and a minister walk into a bar” is used as a starting point for numerous jokes. If I were instead to say, “a priest, a rabbi, and a plumber walk into a bar,” it would focus your attention since that is not the normal pattern. Jesus is doing the same thing in this parable, when he says ‘Samaritan’ instead of the expected ‘Israelite.’
By telling this story Jesus is joining a discussion within the Jewish faith that predated him and continued long after him, focusing on the question of whether the commandment “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18) only applied to interactions between Jews or if it also applied to interactions with non-Jews as well. Through this parable Jesus seems to be indicating his support of the more inclusive definition of ‘loving your neighbor.’ I say ‘seems to be’ because Jesus does not actually make an explicit statement to that effect. Rather than defining who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out,’ Jesus leads the conversation in an unexpected direction, which I will come back to in a moment. (The Jewish Annotated New Testament, p. 136.)
When it comes to answering the question “Who is my neighbor?” it has been a bad habit of Christians, for the past two thousand years, to pat ourselves on the back and smugly proclaim that we embraced a wider definition of ‘loving your neighbor,’ than, supposedly, the Jews did. This false stereotype, however, does not hold up upon closer inspection. Yes, Christians did adopt, after a great deal of fighting amongst themselves, a ‘big tent’ approach to membership in the faith, including both Jews and Gentiles on an equal footing. This did not mean, though, that Christians believed in loving members and non-members equally.
Almost all of the examples concerning this topic in the New Testament (the letters of John, for instance) speak of striving to maintain love within the Christian community, but not about loving the other people who lived in their geographic community. Jesus at the Last Supper tells his disciples that they should love one another, and that “[b]y this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35) Christians have done a bad enough job loving one another over the centuries, and it has only been in the past seventy-five years that the idea of having love for non-Christians has gained any significant traction--a shift perhaps driven in response to a thousand years of Christians in Europe showing violent hatred towards their Jewish neighbors, culminating in the Holocaust. (Ibid, p. 647, 648.)
So what is Jesus, through this parable, trying to tell us today? And why has this story retained such power down through the centuries? I think that at its heart this parable is about overturning our own expectations, perceptions, and opinions, and that it is meant to be as unsettling for us as it was for the people who first heard it two thousand years ago. By way of illustration, let me share my own “Good Samaritan” story. Every morning I go for a walk along one of the trails in my neighborhood. (The trails are level, so there is no ‘going down from Jerusalem’ aspect to my walks.) During my daily stroll, I will frequently see trash lying on the ground next to the trail, and 99% of the time I will simply pass it by, while mumbling under my breath about how some people are such slobs. Oftentimes while I am on my walk, I will see an older couple who are out riding their bikes. As they pedal along, they both have long metal pinch grabbers in their hands, which they use to pick up any trash they find. They are both such pros at doing this they do not even have to stop their bikes; they simply snap up the trash as they pass, drop it into a bag attached to the side of their bikes, and continue on their way. It is an impressive display of eye/hand coordination and excellent balancing skills.
But that is not what caught my eye the first time I saw them in action. Instead, the first thing I noticed, and continue to notice when I see them, is the fact that the man always is wearing a red Make America Great Again hat. Now for purposes of this story, let me simply say that I am not a fan of Donald Trump. As a result, each time I see this man do his neighborly good deed I experience the same sort of mental and spiritual whiplash that I am sure the ancient Jewish audience felt when Jesus told his story about the kind and virtuous actions of a Samaritan. And after every encounter I am left pondering the question, who is the righteous person in this scenario, the Episcopal priest who is out for a walk or the man in the red MAGA hat who is picking up the trash?
It is worth noting that in the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus never directly answers the question of “Who is my neighbor?” Instead, he asks the lawyer, “Which of these three…was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer responds, not with a name, but with an action, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus then speaks not just to the lawyer but also to each and every one of us when he says, “Go and do likewise.”