I’ve talked about the parable of the Good Samaritan before. A lot. It’s one of the most familiar parables of Jesus and, even if you don’t know the story itself, it’s pretty likely that you’ve heard someone referred to as a Good Samaritan and you know what that means.
It’s certainly a story worth repeating and the sentiments we often draw from it are certainly true, even if that wisdom becomes a little generic or stale. Sometimes, though, events in the world around us can bring them into sharper focus.
I think it’s important to remember that the parable, which only appears in the Gospel of Luke, is told in a particular context. A person comes to Jesus with a question: they ask what they need to do to gain eternal life. Jesus replies with a question of his own: what does the law say? The person answers that we should love God with all our being and love our neighbour as we love ourselves. Yes, says Jesus, that’s right. What, exactly, is a neighbour, the person asks, and Jesus replies with this story.
A man’s on the road to Jerusalem when he’s attacked, robbed and left for dead, naked in a ditch. The first person to come by is a priest, who walks by on the other side of the road. A Levite comes by, sees the man and does the same. Then a Samaritan comes, sees the man and stops to help him. He takes him to an inn in the next town and pays for his care.
Which one is being a neighbour, asks Jesus. The person who asked the first question answers that it’s the one who showed mercy. Yes, says Jesus, now go and do the same.
Even in the broadest understanding of “be kind to strangers” or “everyone is my neighbour,” we’re already on the right track. But this story isn’t some generic wisdom or universal platitude that we might think sounds great but find easy to circumvent when we’re confronted with it. It’s focused and specific.
The neighbour is us. I’ll come to the characters in a moment, but the question Jesus answers should begin with “you” because the question he asks at the end is “who is being the neighbour in the story?” The person answers the one who shows mercy and Jesus says go and do it, then.
I think we tend to hear this story as meaning everyone is our neighbour, therefore we should be loving, compassionate and kind. But that’s not the point. The Samaritan’s actions aren’t contingent on the other person, they’re his actions. We love because we are being a good neighbour, not because of who we encounter.
That’s the point of Jesus’ character choices. I don’t think it’s just the shock of the true neighbour being a Samaritan, a very personal enemy to Jews for a variety of reasons, but mostly because they were Jews of a different tradition to Judaism. The thing is, the name Samaritan is from a Greek word that comes from an ancient Hebrew word that means to keep safe or guard. They saw themselves as keepers of the Law. A priest and a Levite, a temple worker responsible for ritual and instruction, would also see themselves as keepers of the Law. And yet, which one actually lived the law? Which one was the neighbour? Which one brought the law to life with a chance encounter on the road?
Go and do likewise.