The Good Samaritan Story.

by K.W. Leslie, 09 August 2021

Luke 10.25-37.

This is probably Jesus’s best-known story, almost universally called the Good Samaritan. Which… is a problematic name, ’cause I’m not sure how many people realize the reason he’s called the good Samaritan, is because the usual Jewish and gentile presumption is he wouldn’t be good; he’d either be apathetic or outright evil.

The story begins with a νομικός/nomikós, a person who specialized in the Law of Moses and its many, many Pharisee loopholes. The KJV translates nomikós as “lawyer,” and yeah, today’s lawyers are often just as expert at manipulating our laws so their clients come out on top. So I’ll go with that translation.

Luke 10.25-29 KWL
25 Look, a certain lawyer stands up to examine Jesus,
saying, “Teacher, what makes me inherit life in the age to come?”
26 Jesus tells him, “What’s been written in the Law?
How are you reading it?
27 In reply the lawyer says, “You’ll love your Lord God from your whole heart,
your whole life, your whole strength, and your whole intellect; Dt 6.4-5
and your neighbor same as yourself.” Lv 19.18
28 Jesus tells the lawyer, “Correctly answered.
Do this and you’ll live.”
29 Wanting to make himself righteous,
the lawyer tells Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Bibles tend to render what the lawyer was doing as “standing up to test Jesus,” as if he was trying to attack our Lord. In a way he kinda was: Pharisee rabbis taught their students the Socratic method. They’d make statements, and their students were trained to pick apart these statements every which way, to see whether they held up to serious scrutiny. Jesus must’ve made some statement, and this lawyer decided to pick it apart. It feels adversarial ’cause it kinda is, but it was an acceptable form of adversarial dialogue. This lawyer wasn’t doing anything culturally wrong. Or hostile—unless he chose to be hostile, and we’ve no real evidence from the bible that’s what he was up to.

So Jesus must’ve made some statement about what God’s kingdom will be like in the age to come, after Messiah takes over the world. The lawyer wanted to examine Jesus’s understanding of the kingdom; either to learn more, or to see whether Jesus believed what he hoped Jesus believed; again there’s no real evidence from the bible he was looking for something in Jesus to reject or condemn. If he, as a devout follower of God, is gonna inherit the kingdom, what ought he be doing in the meanwhile? Which is an entirely valid question—and one we Christians oughta be asking ourselves, because our behavior indicates we’re not asking it, and just taking our inheritance for granted.

Jesus asked him a question right back: “You know the Law, so you already know the answer. What’s the Law say you oughta be doing?” And the lawyer’s response is the very same that Jesus of Nazareth, Hillel of Babylon, and most Pharisees recognized were the two greatest commands:

Mark 12.28-31 KWL
28 One of the scribes, standing there listening to the discussion,
recognizing how well Jesus answered the Sadducees,
asked Jesus, “Which command is first of all?”
29 Jesus gave this answer: “First is, ‘Listen Israel: Our god is the Lord. The Lord is One.
30 You’ll love your Lord God with all your mind, life, thought, and strength.’ Dt 6.4-5
Second is, ‘Love your neighbor like yourself.’ Lv 19.18
No command is higher than these.”

Jesus singling out the greatest commands, wasn’t anything new. Really, it’s self-evident. Love God; love your neighbor. Once you recognize God is love, it stands to reason loving God and our neighbor is of greatest importance. Jesus knew it; this lawyer knew it. We should know it.

But this lawyer wanted to play around with what Jesus meant by neighbor. Most of us kinda skeptically interpret Luke’s statement that the lawyer was “wanting to make himself righteous” Lk 10.29 —we’re not sure he really wanted to be righteous, or that he was looking to do the bare minimum and still feel righteous. Same as us, there were no doubt certain neighbors this lawyer had whom he didn’t wanna recognize as neighbors. Just like racists do with people of other ethnicities, Americans do with ex-convicts and illegal immigrants and beggars, and Jews and Palestinians still do with one another.

I figure you already loosely know the Good Samaritan Story; we put the twist ending in the title, for crying out loud. Jesus doesn’t do loopholes, and makes it quite clear that “your neighbor” includes everybody in our homeland. Family members, strangers, the rich, the poor, the unwanted, the folks we imagine ought not be there. Everybody. We’re to love everybody. No exceptions.

So to teach this, Jesus tells a story. Let’s get to it.

The victim, the priest, and the Levite.

Jerusalem is in the Judean foothills, at a higher altitude than both the Galilee and the Dead Sea desert. So in the scriptures whenever people went there, they went “up to Jerusalem”; and when they left they went “down from Jerusalem.” Not south, not east; up and down. And if you traveled alone, as many foolishly did, there was every chance you were gonna get violently mugged by highwaymen, who typically killed you lest you could identify them to the Romans, who’d then go hunt them down and crucify them like those thieves crucified next to Jesus. Anyway that’s where our story begins.

Luke 10.30-32 KWL
30In response Jesus says, “Some person is going down from Jerusalem to Jericho.
Highwaymen attack. Stripping him, beating him, they go away leaving him unconscious.
31 Some priest coincidentally comes down that road,
and on seeing the victim, went round him.
32 Likewise a Levite also coming by the place,
seeing the victim, went round him.”

I’ve heard interpreters claim the priest and Levite’s response was understandable, ’cause they were ministers and had to remain ritually clean for ministry. (Not in temple; Jesus says they were both going down the road, meaning away from Jerusalem. Thing is, priests and Levites ministered in temple not synagogue, so yep, there are holes in the theory.) So they couldn’t get their hands dirty. Couldn’t touch bodily fluids. Mighta felt really bad for the victim, but simply couldn’t stop and help him.

This is why a little knowledge is a dangerous thing; we need more extensive knowledge or we’ll wind up teaching half-truths, and mislead people. True, touching an assault victim would render you ritually unclean. But so did travel itself. What, do you think airline seats are clean? Do you think trains and buses are spotless? Even walking down the street: Do you care to do it barefoot?

Whenever Pharisees traveled out of town, they expected to become ritually unclean. Because all sorts of unexpected things can and would defile you. You could step in dung, or step where anyone peed. You could cut yourself, or get blisters and unintentionally pop ’em, and even your own bodily fluids will make you ritually unclean. You were mighty likely to touch something a ritually unclean person (say, a leper), had touched, ’cause everybody touched certain things, like wells and gates and benches, and if you touched anything an unclean person did, you were unclean. (What about the water they washed in? Well that’s why they mandated you had to wash in running water. Technically running water isn’t the same water. Yeah, it’s a loophole.) You might accidentally step on a dead thing, or walk over a grave. An unclean bug might fall on you. Seriously, anything could happen. So even Sadducees just presumed all travel made you ritually unclean. ’Cause it did.

We can see this belief hinted at in the scriptures. Notice where ministers traveled, like Jesus to a new town, or Barnabas and Paul to a new city. They’d enter town, and right after sundown they’d go to synagogue. After sundown is the important idea there. Synagogue opened at sundown, and they could’ve gone in earlier to prepare, like the synagogue officials; or just hang out till the service started. But the reason these ministers waited till sundown was because they’d been traveling. They were ritually unclean. And how you make yourself ritually clean is you baptize yourself, then wait for sundown. They couldn’t go to synagogue right away.

So no, the priest and Levite didn’t go round the victim (KJV “pass by on the other side”) lest they defile themselves. They went round the victim because they didn’t care to be bothered. Because it didn’t matter that they worked for God: They didn’t love their neighbor. They’re just like the people who look the other way when a homeless person asks them for spare change: “I want no part of this.”

And they, like we, justify ourselves for wanting no part of this. Just like social Darwinists today, the ancients believed if you suffered great misfortune, more than likely it was because of something you did. You didn’t work hard enough, didn’t seek out the right connections, didn’t take advantage of the proper institutions, weren’t right in the head, weren’t worthy. Blind people were blind because somebody musta sinned, Jn 9.2 not because time and chance happen to us all. Ec 9.11 People suffered because their bad karma caught up with them—an attitude Jesus regularly had to correct, because disaster comes for us all, righteous or not.

America’s homelessness problem isn’t because of the homeless themselves. Nor the economy, nor the lack of effective social services per se. It’s because the rest of us don’t give a crap, and don’t think we need to, ’cause the homeless brought this upon themselves. In the very same way in Jesus’s culture, the priest and Levite figured the victim brought this on themselves, and it’s none of their business, so they went round him. They didn’t love their neighbor. Same as Americans do. Broke the Law. Which also makes you ritually unclean, lest you forgot.

The Samaritan.

Samaritans are the descendants of the gentile exiles whom the Assyrian Empire sent to occupy their conquered territory of northern Israel, and the northern Israelis who still lived there after their cities had been captured and deported. People love to speculate about the “lost tribes of Israel,” but they’re not lost. They intermarried with gentiles. They’re the Samaritans.

And Judeans hated them. Partly because of racism, because of Samaritans’ mixed ancestry. Partly because of Judah’s old rivalries with northern Israel and its tribes. Partly because Samaritans were heretic: Their bibles only had the books of Moses in ’em, their temple of the LORD was on Mt. Gerazim instead of Mt. Moriah, and Samaritans believe Judeans (and today, Jews) are the real heretics. But mostly it was all the hate crimes Judeans and Samaritans had committed against one another for the past 400 years; kinda like Jews and Palestinians today, but for way longer.

Look at the animosity many American Christians have towards Muslims, and you can see some of the flinching Jesus’s audience might’ve done the moment Jesus mentions a Samaritan. And not just that, makes him the hero of his story.

Luke 10.33-37 KWL
33 “Some traveling Samaritan comes by the victim,
and seeing him, he has compassion.
34 Approaching, the Samaritan bandages his wounds,
pouring olive oil and wine on them.
Setting him on his own animal, the Samaritan brings him to a public house,
and cares for him.
35 Going out in the morning, the Samaritan gives two denarii to the host.
He says, ‘Care for him, and whatever else you spend on him, I will pay you back once I return.’
36 Whom of these three do you think became a neighbor
to the one who was swarmed by thieves?”
37 The lawyer says, “The one who showed mercy to him.”
Jesus tells him, “And you go do likewise.”

Jesus calls this guy Σαμαρίτης τις ὁδεύων/Samarítis tis odévon, “some road-using Samaritan,” implying this guy was on the road pretty frequently. Some merchants gotta travel constantly. So this was hardly the first mugging victim the Samaritan had ever come across. But rather than let such things harden him, he had compassion on this victim.

Didn’t care he was Judean. In fact might not even have known he was Judean. Ancient Samaritans and Judeans looked alike; they’re both descendants of Israel! The only way you told ’em apart was by clothing. And the victim had no clothing; it was stolen. But it was still a safe bet this was a Judean, ’cause Jerusalem, Jericho, and the road between them, are definitely in Judean territory.

One might argue the Samaritan didn’t care about ritual cleanliness. True, maybe not to the obsessive level of a Pharisee, who figured they needed to stay in a constant state of ritual cleanliness as long as possible, ’cause it made them holy. But ritual cleanliness is in Samaritan bibles too. However, charity and compassion is always far more important than cleanliness; even the Pharisees taught so. If it wasn’t, Jesus wouldn’t touch lepers.

The Samaritan poured oil and wine on the victim’s wounds; not to cure them, nor even to sterilize them (because the ancients didn’t know how to treat infection), but because untreated, exposed wounds attracted flies. First thing you’d have to do was wash ’em out before they get maggoty. And a traveling merchant might’ve been trading in oil and wine, so this was meant to imply the Samaritan put the victim’s health above his own profits.

There weren’t inns in Jesus’s day like our hotels and motels; there were public houses, like pubs, which also let you stay the night in one of their rooms, usually to sleep off any drunkenness. That’s where the Samaritan took the victim and cared for him—and when he had to leave, paid the person who ran the public house to also care for him. You know, wash and feed and maybe even change his soiled loincloth. I don’t know how unconscious the victim was; Jesus doesn’t say. He was going for the general idea anyway.

But now that we have the general idea: Which person acted the neighbor towards the victim? The ministers, or the heretic?

Note the lawyer didn’t even care to say the word Samaritan. Just “The one who showed mercy to him.” But yeah, that’s the right answer, and Jesus told him to do likewise.

Sad to say, in our culture we often have to legislate people acting like good Samaritans towards our neighbors: That when we see a victim, we don’t just stay out of it, and leave them to suffer, or be abused; that we oughta do every reasonable thing we can to help. Not necessarily get in there and fight the attacker, but at least call the cops. And recording a video would also be useful. It’s because people, including people who claim they’re good Christians, suck at being good Samaritans. It’s why the few times people act like good Samaritans, they make the news: It doesn’t happen enough!

But like Jesus said, we gotta go and do likewise. That’s the sign of someone who inherits life in the age to come; life in his kingdom, eternal life. If we have no such signs, we have no such proof. Jesus’s followers oughta be just as compassionate as he is, and certainly as compassionate as Jesus’s fictional Samaritan.

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