The Good Samaritan,” the common title of the parable in today’s gospel, has passed into everyday parlance to designate a person who gratuitously gives help to someone in distress. Often this parable is simply read as a pleasant moral lesson of kindness and neighborliness, but St. Luke goes to great lengths to impress upon us that this parable was told in an atmosphere of distrust and challenge.
At the very beginning of the story, a scholar of the Law addresses Jesus, the carpenter from Nazareth, as Teacher. Lest that irony be lost on his audience, St. Luke also includes the little detail that the scholar was testing Jesus. In other words, if Jesus fails to answer the question correctly, the scholar would have shamed Jesus in the hearing of those who had gathered around him.
Jesus answers the scholar by quoting the two great commandments from the Book of Deuteronomy and the Book of Leviticus, an answer which the scholar cannot fault. Not ready to concede the challenge, the scholar then asks another question; namely, “And who is my neighbor?” As Jesus and the scholar both know, the answer to that question is also given in the Book of Leviticus where a neighbor is defined as “any one of your own people.” Though it is expanded later to include those who “sojourn” in the land, the concept of loving neighbor meant nothing more than loving family, kinsmen, and countrymen.
This sets the stage for the parable through which Jesus skillfully turns the table on the scholar. Instead of answering his question, Jesus tells a story that features a victim of violence, a priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan.
The victim has been stripped of his garments and left for dead. Consequently, he is unidentifiable. His garments and his accent would have told passers-by who he was. There is no way to tell whether he is any one of their own people. The priest has just come from Jerusalem where he probably was fulfilling his annual privilege of offering incense in the Holy of Holies. Touching a bloody body, either alive or dead, would have left him ritually impure necessitating a return to the Temple for purification. Rather than expose himself to the possibility of ridicule, he passes the man by. The Levite, a minor functionary in the Temple, reacted the same way, probably having witnessed the fact that the priest did not assist the poor man. However, a Samaritan, a man who was already considered ritually impure, placed himself at risk by tending the man. The oil and wine that he used to disinfect and soften the wounds of the man would have made him impure. If the victim had died despite the ministrations of the Samaritan, his family could have prosecuted him. Yet, the Gospel tells us that he was moved by compassion, a word which St. Luke uses in only two other circumstances – the story of the widow of Nain and the story of the Prodigal Son. All three of the stories emphasize the point that the sight of another who is in deadly or uncomfortable circumstances must evoke action that leads to life.
Jesus then asks another question: “Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers' victim?" This question reminds us that the scholar of the Law originally asked how he might inherit eternal life. Jesus reverses the dilemma of the lawyer and shifts the emphasis from self (inheriting eternal life) to concern and love for the other, and in this case, love for someone who is considered an enemy or, at the very least, an outsider.
Fleshing out all the characters in their Mediterranean cultural characteristics gives the parable a more pointed moral. A hated outsider extends compassionate love to his enemy. What a masterful attack on communal prejudice! Rather than a pleasant moral lesson of kindness and neighborliness, this parable is a strong lesson for all who would exclude others because of race, gender, nationality, or creed. St. Luke, the Gentile evangelist, himself the victim of discrimination and prejudice, is the only evangelist to include this parable. It is not difficult to understand why!
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator