People are familiar with the Good Samaritan. The tale of the man on the Jericho road. The robbers who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. The Priest and the Levite, passing by. The Samaritan. The oil and the wine he poured in. We see the Samaritan, and desire to be like him. To go all the way to help those who are in need.
But is that really the point of Jesus’ parable..? To simply inspire us to do good to people in need..? The depth of this parable is so easily lost with a loss of the context behind these words of the Christ. Like, who was He saying these words to..? Who is a Samaritan..? And why of all people did Jesus choose to make a Samaritan the hero in His parable..?
The audience who heard the words of the Christ, would have predominantly been comprised of Jews. In particular, the Lord was in conversation with a man who considered himself a scholar of the Jewish Scriptures – which is the Old Treatment of the Bible. But more on that later…
Who is a Samaritan..? The larger message of this parable of Jesus is lost to us, if we glance past this word. Samaritan, quite simply refers to a person from the land of Samaria. But why did Jesus choose a man from this land to be the hero of His tale..? Well… for one, the Jews and the Samaritans shared a unique relationship. One that was built on centuries of bitterness…
The Jews and the people of Samaria once had quite a lot in common. They were sisters. They were brothers. The descendants of one man: Jacob, the grandson of Abraham. Till the time of King Solomon, the people were together. United, under one kingdom. Then, once Solomon died, the first divide appeared. The nation that was one, faced partition. The Northern Kingdom, Samaria. The Southern Kingdom, Judah.
There were times of war. There were times of peace. The political rivalry took many shades, but Judah and Samaria still existed as functional states… until the 7th century BC, when Tiglath-Pileser, the Assyrian conqueror, invaded Samaria. The Neo-Assyrian Empire perfected numerous techniques to extend their imperial rule, one of which involved forced exchange of populations.
People from Samaria, were carried away to Assyria, while people from other conquered nations were brought in to populate the land, according to the Book of Kings, in the Bible. The people in Samaria over the centuries intermarried and became a mixed race. While they still worshipped the God of the Bible, they also inherited portions of their religion from the imported population, becoming polytheistic.
This was the state of the Samaritan people at the time of the Christ, who came seven centuries since the time of the Assyrian invasion. Who came as a Jew, to a Judah that considered itself superior, both racially and in matters of religion. To a Judah that held their neighbours in contempt for being unlike them.
The Bible preserves these facets of this unique relationship, in the accounts of the New Testament. When Jesus’ words did not please the religious elite of His time, they resorted to slander. And what was their favourite cuss-word..? In John 8:48, we read,
The Jews answered him, “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?”
In another instance – when Jesus converses with the ‘woman at the well’ – we see how deep the hatred ran. The woman happened to be a Samaritan. As she came to the well to draw water, Jesus asks her for a drink. But the woman noticed that there was something unusual about His request…
The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.)
The Samaritans were considered a cuss-word. The Samaritans were considered untouchable. And when the Jew – the expert in the Old Testament – asked Jesus, “who is my neighbour..?,” He used this status of a Samaritan to help the Jews, and even us, see clearly into the heart of God.
“Who is my neighbour..?” Sounds like a silly question, doesn’t it..? For the Jews who lived by the Old Testament though, this question was a matter of life and death. If you have read the post, To Love Is A Privilege, you’ll know that this verse,
You shall love your neighbour as yourself.
..along with Deuteronomy 6:5, forms the crux of the religion of the Jews. What the man asked Jesus could well be read as, “who must I love as myself in order to inherit eternal life..?” A question he asks, believing he had the answer.
But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?”
In the parable, there are three people who pass by the dying man on the Jericho road. The Priest. The Levite. The Samaritan. The racially privileged Levite. The socially privileged Priest. They were compatriots to the citizens of Judah. All this made them stand in stark contrast to the Samaritan. The ‘half-blood.’ The sinner. The perfect outsider in Judah.
The Jews believed that their love was meant for the Jews. They believed that those that served God and lived in righteousness alone deserved their love. “For why would God desire that we love those who despise His Way..?,” they could have thought. But in revealing the Samaritan too as a neighbour to the Jews, Jesus opened their eyes to see the love that God desired from the Jews, and the love that He desires from us.
The love that sees a neighbour in those who are our people, and those who are not. The love that sees a neighbour in those who love God, and those who despise Him. The love that sees a neighbour in the pious as well as the sinful. In short, the love that never pauses to judge. The love that never segregates or questions, “is this person worthy of my love or not..?” There lies the purpose of the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
In a way, the Samaritan can be seen as a symbol. The symbol of a person who people could believe to be undeserving of love. The Church today doesn’t share such a feeling toward the Samaritan people, but there are people who we are deceived to believe are as much undeserving of love, as the Jews believed the Samaritans to be.
Imagine you’re sitting in the place of the Jewish scholar, asking Jesus, “who is my neighbour..?” If Jesus responded to you with a similar parable, who will be the Levite in the tale..? Who will be the Priest..? And even more importantly, who are the Samaritans in your life..?
Lord, when I read the Parable of the Good Samaritan, it is so easy to judge the Jews for the hate they held for the Samaritans. But how am I different from them when I struggle to love people who are different from me..? Open my eyes to see who they are who I hate with such hatred. Work in my heart that the darkness in me can be replaced by your Light. Work in me Lord, that I may love the way You desire. That I may love people with an unreasonable love. That I may love people, as You love me. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.