The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-41) is an incredible story that takes on a whole new incredible meaning when examined in light of the culture and context. One of the incredible things for me was that you can actually still walk down the road where this story took place in modern day Israel.
The sages often taught in parables and hoped that their audience would “See, and then see (live out the teaching); and hear, and then hear (live out the teaching).” The struggle for many religious people today is that we attend church and see, but don’t see; and hear, but don’t hear.
First, let’s do a brief survey of the culture and context in which this story was told in the first century. The first issue that is important to this parable is that there was a fierce debate going on in the first century around Leviticus 19:18 (Love your neighbor) and who exactly met the definition of neighbor. One thing everyone agreed on was that in no circumstance was either a) A Samaritan or b) a heathen pagan your neighbor. The Samaritans were absolutely hated and despised by most Jewish people in the first century and vice versa.
An additional debate taking place in the first century was the “Bible literalists” vs. the “Oral Traditionalists.” The Sadducees held to Torah literalism and obeyed and lived Torah literally. As a result, they did not believe in life after death/resurrection (as it isn’t mentioned in Torah), so they were sad, you see? Horrible joke, I know. In any case, Torah literalists held to the view that a priest could almost never touch or be in the same location as a dead or “half-dead” body based on Leviticus 21.
The people that held to Oral Tradition followed a principle called “Pikuach Nefesh,” and this guided their interpretation of Torah. It basically taught that human life is the most important thing in almost any given situation. So if you need to violate another law in Torah to save a human life, by all means violate Torah to save a person’s life. The Pharisees were followers of Pikuach Nefesh in the first century.
A hypothetical example of Pikuach Nefesh I can think of is violating the commandment to “not lie” in order to hide a Jewish person during the Nazi regime and save that person from potential death.
A couple other notes. The Jericho road where this story takes place is literally 18 inches wide across. I’ve walked down it more than a few times. It is literally wide enough to fit one person, and there is a cliff on the other side of the road that drops 200-300 feet. Anyone passing a beaten, half-dead man would have literally had to step over his body, there is no way around.
The point of the Good Samaritan story to a first century Jewish listener was that even a disgusting, despicable Samaritan was your neighbor. This would have absolutely shocked the audience and they were probably standing there with their jaws on the ground.
The listeners were almost certainly expecting a Pharisee to show up and save the day, but the Samaritan did instead. If you were raised in church like I was, I would have expected the Pharisee to show up, kick the guy in the face and throw him off the cliff, but I’ve actually come to a radically different understanding of the Pharisees since my time in Israel. Jesus was actually closest to the Pharisees theologically, two of his close friends (Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimethea were Pharisees, and he says listen to them b/c they sit in Moses’ seat). More on that in a later post.
One of the main principles that set Jesus apart from other first century sages was that Jesus was the first (and only) sage to teach, “Love your enemies and pray for those that persecute you!” Up until the time of Jesus, sages had only taught to love your neighbor (Lev. 19:18) and nothing beyond that.
Some other interesting insights. The first two people to pass by (or over) the man’s body were actually Sadducees (priests and levites were all Sadducees); and were forbidden to touch the man as it would violate their interpretation of Leviticus 21.
What is even more amazing about the helper being a Samaritan, is that Samaritans held to Torah literalism as well. So this Samaritan person literally threw his theology out the window in order to save a man’s life. This also would have stunned the audience.
I wonder how many people walked away from this teaching and went and found someone they had held anger or resentment against and talked to them and forgave them. Many probably did. Sometimes it is hardest to show love towards those in our life that we find despicable, but that is the challenge Rabbi Jesus left us with. May you see and then see, and hear and then hear. Have a great week.
The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-41)
25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii[e] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”