I’m using Valentine’s Day as an excuse to write about Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan and its message of love for one’s neighbor. The story is familiar to many. In the tenth chapter of Luke’s gospel, Jesus encounters a lawyer who recites the great commandment to love God and neighbor and then asks, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus proceeds to tell a story about a compassionate Samaritan and in the process raises a different question: “What does it mean to be a neighbor?” (photo 1). As we delve into the parable’s context and interpretation, we’ll illustrate this post with images from the famous 13th century Good Samaritan window at Chartres Cathedral and more recent windows from churches in the United States and Canada.
At the outset, though, I want to offer two disclaimers. First, I am a lawyer who appreciates strong definitions. Second, I decided to write about the Good Samaritan when the timing of a scripture reading hit me hard as I sat in church on Sunday, January 29, just two days after President Trump issued an executive order barring Syrian refugees from entering the United States indefinitely. The lector read a passage from the sixth chapter of Micah in which a man openly wonders what God expects from us. The prophet responds as if the answer should be obvious: “He has told you O mortal what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
As the words sank in, I thought to myself that the president’s order, with its absolute rejection of all immigrants from war-torn Syria without so much as a second thought, is the opposite of what Micah said the Lord requires. The ban seemed to turn a blind eye to those in great need while driving the nation at top speed toward a dead end marked “absolute security.” The Good Samaritan would probably have it otherwise, hence my desire to learn more about the parable’s context.
Parables Generally The three synoptic gospels— Matthew, Mark, and Luke—record Jesus telling many stories that use vivid images of houses built on sand, prodigal sons, and lost sheep to help explain humanity’s relationship with God and with one another. The English word parable comes from a Greek word, parabole, meaning something thrown beside something else. In other words, a parable compares one thing to another, side by side. It may be a short simile or a longer metaphor. But regardless of length, their purpose according to Prof. Bernard Brandon Scott is to make the listener see the world differently. In his book, Re-Imagine the World: an Introduction to the Parables of Jesus, Prof. Scott writes, “the parables give us access to the way Jesus re-imagined the possibility of living….” They help us see “the possibilities of life,” and “imagine how we might live life in this world.” That may be especially true of the Good Samaritan parable. Professor Scott speculates that the Jewish listeners who first heard it would have been shocked by the mere suggestion that a Samaritan could be the story’s kindly hero. The thought strained their sense of the possible in a way that may be hard for us, long removed from that ancient divide, to appreciate.
Love of Neighbor Concern for one’s neighbor is an age old notion that crosses cultural lines. In the 4th century BCE, Aristotle (photo 4, below) recognized philia along with agape, eros and storge as four types of love. For the Greeks, philia implied affection, friendship and loyalty in regard to family, friends and community. They even named cities for it. Amman, the capital of modern-day Jordan was one of two cities called Philadelphia, meaning brotherly love, at the time of Christ.
But the idea that we should show compassion to others, including strangers, predates Aristotle by centuries if not millennia. The author of Leviticus in the Hebrew Bible, probably written around 700 BCE, instructed “…you shall love your neighbor as yourself,” and goes on to say that “you shall love [the stranger] as yourself….” The author of Luke’s gospel, writing about 750 years later, combined the verse from Leviticus with the requirement in the book of Deuteronomy to love God with all of one’s heart, soul and might, to form what Christians call the “great commandment.”
Definitions The great commandment appears in the three synoptic gospels. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus responds with it to a question aimed to test his knowledge of the law. He replies that love of God is primary, and that love of neighbor “is like unto it” and runs a close second. But only in Luke’s gospel does a lawyer ask, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responds with a question, “What is written in the law?” The lawyer quotes the great commandment verbatim: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus says approvingly, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
But the lawyer asks Jesus to define a key term; “And who is my neighbor?” The gospel implies that the lawyer’s motives are less than pure when he poses the question (imagine that!). But for someone who takes compliance with the law seriously, it’s a fair question. A good lawyer would want to know to whom he owes a duty of care. Is he responsible for the man or woman next door; a farmer who lives on the outskirts of town; a foreigner who lives on the other side of the mountains? The lawyer wants to know how far the law extends.
If the lawyer is baiting Jesus, the teacher doesn’t bite. Instead Jesus turns the tables by shifting the discussion from the limits of law to the boundlessness of love through a story about the actions of three men who are traveling on the road to Jericho.
The Good Samaritan The story starts with a “certain man” who sets off on a journey along the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. The man is presumably Jewish. Along the way robbers accost and beat him. They strip off the man’s clothing and leave him “half dead” beside the road. By chance, a priest comes along, sees the naked man, and keeps going without stopping to help. Next, a Levite approaches and does the same. Photo 4, below, shows five scenes from the story. Read them from bottom to top and left to right. The lower scene in the quatrefoil shows Jesus and two Pharisees conversing. Moving clockwise to the left, the man exits his home. In the center, two robbers wait in the woods. On the right, three robbers beat the man. One holds a sword, one a club, and a third bandit strips the man’s tunic. The scene on top depicts the priest and Levite passing by the injured man who lies between them.
Finally, a Samaritan comes along, sees the beaten man, “and was moved with pity.” He bandages his wounds after cleaning them with oil and wine. The Samaritan takes the injured man on an animal to an inn where he cares for him. Observe the bandage streaming from the man’s head in photo 5, below. As the Samaritan leaves the inn, he gives the proprietor money in advance and tells him to, “Take care of him; and when I come back I will repay you whatever more you spend.”
Jesus asks the lawyer, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer replies, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus ends the discussion with a challenge that still reverberates two thousand years later: “Go and do likewise.” Note the caption and the flask symbolizing the medicinal oil and wine in the Good Samaritan scene at the Washington National Cathedral (photo 6).
What is a Samaritan? Samaritans lived in Samaria, a district named for the capital of the Biblical northern kingdom of Israel. The region was under Roman rule during Jesus’ ministry. It was bounded by Jesus’ native Galilee to the north and the kingdom of Judea to the south. Today, Samaria is part of the Palestinian West Bank, occupied by Israel since 1967.
The Jewish people who first heard the Good Samaritan parable nearly 2,000 years ago most likely pictured the Samaritan as a descendant of Babylonians who settled the region after the Assyrians conquered it in 722 BCE and then deported more than 20,000 Israelites to points east. But aside from ethnicity, the Samaritans and Jews—who worshiped the same God—disagreed bitterly about the location and timing of worship practices. Jewish worship centered on the temple in Jerusalem. For the Samaritans, the city of Shechem and Mt. Gerazim were holy. The animosity between the two groups led one contributor to the Concise Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church to observe, “The hostility of the Jews to the Samaritans was proverbial.”
The Road to Jericho In Jesus’ time, the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was well known for its danger and for the priests and Levites who used it to travel to and from their work at the temple in Jerusalem and their homes in Jericho. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho descends about 3,200 feet in the 18 miles that separate the two cities. It was known as “the way of blood” because robbers commonly preyed on travelers who were well-advised to travel in caravans. The Cambridge Companion to the Bible notes that “bandits or brigands became numerous in the Roman period.” Many bandits were dispossessed peasants—perhaps like Jesus and his family—who were “forced off the land by a combination of harsh economic conditions, politically inefficient governments, military oppression, and failed harvests….” King Herod, the Great, earned his reputation as a military commander through his largely successful effort to rid Galilee of bandits.
Given the threat, the priest and Levite might have risked their own lives by stopping to help the half-dead man. On the day before he died, Martin Luther King spoke of his own travels on the road to Jericho (photo 9, below). He reportedly said, “I can see why Jesus used this as the setting for his parable. It’s a winding, meandering road…. It’s possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it’s possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking, and he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt in order to lure them over there for quick and easy seizure.” It’s possible that these familiar words crossed the minds of the priest and Levite as they passed by the man: better safe than sorry.
Re-Imagining the World Prof. Scott’s insight about the parables, as invitations to re-imagine life’s possibilities, resonates with me. I long for a world where we define neighbor in the broadest terms, follow the Good Samaritan’s example, and treat one another fairly. But in a re-imagined world, where humility prevails, the parable invites me to walk in the shoes of the priest and Levite. From where they stand, I must acknowledge the power of instinctual self-preservation to dampen my own heart’s fire for compassion. The parable also invites me to imagine myself as a half-dead man lying in a ditch. From his viewpoint, I must see the Samaritan as a black person coming to the aid of a white person; of a Mexican showing mercy to a gringo; and of a Muslim bandaging the wounds of a Christian. Luke’s gospel reminds us that the shift in perspective will be good for us in the long run.
A Nod to Eros For the romantics among you, here’s a sculpted rose bouquet from the Washington National Cathedral (photo 10). Use your imagination to color them red, yellow, or purple. Regardless of color, I see American Beauties.
Copyright 2017, Michael Klug, firstname.lastname@example.org, 02-14-17