Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan is perhaps one of the best known stories in the Bible, and yet perhaps also one of the most misunderstood. These days, the word Samaritan is strongly associated with the Samaritans charity who provide vital support at the end of a telephone line for a person who is struggling so much with the stresses of life that they may be contemplating harming themselves or taking their own life.
The parable was given by Jesus as the answer to a question asked by a lawyer, an expert in the Jewish religious law. After he had responded to Jesus to say that believers were commanded to love God and to love their neighbours, he asked Jesus: who is my neighbour?
A lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “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.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Luke 10.25-29
Jesus told him the story of a man who was robbed and left for dead at the side of the road, and who was then ignored by both a Priest and a Levite. They both saw the injured man but crossed over to the other side of the road. The most likely reason for them not wanting to touch the man would’ve been that it would make them ritually unclean according to their religious laws, either by touching blood or a dead body, therefore making them incapable of performing their job of offering sacrifice in the Temple until they had become clean again.
Jesus said that after they both walked past him, a Samaritan man came along, he bandaged his wounds, took him to an inn and paid for him to be looked after until he was well again.
“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. Luke 10.30-34
During the time of Jesus, Samaritans lived in the North of the Roman Province of Palestine. They shared many similarities with religious Jews in terms of their heritage and what they believed about God, but Jews considered Samaritans to be followers of a false religion and they were mostly shunned as a result. The actual differences between the Jewish and Samaritan religions are not important in terms of the parable, rather it was told by Jesus for two reasons. Firstly, to show that the act of loving our neighbour isn’t dependent on first of all checking to see if the person is worthy of our love before we choose to show that love. Secondly, it was to show that if the act of being religious gives someone an excuse to not show love to someone in need, then their religion is nothing more than a sham.
At the end of the parable, Jesus asked the lawyer which of the 3 men was a neighbour to the one who was injured. In his answer, he couldn’t bring himself to say that it was the Samaritan man, he just said that it was the one who showed mercy. Jesus’ response to him, and to us, by extension, is the same, to show mercy.
Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” Luke 10.36-37
It can be a hard lesson to learn, that God expects us all to show love to all, not just to those who we think are deserving of it, or to those with whom we share faith in God. It can also be a hard lesson to learn that very often the religious things we do, and which we think are done for the right reasons, can very often be the very things holding us back from showing love to our neighbours.
If our religion makes us care more for separation than for love then we perhaps need to examine our motives. The prophet Hosea sums this up best. Some translations say steadfast love rather than mercy, but they are interchangeable terms:
For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. Hosea 6.6