Good Samaritan

This must be one of the best known stories Jesus told.  People in the street  will often say that someone has been a good Samaritan when they have noticed someone’s kindness. The parable has inspired painting, sculpture, satire, poetry, and film. The phrase “Good Samaritan”, meaning someone who helps a stranger, derives from this parable, and many hospitals and charitable organizations are named the Good Samaritan after this story;  Well known though it is, it has levels of meaning which perhaps we need to look at again.

The Good Samaritan is a disturbing tale of prejudice, social class, neighbourliness and forgiveness told in response to the question asked of Jesus:”Who is my Neighbour?  “Neigh” comes from the old English for near and “bour” was old English for dwelling, so a neighbour was a person who had a dwelling near you.

The sting in the tail of that story concerns the rather narrow Jewish understanding of neighbour, someone near you, someone you have had dealings with, someone within your social circle who is your social equal. The inferior social status of Samaritans meant that they were regarded by Jews as little better than the hated Romans.  This story then, is not only about kindness and compassion, but also about radically broadening the definition of neighbour.

Now, let’s look at the setting of the story. We’ll try and see it in our mind’s eye. The scene is the road from Jerusalem to Jericho which was a notoriously dangerous road.  Jerusalem is 2300 feet above sea level.  The Dead Sea near which Jericho stood is 1300 feet below sea level.  Therefore, in about 20 miles this road dropped 3600 feet. It was narrow, with rocky defiles and sudden turnings which made it ideal for robbers to hide.

As late as the 19th century it was still necessary to pay money to the local Sheiks before anyone could travel on it.  As late as 1930 we are told people were warned to get off it before dark so when Jesus told this story the locals would immediately understand what could happen on this well- known road.

Now, let’s look at the characters and think about what they can teach us.

First, The Traveller.  Local people would hardly ever travel with valuable goods on the Jericho Road, so this man must have been a stranger or rather foolhardy.  People tended to travel together in convoys or caravans.  So really this man had no-one but himself to blame for the danger he put himself in.

Second, The Priest. He was the one who hurried past.  He was probably very aware that according to the law in the Torah, and we can read it in Numbers 19, anyone who touched a dead person was unclean for 7 days.  He was pretty sure this man lying on the road was dead by the way he looked and he wasn’t taking any chances because the temple and its liturgy meant more to him than the situation of the man on the road.

Third, The Levite. In Jewish tradition, a Levite is a member of the Israelite Tribe of Levi, descended from Levi, the third son of Jacob and Leah. The Tribe of Levi served particular religious duties for the Israelites and had political responsibilities as well.

He seems to have gone over to have a look at the man before he went on his way.  He feared there might be a decoy as the bandits were often  doing this to rob  travellers.   So his motto must have been “Safety first”

Fourth, The Samaritan. The listeners at the very sound of the name would expect that here at last was the villain of the story.  This is where in pantomime the audience would have booed and hissed.

Perhaps he was a stranger who regularly travelled round selling his goods for he seems to have been well known to the inn keeper. Sometimes the hated name Samaritan was used for anyone who was a heretic and anyone who broke the ceremonial law.  Perhaps he was one whom all orthodox people hated but  did not actually come from Samaria. Portraying a Samaritan in a positive light would have come as a shock to Jesus’ audience It is typical of Jesus’ often provocative speech in which conventional expectations are turned on their heads.

Now  let’s look at the characters and think about what they can teach us.

First, The Traveller.  Local people would hardly ever travel with valuable goods on the Jericho road so this man must have been a stranger or rather foolhardy.  People tended to travel together in convoys or caravans.  So really this man had no one but himself to blame for the danger he put himself in.

Second, The Priest. He was the one who hurried past.  He was probably very aware that according to the law in the Torah and we can read it in Numbers 19, anyone who touched a dead person was unclean for 7 days.  He was pretty sure this man lying on the road was dead by the way he looked and he wasn’t taking any chances because the temple and its liturgy meant more to him than the situation  of the man on the road.

Third, The Levite. In Jewish tradition, a Levite  is a member of the Israelite Tribe of Levi, descended from Levi, the third son of Jacob and Leah. The Tribe of Levi served particular religious duties for the Israelites and had political responsibilities as well. He seems to have gone over to have a look at the man before he went on his way.  He feared there might be a decoy as the bandits were often using this to get at travellers.   So his motto must have been “Safety first”

Fourth, The Samaritan. The listeners at the very sound of the name would expect that here at last was the villain of the story.  This is where in pantomime the audience would have booed and hissed. Perhaps he was a stranger who regularly travelled round selling his good for he seems to have been well known to the inn keeper. Sometimes the hated name Samaritan was used for anyone who was a heretic and anyone who broke the ceremonial law.  Perhaps he was one whom all orthodox people hated and did not actually come from Samaria. Portraying a Samaritan in a positive light would have come as a shock to Jesus’ audience. It is typical of Jesus’ often provocative speech in which conventional expectations are turned on their heads.

But the Samaritan’s credit was certainly good at the inn.  The hotel keeper trusted him.  He may not have kept the religious laws but he was honest.  And he was the only one prepared to help.  The love of God was certainly in his heart.   The orthodox are often more interested in dogma and protocol than concern for their fellows.  Ultimately, we are judged not by the creeds we hold but by the life we live.

The Teaching:   In answer to the question Jesus says :We must help a person even when they have brought trouble on themselves. Any person of any nation who is in need, is neighbour and our help must be as wide as we say the love of God is. The help must be practical and not just a feeling sorry. The Levite and the Priest probably felt a pang of sympathy for the injured traveller but they did nothing.

Compassion to be real must eventuate in action.  It can be costly in time and often finance but it needs to become a way of life

generosity

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                                                                                

 

 

 

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