One day an expert in religious law stood up to test Jesus by asking him this question: “Teacher, what should I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus replied, “What does the law of Moses say? How do you read it?” The man answered, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.’ And, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” “Right!” Jesus told him. “Do this and you will live!” The man wanted to justify his actions, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Jesus replied with a story: “A Jewish man was traveling from Jerusalem down to Jericho, and he was attacked by bandits. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him up, and left him half dead beside the road. “By chance a priest came along. But when he saw the man lying there, he crossed to the other side of the road and passed him by. A Temple assistant walked over and looked at him lying there, but he also passed by on the other side. “Then a despised Samaritan came along, and when he saw the man, he felt compassion for him. Going over to him, the Samaritan soothed his wounds with olive oil and wine and bandaged them. Then he put the man on his own donkey and took him to an inn, where he took care of him. The next day he handed the innkeeper two silver coins, telling him, ‘Take care of this man. If his bill runs higher than this, I’ll pay you the next time I’m here.’
“ Now which of these three would you say was a neighbor to the man who was attacked by bandits? ” Jesus asked. The man replied, “ The one who showed him mercy. ” Then Jesus said, “ Yes, now go and do the same.” Luke 10:25-37 NLT
It’s not unreasonable to think that you probably know this story from Sunday School, and certainly the term “Good Samaritan” has entered our language as a synonym for someone who has no obligation to care, but acts in a purely altruistic way.
However, closer inspection reveals some surprising details.
Firstly, although Jericho lies north-east of Jerusalem, one always travels “down” to Jericho.
Jerusalem is situated approximately 2,500’ above sea level and Jericho lies about 825’ below sea level, so going from one to the other involves a vertical change of more than 3,000’ (more than half a mile!)
The modern road still follows the track of the ancient one, and winds crazily along ridge lines with hairpin bends and steep up and down gradients along the way. A guide book from as late as the 1960’s advised those traveling in cars to be wary and travel in convoy since the area was plagued by local bandits who would kidnap or rob unsuspecting travelers!
So it was in the time of Jesus and when Jesus mentioned a single traveler going to Jericho, the listeners instinctively knew how this story would inevitably end! They would also reasonably believe that the traveler was incredibly naive or deranged, since no person in his right mind would attempt that journey by himself.
This reckless man had no one to blame but himself for the plight in which he found himself. As it was he was lucky to be barely alive when the robbers were finished with him. If Jesus had finished the story there, it would still have been a good object lesson about the foolishness of attempting spiritually dangerous things when we already have safety information and means and should obviously know better.
But Jesus then mentions two other travelers who are religious men by profession. They are probably headed uphill toward the temple in Jerusalem and with their retinue it would be a bit of a slog! You might think that the sight of a body lying in the path might be shocking, but as Jerome tells us in the fifth century, this road was known as the “red” or “bloody” road because of the number of murdered victims one would encounter along it.
The priest wants to put distance between himself and the supposedly dead body because there would be a penalty if it really was dead and he touched it: “ All those who touch a dead human body will be ceremonially unclean for seven days.” Numbers 18:11 NLT
That ceremonial uncleanness could mean he might lose his one chance in a lifetime of serving in the Temple, and he surely wouldn’t want to risk that. We shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that he didn’t care, however. It’s just that the situation undoubtedly looked hopeless, so no point in taking a risk to his destiny, when there wasn’t much chance he could make a difference.
The temple helper (“levite”) gets a bit closer to the body but is understandably wary. A tactic used then, and now, by gangs of thieves was to leave one of their number as a decoy in the path begging for help and then swarming the unsuspecting helper(s). For the levite this is too much of a risk. He has places to be, things to do, people to see. It’s not worth the chance that he’ll end up just like the beaten and close-to-death traveler. If he’s not dead yet, he soon will be. Just another statistic on the Jerusalem to Jericho road!
And then comes the Samaritan!
Jesus’ listeners would now assume that the villain of the story had arrived!
Obviously, “Samaritan” could refer to a person who is a citizen of Samaria, whom the Jews despised to the point that they would leave rather than be in the same room as them. But the Jews also used the term to apply to their own people who fell short of the standard of religious purity demanded of them. Jesus himself was referred to as a “Samaritan devil” by the scribes and pharisees: “ You Samaritan devil! Didn’t we say all along that you were possessed by a demon? ” John 8:48 NLT
Jesus doesn’t fill in much biographical detail about this compassionate pariah, but we can surmise a few things about him.
Firstly, he was perhaps a merchant who probably made this trip on a reasonably frequent basis. He was well-known and obviously trusted by the inn-keeper. He planned to stay at the inn sometime in the future. His credit was good and he could be relied on to pay his debts. He didn’t stereotype the reckless Jewish traveller and leave him to his fate, but instead regarded him as his “neighbor” in need. He rendered aid out of his own pocket with no expectation that it could or would ever be repaid! That’s as good a definition of “agape” love as you’ll find!
The devout scribe who asked Jesus, “define who my neighbor is” would have a little leather box called a phylactery tied to his wrist. Part of the contents of box would be the written words of Leviticus 19:18: “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against a fellow Israelite, but love your neighbor as yourself”, which the scribe quotes and Jesus affirms.
And in a doubly shocking ironic twist, Jesus has the religious expert confirm that the reckless Jew and the despised “Samaritan” were neighbors to each other as defined by the demonstration of mercy. And hence, neighbors to the scribe too. (Probably blew his mind.)
There is always a temptation to believe that some people are more deserving of God’s mercy than others, or that some have been reckless and have brought their sinful situation on themselves. But Jesus’ story illustrates that in God’s eyes we are all neighbors to each other and that we should love that neighbor with the same intensity we love ourselves.
And Jesus said: “…go, and do the same”! Luke 10:37 NLT
Blessings on you and yours, Jim Black