Most people have at least heard of the story of the good Samaritan. Maybe we've only heard, "be a good Samaritan," in reference to helping someone in a broken down car alongside a roadway. Likely fewer know that the story is from the Bible. Specifically from the Gospel of Luke. It is a parable (a.k.a. story) told by Jesus as an illustration. And, what was the point of the story? What did Jesus intend for us to learn from it?
First, here's the story from the King James Bible (highlights added):
10:25: And, behold, a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted him1, saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?
10:26: He said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou?
10:27: And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.
10:28: And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live.
10:29: But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbour?
10:30: And Jesus answering said, A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.
10:31: And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.
10:32: And likewise a Levite2, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side.
10:33: But a certain Samaritan3, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him,
10:34: And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.
10:35: And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee.
10:36: Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves?
10:37: And he said, He that shewed mercy on him. Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise.
As we can see from the text, Jesus used a parable to answer a questioning lawyer know what it will take for him to "inherit eternal life." And what was the answer?
From the text above we learn that the lawyer already knew the answer. It seems the lawyer did not really want an answer. His question was intended to either (a.) trap Jesus with a killer question (watch certain of today's news shows to see the art of "got ya" questioning on display as it was in Jesus time), or (b.) get Jesus to narrow the definition of "neighbour".
Jesus response strategy was a common one used to handle the "got ya" question, that is to answer a question with a question. "What is written in the law? how readest thou?" In current day vernacular, he said, "what do you think?" Jesus goes on to deal with the neighbour question not by directly answering but by using the second most common "got ya" question answer strategy, which is to tell a story.
Love thy neighbour as thyself. Maybe the modern version would be the Golden Rule, do to others what you would have them do to you. And who is the "neighbour" to which Jesus is referring? In the parable Jesus used a Samaritan as the helper, a group universally hated by Jews, which was the ethnicity of the unfortunate man in need of help. Basically, Jesus message was, your "neighbour" is anyone even those that you like the least. This was his answer to the lawyer.
Some version of this idea appears in nearly every religion—often as a central principle. It can't be simpler to understand, but harder to do. We teach this in Kindergarten to the youngest among us. Too often we all find it easier, and far more self rewarding, to treat others poorly so that we can benefit.
One famous account in the Talmud (Shabbat 31a) tells about a gentile who wanted to convert to Judaism. This happened not infrequently, and this individual stated that he would accept Judaism only if a rabbi would teach him the entire Torah while he, the prospective convert, stood on one foot. First he went to Shammai, who, insulted by this ridiculous request, threw him out of the house. The man did not give up and went to Hillel. This gentle sage accepted the challenge, and said:
"What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation of this—go and study it!"
If we were homeless and living on the street would we want others to treat us with the kindness of a warm bed, meal and home for the night or just pass us by? If we were poor and unable to afford insurance or medical treatment for ourselves or a loved one would we want others to take action to assure we receive appropriate treatment or just ignore the issue enjoying the security of their own great insurance plan? If we were unable to parent our child because qualifying for benefits to feed them requires leaving them all day for a minimum wage job (or two) would we want others to help us without requiring giving up parenting?
The list is endless.
The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke many times on the subject of the Good Samaritan parable. Here is just one example of his views4:
A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. We are called to play the Good Samaritan on life's road side, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. Compassion sees that an edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth.
Let us pray: Ever present God, you called us to be in relationship with one another and promised to dwell wherever two or three are gathered. In our community, we are many different people; we come from many different places, have many different cultures. Open our hearts that we may be bold in finding the riches of inclusion and the treasures of diversity among us. We pray in faith. Amen.
Our society would be significantly different if we were to follow this simple rule. Jesus taught this principle as fundamental to "inherit eternal life". Why is it so seldom referenced by "Christians" in the media? Why is it not used as justification for supportive social programs? Instead we hear "Christians" saying a whole lot about the sins of homosexuality, abortion, and the like. None of which were central issues for Jesus. Maybe if we used just as much time in the media, in protests, and the focus of political contributions demanding the Golden Rule be applied by our leaders we'd be a whole bunch better off.
1 From the previous verses, "him" in this context is Jesus.↵
2 a member of the Hebrew tribe of Levi, especially of that part of it which provided assistants to the priests in the worship in the Jewish temple.↵
3 The Samaritan people are members of a group of people with common ethnicity and religion native to the Levant (i.e., eastern Mediterranean around modern day Cyprus, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, and Turkey). The Jews hated Samaritans and likely vice versa.↵
4 Excerpted from a sermon by Martin Luther King Jr. on November 20, 1955 delivered in Montgomery, Ala.↵