The story of one of the most famous stories in the Bible – the Parable of the Good Samaritan – shocked its hearers when Jesus told it. Fully understood, it should do the same to us.
The Parable arises from Jesus being confronted by a scholar of the Jewish Law. He asks how one attains eternal life. When asked by Jesus what the Law says about this, the lawyer quotes from the Book of Deuteronomy on the love of God and love of our neighbour. This verse is one of the most important prayers in Judaism, and it was said twice a day in Jesus’ time.
The lawyer then asks Jesus to define ‘neighbour’. For most Jews, neighbour was only fellow Jews although some would restrict it to family or fellow members of a small community. Your neighbour would never include outsiders i.e. people who were not Jews. In the society of Jesus’ time, with its distinctions between Jews and Gentiles, men and women, clean and unclean, asking Jesus to define neighbour was a trick question. It led Jesus to then tell one of the most beautiful stories in the Bible, what we know as the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
The story related by Jesus begins with a man being attacked on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. This road descends 3,300 feet in just 17 miles. Its narrow passes and rocky terrain made it an easy place for bandits to lie in wait for travellers. After the attack, the man is left for dead, naked and bleeding on the side of the road.
The first two people who come across the victim are devoutly religious people who perform duties in the Temple. They always would have observed their religion’s requirements concerning purity, especially the rule that touching or even coming near a corpse would render them ‘unclean’ and unfit for the duties in the Temple. So it would have been no surprise to Jesus’ hearers that these two men passed by on the other side – after all, they were just doing what the Law required.
The listeners would have expected that the third person to come upon the victim would also be an Israelite. Instead, and to their shock, Jesus said the third man was a Samaritan, an Israelite’s most hated neighbour. The hostility between Jews and Samaritans went back centuries and ran very deep. Samaritans were descendants of Jews from the northern part of the country, who had intermarried with Gentiles and did not worship in Jerusalem.
The Samaritan had every excuse in the world to mind his own business and to keep on moving when he saw the victim’s body. As a Samaritan in Jewish territory he would have been an automatic target for hostility and if he was caught near the victim he would be considered a likely suspect for the attack. Yet, he was ‘moved with compassion’ and in spite of the risk to his own safety went to the aid of the victim.
This parable ends with Jesus asking which of the three men proved to be a neighbour to the victim. The lawyer admits that it was the hated enemy. Now, said Jesus, if you want eternal life, you become a compassionate person like him.
Our Lord’s teaching is that we should not ask the question ‘who is my neighbour’. This is restrictive. Instead, he asks that we make anyone in need – whatever their race, religion or culture – our neighbour and be compassionate with them as the Samaritan in the parable.
In the next hymn for Mass today – In Bread We Bring You – we sing: ‘we do not ask you, Lord, who is my neighbour?’ To ask the question ‘who is my neighbour’ – is to limit compassion whereas for Jesus our compassion must be limitless.
The word compassion means ‘to suffer with’. Jesus asks us – literally – to suffer with others who are in difficulty or need. He teaches that social definitions such as class, religion, gender, or ethnicity must not determine who is to be helped or ‘who is my neighbour’. For him, the point is not who deserves to be loved as I love myself, but that I become a person who treats everyone with compassion.
Our Lord’s story about a hated enemy helping his fellow Jews truly shocked his hearers. If Jesus told us the equivalent story today, what ‘enemy’ of religion, gender or ethnicity would he choose to highlight his teaching to you?
Holy Name, Jesmond
21 July 2019