I was reflecting on the parable of the “Good Samaritan” (Luke 10:25-37) recently after the controversy over Franklin Graham’s statements on Muslims. He recently agreed with Donald Trump’s call to ban Muslims, writing, “For some time I have been saying that Muslim immigration into the United States should be stopped until we can properly vet them or until the war with Islam is over.” It seemed strange to me that the CEO of an organization called Samaritan’s Purse would say such xenophobic things about an Abrahamic religion made up largely of Semites from the Middle East. Did I not understand the parable of the Good Samaritan? Upon my rereading, I was struck by how unfamiliar I was with the story. Or, should I put it another way, I noticed that the parable’s familiarity in the culture had smoothed the edges of a much more challenging story than we often give it credit.
For instance, the text itself never calls the Samaritan “good.” “Goodness” does not seem to be at issue in the story, but yet we call it the parable of the “Good Samaritan” anyway. It should be called “The Merciful Samaritan.” The Levite and Priest are not necessarily not good in the story. But they don’t show mercy to someone else as the Samaritan does.
Secondly, Jesus answers the question “who is my neighbor” quite confusingly. The situation that spurs the parable is that an expert in the law asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus asks him what is in the Torah and the man says to love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is a quote from Leviticus 19, wherein there are a bunch of laws related to how one treats his or her neighbor, including you shall not steal or defraud your neighbor. “And who is my neighbor?” asks the man, to which Jesus tells him the parable.
At the end of the parable, though, Jesus asks the expert in the law “which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert in the law replied, “the one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
To which I say, “What a strange way to answer the question.” Not that Jesus told the parable; that’s normal for him. We’ve come to expect that. But rather, the man asks who is his neighbor whom he shall love as himself. He deduces that the neighbor is the one who showed mercy, the Samaritan. Therefore, anyone following closely would presume that the expert in the law should identify with the beaten and robbed man and should love the one who shows mercy on him. But Jesus then tells the man to do as the Samaritan did.
It’s a strange rhetorical technique, perhaps meant to point us back to the original question, which is “what must he do to inherit eternal life” (answer: act like the Samaritan), which raises another question that is not mentioned enough: What is the significance of him being a Samaritan? The first definition of Samaritan in my dictionary is “a charitable or helpful person.” But that is a very anachronistic definition and not at all what the first readers would have understood.
Part of the significance of him being a Samaritan is related to the significance of the other two defined characters being a Priest and a Levite. They were on the road between Jericho and Jerusalem (to go work at the Jerusalem Temple?) and they refused to touch the bloody man because it would violate their duties as Priests and Levites. In other words, they were following the Law—the very Law that Jesus was pointing the expert in the Law to read in verse 26. But Jesus didn’t ask the expert “who was following the Law?” Rather, he asked him, “who was the neighbor?” The neighbor was the Samaritan, who happened to be on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho. Both of these towns are in Judaea and not Samaria. In other words, he was not a neighbor in the traditional sense as we understand neighbor, but only a neighbor as defined by Jesus and the expert in the Law. He was a neighbor because he showed mercy.
This is the second time Samaritans are mentioned in Luke’s Gospel. The first time is in the previous chapter, at the beginning of Jesus’s journey to Jerusalem for Passover. In that brief passage (9:51-56), Jesus sends messengers into a Samaritan village “to get things ready for him.” The Samaritans, though, did not welcome Jesus, because he was “heading for Jerusalem.” Presumably, because Samaritans rejected the Jerusalem Temple as an illegitimate locus of worship, the Samaritans also rejected those who worshipped there.
In response to Jesus’s rejection, James and John offer to call fire down from heaven to destroy the village! This certainly indicates how hated the Samaritans were by Jews at the time (not to mention how hated the Jews were by Samaritans). Jesus, however, rebuked his disciples for suggesting such a thing. Thus, for Jesus to use a Samaritan to be the neighbor in the parable must have been quite a shock to the disciples, certainly, considering they were willing to treat a Samaritan village as if it were Sodom and Gomorrah for refusing Jesus.
I find this quite challenging. I’m really not sure what to do with the passage, especially considering that what comes between the two stories that mention Samaritans shows Jesus condemning Jewish towns as being worse than Sodom for essentially doing the same thing as the Samaritan town! (Luke 10:1-16). It seems incongruous to me.
I do have faith that there is some meaning to be found in the incongruity in these passages. But I also have faith that that meaning is not what Franklin Graham wrote recently, that “Muslim immigration into the United States should be stopped until we can properly vet them or until the war with Islam is over.” What seems to be two of the few clear things in the passage that gave us the name Samaritan’s Purse is that mercy can come from surprising places and that we are to show mercy to the stranger. Oh, and that maybe disciples of Jesus should refrain from sending down fire from heaven on any city.