At some time or another, at some point in our lives, a stranger has ministered to us in an unexpected way. A stranger, loving without fear has come to our aid, maybe even risked major inconvenience, or risked his or her life. Every day, strangers, prompted by their love for a fellow human being, become Good Samaritans. You may not even know the details of the parable we have just read, but you know the definition of a “Good Samaritan.”
What makes the Samaritan of our lesson unique and, thus, this parable so sensational? It is important to understand that Samaritans, during the time of Jesus, were enemy outcasts .
In the early centuries of the Divided Kingdom – Israel to the north and Judah to the south – Samaria had been the capital of Israel. Ahab, King of Israel, and Queen Jezebel had built their palace there – towers of ivory and gold-leaf ivory décor. But, King Ahab and, particularly, his foreign wife Jezebel had introduced pagan religion and idol worship.
Time passed and the people of Israel drew further and further away from God. In the 8th century BC, the Jews of Samaria were taken into exile by the Assyrians from the lands north and east of Samaria. The city was destroyed and the northern kingdom of Israel ceased to exist.
In the centuries that followed a mixture of colonists from the vast Assyrian Empire would resettle the lands that surrounded the original city, and the entire region would become known as Samaria. By the time of Jesus’ ministry, Herod the Great had rebuilt and renamed the city, and only a small number Jews of mixed descent were settled in the area. These Jewish descendants claimed to worship God, but they were considered half-caste and they were despised by the Jews of Judea to the south and Galilee to the north. Class-warfare and mutual hatred festered. Jews of Galilee and Judea and the Samaritans in between avoided one another’s territories for fear of their lives.
To prevent becoming defiled or attacked in the land of Samaria, a faithful Jew, making a pilgrimage from Galilee to Jerusalem, was forced to cross the Jordan River, travel down its eastward bank, and cross back over to its westward bank near Jerusalem, perhaps at Jericho, a safe distance from Samaria.
Jesus, however, made it a point to pass through Samaria and we could list a number of accounts of his ministry there.
So, with this background, we return to Luke’s account of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. A lawyer, one so concerned with strict adherence to the Law of God, asks the question of Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus most often answers questions with other questions or with parables – He wants us to use our hearts and our brains to answer these questions for ourselves. And, so, this parable so loved and familiar to us serves as Jesus’ answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor?”
The scene of our parable is the road between Jerusalem and Jericho where Samaritans were undoubtedly unwelcome and great cause for suspicion. A man has been beaten and robbed and left to die in the road. For whatever their reasons or rationalizations, a priest and a man of the priestly tribe of the Levites pass by the dying man. In fact, according to Luke, they move to the other side of the road emphasizing their intention to pass him by.
Rather, it is the despised Samaritan who stops to bring aid. He not only foregoes his mission in foreign territory while recognizing the inherent danger of being there to start with, but also he binds the injured man’s wounds, brings him to a place where he can receive continued care, and provides for that care with his own finances.
Can you sense the extreme nature of the paradox here? The one most despised by God’s people becomes the one who has the clearest understanding of neighbor and love for neighbor. His understanding and willingness to honor this most basic of God’s laws surpasses the religious elite who are charged with disseminating this very law that is the basis of eternal life.
Jesus’ message is simple: Our neighbor is the one who is broken and bleeding in the ditch who needs our care. And, our neighbor is the feared despised outcast. Our neighbors are those beloved to us, those who need us and those we need. Our neighbors are those who might say they despise us and those we might say we despise. God created us to be in relationship with one another; our neighbor is everyone.
So, the message is simple but not simplistic: We are to love everyone – everyone -who is our neighbor, and we are to love without fear. We are not to be inhibited in reaching out to our neighbor by our self-righteousness or our fear of inconvenience or exploitation.
These followers of the law such as the lawyer, the priest, and the Levite in our parable felt that their position as keepers of the law held them on a higher level, above the bleeding and broken. How surprising it was for the lawyer to admit that it was indeed the Samaritan who was the most genuine keeper of the law. Do you notice that he cannot even say the word Samaritan? He responds to Jesus’ question, “The one who showed mercy.”
God’s laws are our guide for how we are to live in relationship with one another – neighbor caring for neighbor. Jesus came to show us how God’s law is our guide. Jesus came to show us that God’s law is not for our own self-serving interpretation, but to guide us in loving without fear – assisting one another in encountering Christ and receiving that assistance with the same graciousness and with sincere appreciation.
All of God’s Law is encompassed in his command “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” The Ten Commandments are more specific, but every guidepost leads back to loving God and loving our neighbor – loving our neighbor without fear.