One of the best known parables of Jesus is the Parable of the Good Samaritan recorded in the Gospel of Luke 10: 25-37. It is the basis for Good Samaritan laws enacted by various countries of the world and all states of the U.S to protect – well, good Samaritans, against potential lawsuits as a result of bona fide acts of compassion.
The parable is narrated in Luke only – not in the other Gospels – and we know that Luke’s message was directed towards Gentiles rather than Jews.
The narrative of the parable is not historical even though the setting is plausible. Indeed, there is the Inn of the Good Samaritan (today a museum on the picturesque road from Jerusalem to Jericho). In Jesus’ time it was a dangerous route because the Judean desert and the rocks through which it wound provided hiding ground for bandits to ambush travelers going to or from Jerusalem.
But who would be travelling on that road in Jesus’ time? Not Samaritans. Jews travelling to or from Galilee avoided a direct route through Samaria – because of hostility – and went along the Jordan valley through Jericho. Plausible as it may be, it is unlikely though that a Samaritan would be on that route and Jesus would have used a more realistic setting for his parable.
The early church may have altered the parable as told by Jesus, in order to resonate with a Gentile audience. Jesus’ parable was about the representatives of the religious establishment (a priest and a Levite) on the one hand, and a good Jew, on the other.
According to Numbers 19: 11ff contact with, and even being in the presence of a corpse, made one unclean for seven days and required ritual cleansing on the third and seventh day. Thus, a priest and a Levite who had duties in the Temple, would have compelling reasons to avoid being ritually unclean. In fact, as verse 13 states, “if they fail to purify themselves after touching a human corpse, they defile the Lord’s tabernacle. They must be cut off from Israel…” Now, that is quite serious.
But suppose a Jew – any ordinary Jew – would put aside religious regulations in an act of compassion for another human being, wouldn’t that be an outstanding act of sacrifice? The comparison between the callousness of the religious and the selfless sacrifice of a true worshipper would be in line with Jesus’ teaching and his challenge for those who would stick to the status quo. Consider, for example his remarks about divorce in Matthew 5:32; 19: 9; Mark 10:11 and Luke 16:18. Here Jesus was looking at justice beyond and above legal parameters.
Furthermore, in all his teaching Jesus emphasized taking risks and even sacrificing when serving others.
The parable challenges me in a very special way, especially as I endeavor to serve those who are less fortunate. How much of my service requires some real sacrifice? How much risk is involved in what I do. Could I be serving from a comfortable position? Suppose there was risk of losing “my job”, for example. Would I still be involved?
This fellow who was attacked by bandits could have been more careful not to travel on that dangerous route. So the parable challenges my attitude towards those who may have made mistakes. Who hasn’t made mistakes anyway?
Jesus’ call to service is not a comfortable experience.