The crowd listened as a lawyer asked what he must do to inherit eternal life (only one of two instances in the gospels, the other one resulting in Jesus telling the rich young ruler to sell all he has and give to the poor). Jesus affirmed that he must love the Lord with all his heart and love his neighbor as he loves himself.
Most Jews would consider themselves to having their relationship with God covered, and being familiar with rabbinical tradition, the lawyer posed another question meant to corner Jesus, “who then is my neighbor”
When he started his story the crowd assumed the traveler to be Jewish, and also that the hero would end up being a farmer, rather than the religious elite. But Jesus has more up his sleeve than that.
Pharasees used the term neighbor in an exclusive sense, namely, one who observed the law in the strictest manner. They called themselves neighbors; therefore the question, “Who is my neighbor?”
Rabbinical tradition at the time maintained that neighbor is your close physical/proximity relations and family. It’s the person whose walls sit beside the walls of your dwelling. Sadducees took it a notch further and made only other Sadducees eligible as neighbors. Anyone not falling into this slim category of neighbor was free game to rip off, cheat, and hate.
Furthermore, specifically to this story, a priest would be unclean if so much as a shadow of a corpse touched his personage –neighbor or not.
So to the question, Jesus replies with:
“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii[e] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
“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.” (Luke 10:30-35)
He amplifies the rule of love and the Christian code of conduct by making the greatest commandment back (the golden rule is the backbone of the Old Testament and the summary of the ten commandments.) into a mandate for all mankind, not just the Jews or religious elite.
Not only does Jesus make the priest the chief offender in the story, he makes a Samaritan the hero!
The Jews hated Samaritans. They were pure blood Jews who married Gentiles, making them all half-breed bastards. They were worse than gentiles because they knew better. They mocked Jewish tradition and belief by practicing a rival version of religion in God’s holy land. They claimed Mt. Gerazim the true place of worship and were the despised bottom of Israel’s social ladder.
John 4:9 says that “Jews have no dealings with Samaritans” and when Samaritans refuse to give Jesus Lodging, James and John become so angry they beg Jesus to “destroy the village with fire.” (Luke 9:51-56). Jewish leaders called Jesus a “Samaritan” (John 8:48), a derogatory nickname reserved for the demon possessed.
The saliva of a Samaritan woman was thought unclean, she was considered to be perpetually menstruating, and an overnight stay in Jewish villages made the whole community unclean. A Samaritans touch made food unclean, oil and wine contaminated.
In other words, to Jews at this time, a good Samaritan is an oxymoron. There’s no such thing. And this Samaritan guy broke about a thousand little rules when he ministered this beaten soul, poured wine on his wounds (without tithing it as was required by the pharisaical law) and applying oil and love to his wounds.
“Jesus flips the crowd’s social world upside down. The good guys- the priests and levites- turn bad guys. The villain turns hero.” Tom Sine, The upside down kingdom
By introducing a radical new way of spirituality, one that had to do with acting on the impulse of love towards all mankind (not just my kind!), Jesus redefined what religion in His time was all about.
Tomorrow I’ll explain how this parable took on new significance for me when I watched a refugee woman (a widow who had been raped and tortured) forgive a Burma Army defector – her enemy.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you (Matt 5:43-44)