The more I dive into the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), especially into its cultural context, the more I find it challenging. Here’s why.
To first-century Jews, Samaritans were not only social outcasts. They were hated enemies. For the ancient Jews, the Samaritans probably epitomized what it meant to be impure and unclean, those who were definitely NOT “our neighbor.” The ancient Jews traced the Samaritans’ origins to 2 Kings 17:24-41. It was a story steeped in idolatry with an impure mixing of true worship with false idols: “Even while these people were worshiping the Lord, they were serving their idols. To this day their children and grandchildren continue to do as their ancestors did” (2 Kings 17:41). Jews, at one time, reportedly destroyed the Samaritans’ temple on Mount Gerizim. At another time, the Samaritans desecrated the Jewish temple during Passover with human bones. The Samaritans were, therefore, enemies to the Jewish faith.
In stark contrast were the priest and the Levite. These were viewed as paragons of the Jewish faith, especially in regards to purity and holiness. The ceremonial laws about “clean and unclean” were part of a religious system that taught the Israelites about God’s holiness, about their sins, about how to be brought back in relationship to God and about obedience to God. The priests mediated God’s presence to the people. The Levites were their assistants in the temple.
We are so accustomed to reading them as the “villains” in the parable that we forgot how the original Jewish audience would have viewed them, i.e. with utmost respect and admiration. In fact, I think Jesus’ original audience would have expected the priest and the Levite to pass by on the other side! At least for the priest, this was in obedience to God’s law: “A priest must not make himself ceremonially unclean for any of his people who die” except for close relatives” (Lev. 21:1b).
Hence, it was no surprise that the priest would prudently choose to steer clear of the man lying on the road. The man was stripped—you can’t tell if he was a Jew or some foreigner—and he was “half dead,” meaning you can’t tell if he was a corpse or not. Furthermore, there’s no way of telling if the man even deserved mercy. What if he was a robber himself? Or a murderer? Why risk breaking God’s rule for an unknown entity? Even if he was done with his temple duties (as they were coming “down from Jerusalem”), the priest (and probably Levite too) was still expected to keep himself pure as much as possible. Therefore, I am not sure if Jesus’ Jewish audience would have disapproved of the priest and the Levite’s actions, given the circumstances.
But what they certainly did not expect was to see the hated, impure, heretical Samaritan as the hero and model that they should emulate. The Samaritan had compassion, acted mercifully, sacrificed his money and time, and might even have risked his own life (what if the Jews in town thought he was responsible for the man’s wounds?). He did not consider if the man was deserving of mercy. It was an act of unconditional, and probably unrepayable love.
I do not have space here to dwell deeper. But this parable challenges me deeply. It interrogates my soul. What biblical laws do I use to justify “passing by on the other side”? Would I give unconditional love to my enemies, even enemies to my faith? I need to wrestle with this parable more deeply.