The Good Samaritan

Here are a few thoughts on the parable of the Good Samaritan that I preached on recently.

What do you think?

Mark Taylor

Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan to answer a question from a man – a teacher of the law – who asked him ‘Who is my neighbour?’

We’ve heard the parable so many times – is there anything new to learn from hearing it again?

Let’s see.

We know the story really well.  The man who is travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho – the robbers who strip him and leave him half dead – the priest and the Levite who pass by on the other side – the Good Samaritan who took care of him, attended to his wounds, and paid for him to be put up at an inn.

The teacher of the law answers his own question – When Jesus asks him ‘who was the neighbour of the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ – he answered ‘the man who showed mercy on him’. You’re right says Jesus.

A Priest and a Levite ignore him – and a Samaritan helps him.

We know what a priest is – but what’s a Levite, and who were the Samaritans.  Well Levi – you might remember, was one of the 12 sons of Jacob – one of Joseph’s brothers – and the Levites were one of the 12 tribes of Israel.  Traditionally it was from the tribe of the Levites that assistants to the priests in the temple were appointed.  So both the priest and the Levite were Temple officials. I’ve heard it said that one of the reasons that these two people might not have helped the injured man was that if they had helped him they would have been tainted by his blood and would have been unable to undertake their duties in the Temple as they would have been ritually unclean.  Even if that’s true it would be a poor excuse for not helping a man in desperate need.  But actually, if you read the passage carefully – the priest at least was going the same way as the man who was robbed – down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho.  The Temple was in Jerusalem so it sounds like he wasn’t going to work but was coming home from it. So even that excuse doesn’t hold up.

Two Holy, religious officials fail to help a person in need.

What then of the Samaritan – what’s a Samaritan.  They were different from the mainstream Jews of the time. They had different Scriptures, a different temple, and were racially mixed (whereas the Jews didn’t inter marry).  The Jews despised the Samaritans – they would go miles out of their way when travelling to avoid even having to cross through Samaritan territory.  And the Samaritans didn’t like the Jews either.  So the two ‘proper’ Jews, who should have been the followers of God’s Law, ignored the man in need, and the one who didn’t believe the same things as the Jews was the one to help.

But is there anything we can learn today from this very familiar story?

I’m going to suggest three things. 

Firstly the story is about who is the neighbour of the man who was robbed.  It is not a story about who is the Samaritan’s neighbour. It isn’t that the Samaritan is helping his neighbour (though of course he is) but that in helping the injured man Jesus is identifying the Samaritan as the injured man’s neighbour.  ‘Who do you think was the neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers’ Jesus asked. ‘The one who showed mercy to him’ answered the teacher of the law.  The story is identifying that your neighbour – our neighbour – can be anyone at all, of whatever racial or religious background. And that conversely someone of your own race or national origin (like the Priest and the Levite were to the man who was attacked) might not be your neighbour at all. What matters isn’t race or nationality (and by extension any other characteristic you can mention – gender, or sexuality for example)  – it’s behaviour. And I think that’s particularly important when we continue to hear stories of anti-semitism; when hate crimes continue to rise; when there’s still a strong undercurrent of nationalism and xenophobia in some of the arguments about leaving the EU.  Who are our neighbours? – the people who tell foreigners to go home (often not as politely as that), or the Eastern European national who serves you in a restaurant, or is a care assistant in a residential home, or is a nurse in a hospital.

Secondly the Samaritan didn’t believe the same things as the Jew he helped.  Christians, and Christian churches, get ever so worked up about beliefs and doctrines sometimes. Some churches of course recite a creed, an agreed statement of beliefs,  every week Here’s one example of a creed that is often used in Church of England Holy Communion services:

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.

People who use this creed are saying – this is what we all believe. You may all feel there is nothing controversial in this statement of faith, but if you did, for example, have doubts about the Virgin birth, or the Last Judgement, then being asked to recite this creed would put you in a difficult spot. Congregational churches tend not to use creeds, which I think is a good thing. But to me the most important problem with this creed is not what it says but what it doesn’t say.

Let’s hear again a bit from the middle about Jesus:

born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;

There is absolutely nothing in this creed referring to anything between Jesus’ birth and the events of his crucifixion.

Now I don’t know about you but to me by far the most compelling things about Jesus are these – what he said and what he did. Those are the bits that aren’t mentioned at all – the bits between his birth and crucifixion. If the creed is basically saying – this is what you need to believe, by omission it’s saying, but you don’t have to believe anything that Jesus actually taught.

The Good Samaritan story completely shifts the emphasis. The Samaritan didn’t have orthodox beliefs from a Jewish perspective, but his actions were what mattered and what demonstrated his neighbourliness. And the pious beliefs of the Priest and the Levite did nothing at all for the human plight of the man who had been attacked.

And finally I’m going to take issue with the title of the parable.  It’s the parable of The Good Samaritan – right?  Well no – I don’t think it is.  This particular Samaritan was good – there’s no doubt about that – but if you call this the story of The Good Samaritan it implies that all the other Samaritans weren’t good doesn’t it?  Jesus doesn’t call his story the story of the Good Samaritan.  It’s the story of A Good Samaritan.  There’s no suggestion at all that this Samaritan was unique, or even unusual.  He was a man who was good – that’s all.  There may have been many other equally good Samaritans. This is important too.  It’s saying we shouldn’t judge others as Martin Luther King put it in another context ‘by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.’  A man is just a man, a woman is just a woman.  Some are good, some are not so good. None are perfect. But categorising everyone and suggesting that we can understand them all by the category we put them in just will not do. We need to see the individual. A Good Samaritan – not the only one.

Let us recognise the lesson that Jesus taught us and learn to see everyone as a potential neighbour, even if they are different from us. Let us show that we do love God through our actions in loving our neighbours. And yes – let us be like that Samaritan – and in doing so change the world for the better.  And maybe even find the secret of eternal life.






One thought on “The Good Samaritan

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