March 29, 2010: What is meant by “Love your neighbor as yourself”?

Posted on : Mar 30th, 2010 | By | Category: Still Speaking

We continue this week with the story of the Good Samaritan which Jesus told after the Great Command. It is probably one of the most well known stories in Scripture. (Luke 10:30-37) It’s the story of a traveler who helps a robbed, beaten, half-dead man of another culture. The traveler is a Samaritan and a despised social enemy of the wounded man. The traveler has one of two choices: take upon himself the burden of a stranger’s plight or look the other way and pass by (as the other two passers-by before him have done).  He knows the victim detests him and his kind (and the feeling is probably mutual), yet he chooses to transcend the distance, the alienation and estrangement between them and carry the victim to safety.

The Samaritans were what we would call today a racially mixed people, the descendents of intermarriage between Israelites and Assyrians. Remember the Assyrians, who invaded Israel, destroyed the northern kingdom first and later the southern kingdom, taking people away in exile? Those Assyrians! Talk about associating with the enemy! Not to mention the fact that they opposed the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. So it comes as no surprise that the Samaritans were considered ceremonially unclean, and were viewed as social outcasts and religious heretics. Consequently there existed irreconcilable hostility between the Jewish people and the Samaritans in first century Palestine. Traditionally this story is called the story of the “good” Samaritan, although nowhere in the text is he called “good.” You see, the first readers called him the “good” because they took it for granted that all Samaritans were bad.

Truth be told, there are no “baddies” in this story. Let’s not be too quick to judge them.  Although the action of the priest and Levite are not commendable, it is understandable. The body next to the road could have been a trap set by robbers. And touching the body of a corpse would have defiled the priest and Levite according to the Law of Moses and disqualified them from their temple duties.

Had the victim been alive and well instead of being stripped, beaten and left for dead, he would probably have rejected with indignation even an offer of water from the Samaritan. The Samaritan helping the injured victim is the twist in the tale – truly unexpected. And he goes above and beyond: not only does he risk his own safety, and break a social taboo, but spent a lot of money in doing so, extending his trip. All the time helping someone who most probably would not have done the same for him if the circumstances were reversed. This was an extraordinary but risky act of compassion and mercy.

And don’t forget this story is set in the context of the all-powerful Roman Empire. It’s the time of the Pax Romana – Rome bringing peace, safety, and prosperity to the world. Yet to be robbed, beaten, and left for dead while traveling on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was no surprise to anyone. If Gospel movies are any indication, then we as 21st century Christians definitely have a romantic view of first century Palestine.  We envision Jesus, all washed and clean – and don’t forget healthy, tall and good looking – walking from town to town, surrounded by beautiful pastoral landscapes and quaint little towns, teaching, preaching, and healing in total isolation from the social, economic and political realities of the day.

Vast numbers of people who inhabited the Roman Empire resented or hated Roman rule and experienced few, if any, benefits from its social and economic structures. The empire was not in any modern way even vaguely democratic or inclusive. Instead, it was a rigidly hierarchical and status-based world of haves and have-nots, of masters and slaves. Unlike a Hollywood sword-and-sandal film, the ancient world was not a pleasant place, lacking such conveniences such as sewer systems and running water… cities were small, extremely crowded, filthy beyond imagination, disorderly, filled with strangers, and afflicted with frequent catastrophes – fires, plagues, conquests, and earthquakes… life in antiquity abounded in anxiety and misery for nearly everyone.*

The story of the Good Samaritan is an extraordinary story of breaking down boundaries and unraveling stereotypes; a story of acceptance, tolerance and justice. The story of the Samaritan is unsettling – it leaves us with a sense of unease. Who is the traveler, the stranger, the foreigner, the alien, the enemy in our midst? Will we be willing to risk such compassion and acts of mercy? With this story Jesus challenges us to show radically inclusive love, compassion and mercy. We are asked to turn our backs on conventional wisdom, on the accepted norm, and act in a way the world would consider naïve and plain misguided.

But there is even more to this story. When Jesus was done telling the story he turned to the expert in the Law and asked:  “Which one of the three was the neighbor of person attacked by the thieves? The expert of the Law answered: ‘The one who showed mercy.’ Jesus turned to the expert and said: Go and do likewise.” You see it is also a story that challenges and questions the acceptable social structures and values of the time; a story that points out that the way society was functioning needed to change. And this is how Jesus kept on getting himself in trouble with those who wanted the status quo.

In his 1967 speech Beyond Vietnam at New York’s Riverside Church, Martin Luther King said:

On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

We are all called to be Good Samaritans, and so in the following weeks we will be looking at stories of transformation, at Samaritan stories, at Jericho stories.


* A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story by Dianna Butler Bass, 2009.

PS: Bread for the Journey will be on holiday next week, but will return on April 12.