The “Good Samaritan” is a very familiar parable, but there remains much for us to learn from it. Today I will present the history, the context, behind it; the symbolic meaning contained within it; and the challenge to ourselves that comes out of it.
Jesus’ story begins, “A man fell victim to robbers as he went down from Jerusalem to Jericho.” From this we might think that Jericho is south of Jerusalem because we put the South at the bottom of our maps. Yet, Jericho is actually some twenty miles to northeast of Jerusalem. The reason why the man went down from Jerusalem is that Jerusalem is situated 2,550 feet above sea level, while Jericho is about 1,200 feet below sea level, near the Dead Sea, which is the lowest place on the surface of the earth.
Jerusalem was the city of the temple, the place of God’s dwelling. Jericho, you may remember, was the city which Joshua and the Hebrews marched around for seven days, before blowing their horns and shouting, causing the walls to fall down. They conquered the city because it was in rebellion with God.
“The [robbers] stripped and beat [the man] and went off leaving him half-dead. A priest happened to be going down that road,
but when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. Likewise a Levite came to the place, and when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side.”
You know what a priest is. He is one who offers sacrifice. What is a Levite? They were like acolytes or altar servers; they helped the priest offer the sacrifices at the temple. Why did they both pass by ‘on the opposite side?’ Maybe that they thought the man was already dead and wanted to avoid ritual impurity. The Mosaic Law taught that contact with a dead body made one ritually impure and ritual purity was necessary to worship at the temple. Whether this was their reason, or whether they just did not care enough to be bothered, another comes along who is both willing and able to help.
“…A Samaritan traveler who came upon him and was moved with compassion at the sight.” Who are these Samaritans? We hear about them in the Gospels and we know they didn’t get along with the Jews. For instance, the woman at the well that Jesus meets in John was a Samaritan. Where do they come from?
Some five hundred years before the coming of Christ the Babylonians were the superpower of the ancient world. When the king in Jerusalem decided he was not going to pay tribute to Babylon anymore, the king of Babylon was not pleased. He sieged Jerusalem, conquered it, and carried the region’s inhabitants into what is called the Babylonian Exile. Not everyone was taken though; some of the poor, the farmers and the vine-dressers, were left behind. To ensure that the people did not rebel again, and to make sure that the land did not go to waste, the Babylonians settled five pagan nations in the land.
Seventy years later, after the Babylonians had been conquered by the Persians, the new king gave the Jews permission to return to their homeland. When they got there they found that the people who had remained behind had intermarried with the pagans, in both their families and religion. The Jews regarded these people, these Samaritans, as unfaithful to the Lord. It is no coincidence that the Samaritan woman at the well had had five husbands.
Jesus chooses a Samaritan as the protagonist, the hero, of his story. He does this to show us an example we are to follow. The Samaritan was not Jewish victim’s neighbor geography, for he was only a traveler to the region, nor was he related to him by blood, nor by prior friendship. In the same way, our neighbors are not to be only those who are close to us in distance, are in our family, or who have shown kindness to us. Everyone is to be our neighbor. Such is the meaning of the parable in its historical context, but contained within this story there is Christian symbolism, as well.
The man who fell to the robbers is you and I, this man represents all mankind. Traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, we were descending from the height of communion with God to the depths of rebellion. We fell to robbers, to evil spirits and evil desire. These stripped us naked, depriving of our original honor and glory. They beat us and left us half-dead; biologically we still lived, but spiritually we were dead. No one could or would help us. But then the Good Samaritan came. This man is Jesus Christ.
He looked upon us and was moved with compassion. Jesus approached to us and poured His blood on us, like wine, to cleanse the wounds of our sin. He poured the Holy Spirit on us like oil to make us strong again. Jesus gave us his teachings and commandments as bandages for our wounds. These disciplines bind us, yet they free us through the health they provide. Jesus lifted us up on his own animal. This beast of burden was his own flesh. He took us to the inn, which is the Church, and here He continues to care and provide for us in it until the time of His return.
Even though the man who fell to the robbers is meant to symbolize each one of us, I don’t think he is the character in this story with whom we can most identify ourselves. The character I have in mind is one everyone overlooks. I don’t mean the Good Samaritan, nor the priest or the Levite. The character I’m thinking of is the inn-keeper, who is only mentioned in passing.
Here’s all that Jesus tells us about the inn-keeper: “The next day [the Good Samaritan] took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper with the instruction, ‘Take care of him. If you spend more than what I have given you, I shall repay you on my way back.’”
Most of us here entered into the Catholic Church when we were baptized as infants. So we don’t remember being brought into the Church, half-dead. For us, it feels like this inn has always been our home. This is where we have lived and worked for as long as we can remember. So I think we may identify more with the inn-keeper, more then the victim who has been gratefully saved. With this comes a challenge for our lives.
We are like the inn-keeper. We are comfortably at home, and business is good. The Samaritan brings in this guy like a sack of potatoes, buys a room and takes care of him. That’s fine with us, but this Samaritan guy comes along and instructs us to take care of this friend of His. Now he is shifting that job onto us. Sure he’s given us some coin for doing it, two silver denarii, the sum of two day’s wages, and he says that if we spend more than what he has given he will repay us on his way back, but do I really want this hassle?
Besides, is that Samaritan fellow really coming back? If not, then the more I give caring for this invalid the less I’ll have left for myself. If I’m stuck with the bill for this guy and his friend, them I’ll feel like a fool. On the other hand, if I just toss the guy out of my inn, or just ignore him while he’s here, that’s two day’s profit for me guaranteed. If I just pretend that I never heard that Samaritan’s instructions, if I can just quiet my conscience, I’ll get along just fine.
I’m busy enough as it is already. Is playing nurse to this crime statistic really worth my time? Do I trust that Samaritan? Do I believe he is he truly good? Do I believe he is really coming back? Jesus is the Good Samaritan, and he brings many people to our lives and asks us to take care of them in our inn. Are you living as though Jesus is really coming back to repay each of us according to our deeds, or are you just minding your own business?
Everything you have comes from Jesus, and everything you have belongs to Him. He is entitled to your time, talents, and treasure and He wants you to share them with your neighbors. Do not fear, don’t be afraid. The truth is that you can never spend more than what He has given you. Act with confidence that He will repay you an amount far greater than you give, not only at the end of your life, but even by the end of the day.
Jesus Christ’s command which He “enjoin[s] on you today is not too mysterious and remote for you. …No, it is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts; you have only to carry it out.” You shall love your neighbor as yourself.