lamb-leftWhat the Bible Really Says by J. R. Hyland
From Humane Religion


“A man was once on his way down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell into the hands of brigands; they took all he had, beat him and made off, leaving him half dead. Now a priest happened to be travelling down the same road, but when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. In the same way a Levite who came to the place saw him, and passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan traveler who came upon him was moved with compassion when he saw him. He went up and bandaged his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them. He then lifted him on to his own mount, carried him to the inn and looked after him. Next day he took out two denarii and handed them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him.’ he said ‘and on my way back I will make good any extra expense you have.’ Which of these three, do you think proved himself a neighbor to the man who fell in the brigands’ hands?. . .Go and do the same yourself. ”[1]

This parable is widely known, but the significance of what Jesus was teaching has been lost to a generation that defines a Good Samaritan as “a person who is unselfish in helping others.”[2]  Although it is a story about compassion and concern, it is much more than that. It took Christ’s teaching about loving one’s enemies and returning good for evil out of the realm of pious sentimentality and speculative discourse and put it into practical terms.

In the time of Jesus, the hatred between Jews and Samaritans had endured for more than four hundred years. It went back to the time of Ezra, when the Jewish people returned from their exile in Babylonia, and began the process of rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem. The Samaritans were, for the most part, descendants of the Northern tribes of Israel who had been left behind when their country was ravaged by an Assyrian takeover. Because they had intermarried with non-Jews, they were declared ethnically impure and were not allowed to take part in restoring the Temple site.

Outlawed from participation in the Temple rites at Jerusalem, the people of Samaria eventually built their own place of worship at Mt. Gerezim. There, they followed the rules and rituals of Judaism and considered themselves true Israelites. But the pure-blooded Jews continued to hate them and in 128 B.C. destroyed their temple. A year later the Jewish army invaded Samaria and enslaved the people. They did not regain their freedom until the Roman Army ended the Hebrew occupation of their country, circa 63 A. D.

In the time of Christ, the Samaritans continued to be treated as outcasts and enemies of God; as racial half-breeds and religious apostates. But their district stood between the province of Galilee in the North and the Jerusalem Temple in the South and the major route between the two ran right through Samaria.

The Galileans regularly made pilgrimages to Jerusalem for holy days and festivals and the shortest, most comfortable route led through Samaritan towns where provis-ions and lodgings could be had.[3]  But the most pious Jews elected to take secondary roads that widely circled the borders of Samaria. It added at least another day’s journey to their pilgrimage, but many felt it was well worthwhile in order to protect themselves from becoming defiled by contact with the Samaritans.

However, Jesus did not feel that way. The Gospel of John (Ch. 4) tells how he and his disciples stopped in the town of Sychar, on their way back to Galilee from Jerusalem. While the disciples went to get food, Jesus rested at the town well and asked a Samaritan woman to draw a cup of water for him. She was taken back at this request: “What? You are a Jew and you ask me, a Samaritan, for a drink?” By way of explain-ing the question to his readers, the Gospel author notes that Jews “do not use (eat-ing/drinking) vessels in common” with Samaritans.

Aside from that ethnic prejudice, there was the additional danger of having anything at all to do with a Samaritan woman; just being touched by her would contaminate a Jew. The rabbis had declared those women to be impure from the moment of their birth. “The daughters of the Samaritans are deemed unclean as menstruants from their cradle.”[4]

When the disciples returned with food, they were surprised to see him talking to a Samaritan, but he let them know that even in Samaria there was a harvest of souls waiting to be reaped. “Look around you, look at the fields; already they are white, ready for harvest! Already the reaper is being paid his wages, already he is bringing in the grain for eternal life.”[5]

At this point, many of the townspeople came to the well, to see Jesus. The woman had hurried back to her village and told people that he knew many secret things about her life and also claimed to be the Messiah.  “When the Samaritans came up to him, they begged him to stay with them. He stayed for two days, and when he spoke to them many more came to believe…”[6]

It was a positive experience for Jesus and his disciples, free of the animosity that usually marked encounters between Jews and Samaritans. But a few years later, when they set out from Galilee to go to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles,[7]  an encounter with the Samaritans proved hostile. They refused to provide provisions or lodging for the group, “(Jesus) sent messengers on ahead who went into a Samaritan  village to get things ready for him.  But the people did not welcome him. . . .” [8]

It was just after this negative experience, when he reached Judea, that Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan. He did this in answer to the question of a certain lawyer someone who, in contemporary terms, would be identified as a theologian.[9]

“There was a lawyer who, to disconcert him, stood up and said to him, “Master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Jesus) said to him, “What is written in the Law?  He replied, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” “You have answered right,” said Jesus, “do this and life is yours.”  But the man was anxious to justify him-self and said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor.”[10]

This question was supposed to be an opening for the kind of endless debate that goes on when people try to substitute the letter of the law for the spirit of a command-ment.  Just as “Thou Shalt Not Kill” was mitigated by dozens of exceptions and rationalizations, so also was the question of who was one’s neighbor.

Was it the people you knew or just any resident of your village? Did your neighbor include those who lived in other towns, with whom you might have a fleeting con-tact? Did it include gentiles and those who were obviously sinners?

But Jesus did not get involved in any discussion. Instead, he immediately launched into the story of the Good Samaritan. “Neighbor” was not a word to be defined; it was a relationship to be entered into.

“A man was once on his way down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell into the hands of brigands…[11]  The setting for this story was significant.  The road between Jerusalem and Jericho was frequented by Priests and the Levites who assisted them in Temple ceremonies. Because there were thousands of them, there were many more than could be utilized to conduct daily worship, so those who were to serve in the Temple were chosen by lot. Aside from the three major festivals, each served no more than two weeks a year. Consequently many chose to live outside Jerusalem and commute there when necessary. And many of them lived in Jericho, 17 miles east of Jerusalem, in the Jordon Valley. One historian places their number at 12,000.[12] They   were frequent travelers, so the odds of both Priests and Levites being on that road at any given time were quite high.

Those to whom Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan knew the dangers of traveling the Jerusalem to Jericho road. It passed through large stretches of isolated territory and many travelers did not even carry a change of clothes for their journey, they were afraid that any sign of possessions might make them more of a target for the robbers who infested the area.[13]

In telling this story, Jesus was careful to point out that the Priest was on his way to Jericho so he had already performed his duties at the Temple.[14]  This was an import-ant point for the Jewish people to whom he was speaking. If the Priest had been on his way to Jerusalem, he could be excused for his lack of compassion or concern.  His   timely services at the Temple would have taken precedence over anything else.

Both Priest and Levite passed by the man who lay helpless by the side of the road. For them it was participation in Temple sacrifices and observation of the rules and regulations that interpreted Mosaic Law that dictated their worship of God. And like the priesthood of any religion, they were esteemed as spiritual leaders, adhering to a higher religious standard then the ordinary householder. But they were able to leave a beaten man helpless by the wayside.

After having told this part of the story, Jesus next introduced the appearance of a Samaritan. “(A) certain Samaritan, who was on a journey, came upon him…”[15]  Had this been a play, rather than a parable, the appearance of the Samaritan would have signified that the situation was about to go from bad to worse; the villain had arrived on the scene. Not only were the Samaritans despised on a human level and publicly denounced in the synagogues, they were the object of a daily prayer that they might not enter eternal life.[16]

But the story Jesus told, the Samaritan was not the villain. As soon as he is intro-duced into the scene, the parable says "when he saw [the wounded man] he felt compassion." And that compassion was expressed in the actions described in the parable. The Samaritan not only put him on his own donkey, he took the wounded man to an inn where his injuries could be cared for. And he provided money for the man's continued care, when he had to leave the next day.

Jesus then asked the lawyer “Which of the three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the robbers’ hands?”  And he said “The one who showed mercy toward him.”  And Jesus said “Go and do the same.”[17]

The exercise of mercy and compassion in everyday life were what God required. But the priest and the Levite, whose services centered around the slaughter of sacrificial animals at the Temple had ignored the word of God, spoken through the prophet Isaiah: “The multitude of your sacrifices- -what are they to me? says the Lord…I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats…Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean. Take you evil deeds out of my sight.”[18]

And on at least two occasions Jesus had repeated the oracle of the prophet Hosea that repudiated animal sacrifice. “I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledge-ment of God rather than burnt offerings.”[19]  It was no coincidence that the lack of mercy and compassion shown to the wounded traveler in the parable was attributed to men who had just finished participating in the ritual slaughter of animals at the Jerusalem Temple. The ongoing refusal to fulfill the requirements of mercy in one area of life ultimately erodes compassion in other matters.

Many of those listening to Jesus resented him for making a Samaritan the hero of a morality tale. It was tantamount to the impact a modern-day Israeli would have on his people if he said their religious leaders had failed to fulfill both the letter and the spirit of Mosaic Law- - -but a Palestinian had done what was pleasing to God.

The Gospels report that many people who heard the teachings of Jesus became his disciples. But there were many others who heard him and became his enemies.

[1]  Luke 10:30-37

[2]  World Book Dictionary

[3]  According to Josephus, the journey from Jerusalem to Galilee, through Samaria, took 3 days.

[4]  Niddah, iv.I

[5]  John 4:35-36  JB

[6]  John 4:40-41  JB

[7]  John 7:2

[8]  Luke 9:52-53  JB

[9]  Lawyers, scribes and “doctors of the law” are virtually equivalent terms, referring to theologians, i.e., experts in the Torah or religious law. Most of them were Pharisees.

[10]  Luke 10:25 - 29  JB

[11]  Luke 10:30  JB

[12]  John Lightfoot, Lid., places the number who lived there at about 12,000.

[13]  See Josephus. WAR. 4,8,3

[14]  traveling down or going down the road between Jerusalem and Jericho always meant the destination was Jericho, which was at a lower elevation that the Temple city.

[15]  Luke 10:33  NAS

[16]  See W. O. E. Osterley, The Gospel Parables in the Light of their Jewish Background. NY, 1936. p. 162 (cited in The New Century Bible Commentary.

[17]  Luke 10:36,37 NAS

[18]  Isaiah 1:11, 15-16  NIV

[19]  Hosea 6:6

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