Most of us would be familiar with the Parable of the Good Samaritan. It is a story that we who have grown up in the church have been taught since childhood. We are probably very familiar with Jesus’ concluding words: ‘Go and do the same’ (v37) which are generally understood as Jesus telling his followers that we need to help and take care of others like the Good Samaritan did. It’s a simple parable with a simple message, right?
However, something about this parable has never sat quite right with me: Why does Jesus cast a Samaritan as the hero of the story?
For the Jewish people to whom Jesus originally told this story, the Samaritans were a hated people. The Jews of Jesus’ time thought they were God’s special people because the Law of Moses made them a holy people – pure and set apart from the rest of the world. Gentiles (anyone who wasn’t a Jew) were considered unclean because they didn’t have Moses’ law and so they couldn’t be ‘pure’ in God’s eyes. At the bottom of the Gentile barrel, however, were the Samaritans. They were people whose Jewish blood had been mixed with Gentile blood when the Northern Kingdom of Israel was conquered and resettled by the Assyrians about 700 years before the birth of Jesus. For the Jews of Jesus’ day, the Samaritans were the worst of the worst.
So why does Jesus cast a Samaritan as the hero of the story? I might be reading this parable through the lens of our last 6 weeks of sermons on Galatians, but a big difference between the Samaritan and the priest and Levite who had walked past the injured person was that the Samaritan was not under the same rules as the priest and Levite. For both of them, the Law of Moses dictated that if they were to fulfill their religious functions in a way that pleased God, they had to remain ‘clean.’ According to their law, touching a bleeding person would make them unclean and unfit to serve God properly. Their religious rules prohibited them from touching the injured man. The Samaritan doesn’t have that problem. He was already considered ‘unclean’ by the standards of the Jewish law, so he was free to love the person on the side of the road by helping him.
So, maybe we need to rethink what Jesus meant when he said ‘go and do the same.’ Instead of telling us to simply help other people, could Jesus be teaching us to value people more than our religious rules, customs or traditions?
While we don’t live under the Law of Moses, we still have rules, customs and traditions, both spoken and unspoken, that shape our church culture. We might give them names such as constitutions, by-laws, compliances, and so on. Or they might be the unwritten expectations we have in which we think things should or should not be done. Like the Law of Moses, these ‘rules’ might be meant for our good, to protect and help us. However, like the priest and Levite, when we value our ‘rules’ over people, and when they prevent us from caring for the people God brings to us, then we have lost our way. When we are so busy fulfilling the demands and expectations of the institutional church that we don’t have the time or the energy to take care of the people around us, then we have strayed from the path of following Christ in the way of faith and love.
To hear Jesus’ teaching to ‘go and do the same’ means that we open our eyes to the people around us who are lying bruised and bleeding on the side of life’s road. They may not be literally bleeding from an open wound, but at times life has a way of beating us up and leaving us injured or helpless. It might be by the ways we are ignored, hurt, broken or robbed of joy by life’s struggles, conflicts or difficulties.
But Jesus meets us as the ultimate Good Samaritan. He comes to us from outside of God’s laws and rules and commands for two reasons. Firstly, he doesn’t need to fulfill any religious rules to achieve holiness because he already carries the God’s holiness in his own person as his Son in human flesh. As we read the gospel stories, we can see that throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus constantly valued people over the religious rules. Secondly, Jesus was cast out of respectable, religious community when he was crucified on the garbage pile of human existence known as Calvary. Jesus is the ultimate outsider who gave everything he has, like the Good Samaritan, to heal our wounds with his love, to bind our broken hearts with his grace, and to give us a place where we can find healing and wholeness in the refuge of Christian community. Jesus paid for all our needs through his death to give us safety, healing and wholeness through faith in him.
This story begins with an expert in religious law asking what he had to do to get eternal life. It is a question that is focused on himself. As long as we focus on ourselves and what we have to do to get eternal life, then we will always end up walking past those who need help like the priest or Levite. Jesus points us towards another way – the way of love which doesn’t focus on what we have to do, but which looks to the needs of the people around us and is willing to give whatever is needed to take care of each other. As long as we value our ‘rules’ over people, we will continue to walk on the wrong side of the road. Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan points us to a God who values people over the rules, and who is willing to pay any price to take care of those who are bruised, bloodied and half-dead on the side of life’s road.
And then Jesus tells us: Go and do the same.
More to think about:
- In what ways has life left you bruised, bleeding or injured?
- How can the picture of Jesus as our ultimate Good Samaritan help you grow in your sense of healing, peace or wholeness?
- What are some of the expectations, procedures or ‘rules’ of your Christian community?
- Do they help people find healing, peace or wholeness through a growing faith in Jesus? Or do they get in the way of people sharing in Jesus’ grace and love?
- How might your Christian community look differently if it was to grow in valuing people over rules or expectations? How could you work towards that change?