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The Good Samaritan

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Only Luke tells the story of the Good Samaritan—the Gospel reading for this Sunday.

The parable told by Jesus extols selfless giving and exemplifies the mandate to serve those in greatest need.

Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan to a Jewish legal expert who asked what must be done to inherit eternal life. Jesus asked the scholar what the law of Moses prescribed as the way to life eternal. The scribe responded by quoting Scripture:

“You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” is a combination of two scriptural passages:

Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God, with your whole heart, and with your whole being, and with your whole strength.”—Deuteronomy 6:5

Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against your own people. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.”—Leviticus 19:18

Pleased with his response, Jesus says: “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.” But the scribe, who “wished to justify himself,” continued his questioning by asking, “And who is my neighbor?” To answer that question, Jesus offers the provocative parable of the Good Samaritan.

The Good Samaritan Road

THE PLACE

The parable takes place on the rough, desolate, 15-mile road that connects the city of Jerusalem in the mountains with the city of Jericho in the Jordan river valley. The barren route was frequented by robbers who hid in the limestone cliffs in order to ambush the unsuspecting. In fact, the road was so perilous, it became known as the way of blood.

THE PEOPLE

Jesus tells of a traveler who is robbed and beaten by thieves and left to die along this road. A priest and a Levite— Jewish religious leaders supposedly knowledgeable in God’s commands—are mentioned as seeing the man in distress but offer no assistance. Scholars have speculated as to why they did not come to his aid.

WHY THEY DIDN’T HELP

Touching a corpse rendered one ritually impure and unable to serve in the Temple. Perhaps the priest and Levite were saving themselves for worship.But the priest and the Levite were “going down that road” (Jerusalem is on a hill), suggesting they were travelling away from the Temple—their  duties complete.

Another theory is that the priest and Levite believed that the man had just been beaten and the marauders were still in the vicinity.
Or that the seemingly injured man was a ruse by robbers: one of them would appear to be in distress by the roadside, and when someone stopped to assist, the others could easily attack.

For whatever reason, both the priest and Levite withhold aid. In Jesus’ parable, a Samaritan comes to the injured man’s side, which would have been alarming to Jesus’ audience.

SAMARITANS

Once kinsmen, Samaritans were regarded as non-Jews by the time of Jesus. They came from a mixed background and were seen as ethnically impure.

The United Monarchy during King Solomon’s rule was divided after his death (931 B.C.). The southern kingdom, Judah, retained the city of Jerusalem as its capital. The city of Samaria was ultimately established as the capital of the north. The people of the Northern Kingdom rejected the sole worship of the Lord, built shrines to idols and intermarried with Assyrians, who brought with them pagan beliefs. These practices were despised by the southerners, who then regarded the Samaritans as non-Jews.  

During the time of Jesus, the animosity between Jews and Samaritans persisted. Jews journeying north would often travel through the barren land of Perea, on the eastern side of the Jordan, to avoid going through Samaritan territory.

The Samaritans were cursed in synagogues, barred from serving as witnesses in Jewish courts and forbidden to intermarry with Jews. They were considered unclean and inferior outsiders. Jesus, however, disregarded the ancient antagonism and held up a Samaritan as an example of proper conduct over and above the actions of a priest and Levite.

The Samaritan—a social outcast—is held up as the example of brotherly love toward one’s neighbor. In this parable, as well as throughout Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is compassionate to the marginalized: Samaritans, Gentiles, women, children, tax collectors, sinners, and others regarded as outcasts. He elevates the lowly, embraces all and forsakes none.

DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. AND THE GOOD SAMARITAN

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In a speech calling for boycotts and nonviolent protests, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. makes reference to the parable of the Good Samaritan. Listen to the audio and follow along below.

“I remember when Mrs. King and I were first in Jerusalem.

“We rented a car and drove from Jerusalem down to Jericho. And as soon as we got on that road, I said to my wife, “I can see why Jesus used this as the setting for his parable.” It’s a winding, meandering road. It’s really conducive for ambushing.

“You start out in Jerusalem, which is about 1200 miles — or rather 1200 feet above sea level. And by the time you get down to Jericho, fifteen or twenty minutes later, you’re about 2200 feet below sea level. That’s a dangerous road. In the days of Jesus it came to be known as the “Bloody Pass.”

“And you know, it’s possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it’s possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking. And he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt, in order to seize them over there, lure them there for quick and easy seizure.

“And so the first question that the priest asked — the first question that the Levite asked was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”

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Dan Gonzalez is both author and designer of the MassExplained blog and MassExplained iPad app. Through fun games and colorful flash cards, Dan's new app, Catholic Word & Games, teaches Catholic vocabulary to children. His design work can be seen at AmpersandMiami.com. Visit AgnusGiftShop.com to browse his Catholic t-shirt line. Dan's reversion story can be read here.

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