The well-known parable of the Good Samaritan has been interpreted in a variety of ways an even turned into a fanciful allegory, which misses the point entirely. The key to its interpretation lies in seeing it as Jesus’ response to a particular individual raising a test question. That person was “an expert in the law,” who was skilled in debating theoretical issues. In this instance the expert attempts to mask his motivation by posing his question in personal terms, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus’ response brilliantly exposes the subterfuge.
He begins by giving the expert in the law an opportunity to demonstrate his knowledge of the Torah, that to inherit eternal life requires a person to ‘love the Lord your God with all your heat and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ If he knew the answer to his own question why bother to ask it? Jesus was hereby signaling his awareness that it was a test question rather than asked by a sincere seeker.
The expert had answered correctly. All that he needed to do was to live by what he had just said. But the parable that follows digs deeply into the heart of the expert and turns the tables with a view to challenging the exclusionary nature of the man’s understanding of whom his neighbor might be. This is a challenge that applies equally to all who would raise the same question regarding eternal life.
This expert in the law was among the powerful elite of contemporary Jewish society. His immediate associates were the temple authorities and functionaries, namely the priests and Levites. His social set was exclusionary. No Samaritan need apply! Powerful people are in a position to be choosey.
In the parable Jesus’ takes away the expert in the law’s power and social prestige by making him the victim of a roadside mugging. The location of the robbery is on the notoriously dangerous road from Jerusalem to Jericho, a route frequently traveled by the priests and Levites as they rotated their ‘shifts’ at the temple. He is not only robbed of his possessions, but stripped of his clothes, so that his social identity is no longer evident. He is reduced to the level of every other victim of violence. Any passer-by would not see a teacher of the law in distress, but only a half-dead, battered and bloody body. When you find yourself in dire distress you then discover who truly is your neighbor.
Those with whom the lawyer most closely socialized within the religious establishment, represented by the priest and the Levite in the parable, were those who hurried past with their eyes averted. Their religious scruples and fears for their personal safety kept them from becoming involved. Perhaps they thought that he might have been left as a decoy, so that any who stopped to help would themselves become victims. It was the person the lawyer would refuse to acknowledge as a neighbor who came to his aid. Furthermore, there was nothing self-seeking in the Samaritan’s motivation. He left the injured man with an innkeeper with the promise to meet the full costs of his care. There was no thought of organizing a payback time from the person he had rescued.
It is hard for us to imagine the shock that this surprise twist in the story would have on the expert. The Samaritan was traditionally the target of ridicule and scorn in stories circulating at the time. Although the expert knew the appropriate biblical text in answer to his question “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” he had restricted and distorted its application by pre-determining who qualified as a neighbor. The issue he now had to face was not “Who am I prepared to accept as a neighbor, but “To whom can I be a neighbor?” It was only when he was placed in the position of losing his position of power and prestige that he had to confront the challenge.
Herein lies a lesson for all of us. As we make ourselves vulnerable in a perilous world and become victims and casualties we discover who are our true friends. When we turn from a church to a kingdom focus we are likely to encounter a few surprises!