Historical Cultural Context
The Good Samaritan
In the Mediterranean world questions are rarely perceived as requests for information. They are almost always viewed with suspicion as a challenge to personal honor. The hope is that the person who is asked a question will not know the answer and be shamed by ignorance. Lest the reader miss the point, Luke explicitly states that the lawyer’s intent was to “test” Jesus.
In this seven-scene parable, the Samaritan stands at the center:
The robbers strip their victim and leave him half dead (Gospel). Now, no one can identify the victim’s ethnicity by his garments or his accent, two very common ways of identifying a stranger in antiquity. Helping him carries a risk.
The priest, riding a donkey in accord with his elite status, notices the victim and ponders. If the victim is dead or is a non-Judean, the priest would be defiled by touching him and have to return to Jerusalem for purification. Those who just saw him gloriously fulfilling his priestly role would now see him returning in shame for purification. The risk is too great. Recalling Sirach 12:1-7, the priest rides on.
The Levite may have come even closer to examine the victim. Even though the road is not straight, the Levite very likely saw the priest’s response to the victim from afar. If the priest did not give first aid, why should the Levite? That would be a challenge to the priest, an insult. Moreover, if this victim is one of those who live in Shechem (i.e., a Samaritan), Sirach 50:25-26 reports what God thinks of such. The Levite, too, passes on.
The Samaritan is a shocking third character in this story. Listeners would have expected “a Judean layperson.” But this hated enemy is the first to feel compassion! The Hebrew word, related to womb, describes an inner gut-feeling.
He offers the first aid (wine, oil, and bandages), which the Levite could have done but neglected to do. The Samaritan’s risk is that this victim might hate him upon re-gaining consciousness. Samaritan wine and oil were considered impure and would have made the (very likely) Judean victim impure too! In a certain sense, the Samaritan in this story line will be “damned if he does, and damned if he doesn’t.”
The Samaritan then does what the priest might have done but didn’t: he places the victim on his animal, takes him to an inn, and continues to care for him.
Finally, the Samaritan, in contrast to the robbers, promises to return and pay any additional expenses. This is perhaps the most foolish part of this story. If the victim should die, his family, who will not be able to find the robbers, may kill his benefactor instead. Or if the victim survives, he may rage at this Samaritan for making him impure with Samaritan wine and oil. It is impossible to underestimate the importance of purity, that is, the determination to “be holy as the Lord is holy” (Lev 11:44 and elsewhere).
The thrust of the parable is not lost on the lawyer. Now Jesus thrusts the final shaming question: “Which of the three became a neighbor to the victim?”
The astute lawyer immediately recognizes this new, impending shame. The lawyer’s question was: “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus’ question is: “To whom must you become a neighbor?” The lawyer realizes that one must become a neighbor to anyone and everyone in need. One must reach out with compassion to all people, even to one’s enemies.
Too often this parable has been read as a pleasant moral lesson of kindness and neighborliness. Fleshing out all the characters in their Mediterranean cultural characteristics gives the parable a fresh look. A hated outsider extends compassionate love to his enemy. What a masterful attack on communal prejudice!
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch was a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible
**From Saint Louis University