The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-36) is among the most well-known stories ever told, even for those unfamiliar with the Bible. For the contemporary reader, the parable is also one of the easiest to misunderstand. Today, the term Samaritan is synonymous with offering assistance to strangers. In the Jewish world in which Jesus taught, the idea of a “good Samaritan” was oxymoronic. When Jesus used the Samaritan in the parable, he inserted a character his audience would have considered to be among the last to offer compassion or assistance. In fact, the audience would have likely assumed the Samaritan was another villain in the story who would only make matters worse. This parable still has much to teach us.
In the next two weeks, I will share a handful of attempts to retell this parable in modern contexts, along with some explanation. In each case, the goal is to help us understand the parable in a more familiar way.
Like the original parable, I have chosen each detail purposefully in order to convey a deeper meaning. I have also tried to frame each of these retellings of the parable with one major overarching question.
For this first retelling, please read, or re-read, Jesus’ parable below. Then, read “A Syrian Perspective”.
Luke 10:30-36 (NIV): “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii[e] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
THE “GOOD SAMARITAN”: A SYRIAN PERSPECTIVE
Please read this retelling of the parable with this thought/question in mind: Jesus’ choice of the Samaritan in the parable was not meant to be flattering to the Samaritans. How does the use of a Christian (Ahl al-Kitāb) in place of the Samaritan communicate the ways many of the most vulnerable people around the world could potentially see the current Christian response to their suffering?
A man was going down from Mansoura to Aleppo, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A cleric happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a humanitarian worker, when she came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a man from among the Ahl al-Kitāb*, as he traveled, came where the man was, and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and disinfected and bandaged his wounds. Then he put the man in his own vehicle, and took him to a nearby village where he rented a room and took care of him. The next day he took out two days’ pay in pounds and gave them to the manager. “Look after him,” he said, “and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.”
Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?
*Ahl al-Kitāb means “People of the Book” in Arabic. This is the term that Muslims often use to describe Christians (and Jews) because of the Bible.
In Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, each character was used strategically. The victim seems to be a Judean Jew because he was traveling from Jerusalem. Since Jesus told us nothing else about him, he can represent any person facing crisis. The priest and Levite could have been seen as likely potential helpers of the wounded person, yet the audience would also not have been surprised when both passed by on the other side. This is not because of a lack of virtue, but rather because of either cleanliness laws or the requirements of their errands. The priest and Levite represent faithfulness to and righteousness from the Law of Moses. Nevertheless, these attributes were of no help to the person with genuine need who had been placed along their paths.
The Samaritan was among the most unlikely to be used because he was a religious and political enemy of the man from Jerusalem. He could be seen as quite dangerous, and rightly so. Jesus was not attempting to compliment or side with the Samaritans. The Samaritan, who did indeed become friend rather than foe, was a reminder to the Jewish audience of the God-ordained value of all people (imago dei), in a similar way to the role of the Ninevites in the book of Jonah. In each case, their response was a surprise.
In this retelling of the parable, the man traveling from Mansoura to Aleppo could be seen as Muslim, but perhaps not. The robbers are not associated with any religion, sect, or group. The cleric and humanitarian worker serve as potential helpers who, whether for religious or personal reasons, did not help. The use of the Christian in place of the Samaritan is therefore not meant to be flattering to Christians. Instead, it is meant to force us to wrestle with the idea that a Christian offering genuine care and aid to the Syrian might also be seen as a surprise. On the one hand, this might be true because of Islamic teaching regarding Ahl al-Kitāb. On the other hand, this is also true because of the messages we have begun to communicate to the marginalized around the world at a time when the global crisis is larger than it has ever been. Indeed, we continue to justify our words and actions with the question, “Who is my neighbor?”