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This week we read about the parable of the good Samaritan. It goes like this:
A man is attacked by thieves. A priest and a Levite (both known for being elite, religious classes), pass by the injured man. A Samaritan passes by and stops; he goes above and beyond to take care of the man.
There is plenty to learn from this parable based on that simplistic summary alone. However, when we understand the context in which that parable was given, we can learn even more. In order to glean as much nuance as possible, let’s examine two aspects that are related to the good Samaritan.
The enemies of the Jews
First aspect: The Samaritans were considered enemies of the Jews. Now, the Jews had plenty of enemies. And by the world’s standards, some of these enemies would be considered legitimate. Enemies were people who overtook your land, killed your leaders, and took what they wanted from you. The Jews were often surrounded by enemies at different points in history.
So what was the crime of the Samaritans? They were considered apostates. The Samaritans were the Northern Israelites, and the Jews were the Southern Israelites. They had once been one people – the Lord’s covenant people.
When the Jews first returned to Jerusalem during the reign of Cyrus, the Samaritans actually wanted to help build the temple. When they were rebuffed for being apostate, they became hostile and slowed the progress of the temple considerably. This was probably one of the main points in the schism between the Jews and Samaritans.
The Samaritans had married outside the covenant of Abraham, and their religious teachings became “corrupted.” The Jews scorned them for this. In fact, the Jews were over the top in their scorn. They would travel ridiculous amounts of time to avoid the land of Samaria because they were too good to travel near these apparently apostate people. They rather travel through Gentile land in comparison to traveling near Samaritans.
The second critical aspect to fully appreciating this parable is to understand the context in which Christ chose to give it. A conversation takes place between a lawyer and Jesus.
Lawyer-How do I receive eternal life?
Jesus-What does the law say?
Lawyer-Love God and your neighbor.
Jesus-Good job. Do that.
The lawyer than facetiously replies:
Luke 10:29 But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbour?
The lawyer was trying to “justify himself.” In other words, he wanted to be selective in who he was required to love. It is at this point in the story that Christ tells the parable of the good Samaritan.
It is no coincidence that Christ chose to use a Samaritan in a parable. It simply wasn’t an accident. He didn’t randomly choose the Levite or priest either. Christ was teaching a very, very specific lesson about being worthy for eternal life.
In response, Christ tells this lawyer a parable. This parable features a Samaritan, so despised by the Jews, as the one who is truly following the law by loving God and his neighbor.
Rather than merely looking at the parable itself, I’d like to consider the context of the parable as part of the parable. Then I want to take the parable-within-a-parable and bring it into modern times.
What were the Samaritans to the Jews? As I list off some of these off, I want you to think of people that you know in our day who fit into these categories. They are people who left the covenant, or they are descendants of those who left the covenant. They have some similar beliefs to the Jews but have altered some of the doctrine and believe they have the more pure version. They made things difficult for the people of God. They opposed the temple and fought against its construction.
This is why it was such a big deal that Christ chose a Samaritan to play the good guy in His parable. How would you feel if one of your local leaders chose to use a person who opposed the temple in a parable to teach you about someone who loved God and their neighbor?
Now, please don’t misunderstand me. Is it Christlike to oppose the temple? Obviously not. Does Christ want us to join the covenant, stay in the covenant, and marry in the covenant? Of course. We need covenants to bind us to Christ with a power that we do not innately have, the power of God. That is not the message of Christ here. He is not telling the lawyer to disregard everything He taught the Israelites in the Old Testament. That would be inconsistent and render Him ungodly.
So if that’s not His message, what is?
So what’s the lesson for us?
Though the lawyer wasn’t part of the parable of the good Samaritan, I would wager that we can learn the most from him. In this story, we are him, the believer. We don’t know if this lesson with Christ touched him or enraged him, but we can learn from what Christ was trying to teach him.
The lawyer approached Christ with the question, “Who is my neighbor?” When he was asking Christ this question, the scriptures teach us that he was trying to justify himself. In other words, he wanted to love who he wanted to love. Do we only love those who we want to love? Or do we love everyone? Do we love our enemies and do we love the enemies of the church? Or do we indignantly separate ourselves from people who we believe will feel the wrath of God?
As much as we would like to argue that we know who God will approve of, we simply don’t know. And regardless of whether they do merit the wrath of God, we have still been commanded to love them.
Loving them means trying to understand them. It means seeing past some of the messages that may seem offensive to us and recognizing that people aren’t black and white. It means choosing to get to know a person on a deeper level.
The activist fighting against temples because we don’t let gay people get married there? He also works from a non-profit for barely any pay, reaching out to kids who are at high risk for suicide.
Your friend who left the church and posts about all the times they have felt betrayed by it? She invited her mother-in-law with cancer to come and live with them, and now she spends a good portion of her time cleaning up, caring for, and doing all the un-glorious jobs associated with caring for someone who is terminally ill.
People are multi-faceted, and we are all misguided to an extent. As much as we may disagree with some of their decisions, I think that in a majority of cases, we will get to the other side and be shocked by just how similar our hearts are.
When Christ told this parable to this lawyer, the Jews had also found themselves in an apostasy. They regarded the opinions of Pharisees and scribes over the prophets. They had strayed from the pure doctrine given by Jehovah, and in some ways, they had denied the faith.
Perhaps we have not found ourselves in a generalized apostasy. We have been promised that there will not be another apostasy before Christ comes again, but apostasy still occurs on an individual level and individual choice basis. Perhaps we, as individuals, are not generally apostate. However, when we choose to separate ourselves from, to withhold love from, to scorn and scoff, to believe ourselves superior to, or pass ultimate judgments upon others (even those considered enemies to the church), we are denying the faith. In fact, we’re choosing to ignore one of the main tenets of our faith – to be merciful and compassionate and to look at each person as a child of God with a precious soul. Perhaps it is a good time to examine the Samaritans in our lives and consider how we feel about them. And then maybe it’s a good time to be loving and kind and curious about the kind of people they are in their hearts.
I believe in a Savior who can turn any step into a step towards Him. I believe in a Savior who turns mistakes into hard-earned, lasting lessons. I believe in a Savior who believes in us, and I believe in a Savior who can read the hearts of men.