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Observations on the Parable
of the Good Samaritan
Lionel E. Deimel

Yesterday’s Gospel reading was the familiar passage of Luke 10:25–37, which includes the Parable of the Good Samaritan:

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

The details of this story have always bothered me. The lawyer asked, “And who is my neighbor?” seeking, apparently, to learn the bounds of the circle of people he is being told to love. It is possible that the lawyer’s question is indeed seeking validation of how he already is living his life (i.e., “wanting to justify himself”), but this would seem to be an editorial inference, rather than a fact. In the end, of course, this doesn’t matter, at least not to the reader.

As the story has come down to us, Jesus does not answer the question as it was posed. After telling his story, Jesus socratically asks, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” We have no trouble answering as the lawyer did—the one who helped the robbery victim.

The conclusion of the parable is that the Samaritan is neighbor to the robbery victim, i.e., the Samaritan showed neighborliness to the injured traveler. In light of the question asked, however, we would expect the conclusion that the hapless traveler is the neighbor of the Samaritan and thereby deserving of the love of the Samaritan. The obvious conclusion can be drawn only if one assumes the non-obvious proposition that being a neighbor of is a reflexive relation, i.e., that if a is a neighbor of b, then b is a neighbor of a.

But what of the priest and the Levite? The implication is that they were not neighbors of the robbery victim. Is the injured man not their neighbor then? Does someone become one’s neighbor only if one shows compassion first? The presumed message is garbled.

Of course, this is not how we usually interpret the parable. Commentary usually focuses on the compassionate passerby. He is a Samaritan, and the object of his ministrations is, presumably, a Jew. Jews and Samaritans do not normally associate with or respect one another. That the person in need is an “other” sends the message that neighborliness is not to be confined to one’s family, friends, associates, or nearby strangers. One’s neighbor can be anybody.

Jesus should have asked—the story should have him asking, at any rate—who showed love for his neighbor? The answer would be the same, but the story would be more coherent.

— Lionel Deimel, 7/11/2016

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