The Neighborhood

In today’s culture, the term “good Samaritan” is synonymous with individual and corporate charitable do-gooders. Some even take a measure of pride that “we Samaritans” help “them” the marginalized poor and needy. The original context of the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) has little to do with this present day interpretation. The context is the fulcrum that will help us to leverage the greater messages of this parable. The history of the people groups as well as the geographical landscape plays a vital part in our being able to understand this story that Jesus tells. In her book, Short Stories by Jesus, Amy-Jill Levine states, “Let’s see what happens when we strip away two thousand years of usually benevolent and well-intended domestication and hear the parable as a first century short story spoken by a Jew to other Jews.”

Initially we encounter two men, Rabbi Jesus and a legal expert in Jewish law, who seem to be having an intelligent and civil conversation. The real agenda of each man is lurking just below the surface like two massive icebergs. The lawyer is attempting to discredit and eventually embarrass Jesus. Jesus engages the man in Socratic style dialogue, controlling and guiding the conversation toward the real purpose of the law and the larger concept of eternal life. The story turns when the lawyer, after quoting the law’s requirement to love God as well as your neighbor, chooses to divert the conversation to the part about the neighbor. He asks, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus then addresses the following parable toward him.

There are four central characters in the story. A traveler, on a seventeen mile journey between Jerusalem and Jericho, is stripped, beaten, and left for dead by a gang of marauders. He is in a ditch on the side of the road. A priest and a Levite come by at different times. They represent the best of Jewish society, yet they purposefully display indifference by crossing to the far side of the road. A Samaritan puts aside his own agenda to care for the man.   The Samaritan models an attitude of “whatever it takes, whatever it costs.” The Jewish audience would have been repulsed by this. The Jews and the Samaritans had been at odds as far back as the Assyrian Captivity in 722BC. The Jews accused the Samaritans of being treasonous and demonic.

“Which of these three was this victim’s neighbor?” Jesus posed the question to the lawyer. He responded, “The one who showed mercy.” Compassion is a feeling of pity. Mercy is the resulting action. Who is our neighbor? Our neighbor is anyone who is in need. There is no universal inclusion into the kingdom, but there is a universal neighborhood.