This parable is told in response to a number of questions from an expert in the law, or lawyer as some versions translate it. The fact that this man had come to Jesus to discuss the interpretation of scripture means he is probably a Pharisee. This may seem unimportant but strikes at the heart of the parable and it’s meaning.
Pharisees where exponents of the law, they kept not just the written law (the first 5 books of the Hebrew scripture) but the oral law as well. This oral law was vast and offered different interpretations on that which was written down. Many Rabbis or ‘teachers’ interpreted the law and taught this to their disciples so they could live according to God’s law.
As we often see in parables the first character mentioned is introduced with little to no information. The man could be Jewish, Roman, Samaritan or from any other nation. He could be a merchant, soldier, priest, pharisee, sadducee or levite. All we know is a man was travelling from Jericho to Jerusalem and was robbed on his way.
The parting information we have on this man is that he was left half dead. The Greek word lacks some clarity but the sense is that this man was on the edge. He was alive but only just and he needed immediate care to give him any chance of survival. It sets up the suspense in the story, the crowd would have been on the edge of their seats. Would he live, would he die.
Bandits on the road between Jericho and Jerusalem were common place. The distance was about 15 miles between the two cities and it cut through mountains terrain making it perfect for thieves to hide and wait for passers by. The road was also a busy one with numerous people making the journey. Jesus would have made the journey a number of times during his life and priests often travelled between the two cities.
The robbers take everything from the man, even stripping off his clothes and leaving him there to die. This sets the scene for those who would walk by next, would they leave this man like the robbers did or would they help?
The Butcher, the Baker and the Candlestick Maker
To have a three-fold character set in a story is a common tool. The Priest, the Levite and the Samaritan are the trio in this story and although different they also share something very important in common.
Priests and Levites were usually Sadducees and this meant that they differed from the Pharisees in their understanding of the Jewish faith. Sadducees were literalists and rejected the oral law that the Pharisees followed. They held the first five books of the Hebrew bible as the definitive word of God to his people and nothing else mattered. The Samaritans did likewise.
Samaritans were shunned by Jews because of the turbulent history between the two. When the Babylonians took the Israelites into exile those that remained began to marry with those outside of their nation, they also claimed that they were the true Israel and set up a temple on Mount Gerizim. After the return from exile the Jewish people rejected the Samaritans who had stayed and vice-versa and from this moment animosity ran between the two people.
For the listeners this makes for an interesting selection of characters. Two Jewish men and one who was despised by the Jewish people and yet all of them different to the Pharisees in one respect, they were all literalists. To our untrained ear we miss this point as we don’t see the religious significance of these passers by. Each has to make a choice, to follow God’s law or to break it.
The written law held by the three main passers by and the oral law of the Pharisee differed greatly in stating how they should respond to the situation presented to them. The written law was clear;
The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: ‘A priest must not make himself ceremonially unclean for any of his people who die. Leviticus 21:1
Concern for human life was a secondary consideration compared to keeping oneself clean for the duties of a priest. The Pharisees often criticised the Sadducees for their abandoning of moral and ethical concerns for human life for their religious rituals. Reading further on we see another stronger command;
He must not enter a place where there is a dead body. He must not make himself unclean, even for his father or mother. Leviticus 21:11
Although these two examples refer mainly to priests the wider implication in Leviticus and other places was that people should avoid becoming ‘unclean’ at all costs. Not just for their own sake but for the sake of the wider community.
The oral law was the exact opposite to this literal approach to scripture. There were clear instructions for people to bury the dead and not neglect them. As the oral law often expanded the scriptures meaning to help people deal with various situations their was even specific teaching to bury a corpse if you came across one on the road even if it made you unclean.
None of these passers-by new if the man was dead or not but the first two did not want to risk becoming unclean to check. The oral law had no hesitation though in instructing people to do all they can for those in need without consideration to if it would make you clean or unclean.
This then, is the crux of the parable, all the passers-by come across the body and all of them are within their religious law to leave it alone. To approach the corpse would be to break God’s written law and offend God. The Pharisee, who is being told the story, and would have disliked or disagreed with all three characters to a certain extent, would have been cursing their insistence on a literalist view of scripture. For the Samaritan to break their religious code in order to help the man posed a challenge to the Pharisee. It was the twist in the parable.
Who is your neighbour?
When asked which of the three was a neighbour to the man the lawyer responded with the words ‘the one who showed mercy.’ We often simplify this message by saying that the meaning of the parable is we need to help anyone who is in need, even our enemy. This is accurate but there is a deeper meaning to what is being said.
Jesus’s question to the man was a multiple choice with only three possible answers. The priest, the Levite or the Samaritan; there was no option for ‘other, please state’. The lawyers response showed wisdom, which you would expect from a man who studied the law.
Instead of answering with the obvious response of, the Samaritan, identifying the man by his nationality and therefore the thing which separated the two, he defines him by his actions, that which made them equal. It is a profound moment and we may only understand it when updating it for our context. Who is your neighbour? An Englishman, an Irishman or a Muslim? A Conservative, a Liberal Democrat or a fighter for ISIS? One who ignores the needy, who shuns the poor or who is compassionate?
The lawyer would have heard the title of the priest and automatically thought of all that united them, the same would have been so with the levite. At the mention of the Samaritan though only that which separated them would have come to mind. At the end of the story these dividing factors have faded and the uniting one remains. A neighbour is one who shows mercy and he should do likewise.
The lawyer knows what Jesus is saying. In order to know the answer to the question ‘who is my neighbour?’ we must first become a neighbour to others. We must serve, protect and speak to others and understand them. We must bind their wounds and care for them. Only then can we begin to tell others about who their neighbours are.