The ‘Good Samaritan’ is one of the best known and loved of Jesus’ parables. We take a positive view of the name, whereas at that time, ‘Samaritan’ was looked on with suspicion or even contempt. Historical background helps us appreciate this. The other readings today also open other reflections on the familiar story.
The book of Deuteronomy is written as a long speech of Moses as a ‘last testament’ to the people. Moses has set before them the Law and urges the people to keep God’s commands, living faithfully in their covenant with the Lord. This selection is poetic in its description of how the Law is not just something imposed from without or something they have to search for, but an understanding of God living within his people and guiding them in their hearts. ‘It is in your mouth’ refers to the commitment to live in the Law that the people have publicly recited. Christians also have further assurance of Jesus ‘with us to the end of time’ and the constant presence of the Holy Spirit.
There are two options for the Responsorial Psalm this week
The first, Psalm 68/69 is a prayer of trust in God in times of poverty and pain, and suits the Gospel reading with the injured traveller. The second, Psalm 18/19 is a meditation on the Law of the Lord, which follows well on the first reading, and also reflects on the question in the Gospel.
We will hear selections from the Letter to the community at Colossae for the next few weeks. It addresses problems of doctrine that have arisen in the church there, and answering these leads to reflections on the nature of Jesus Christ, such as the one we have today. These verses in a poetic form may have been a quotation from an early Christian hymn.
The poem draws on the imagery of personified Wisdom in the Old Testament; particularly close is Proverbs 8:22-31. ‘Thrones, Domination, Sovereignties, Powers’ – these are words for angelic beings and important in this connection as some at Colossae had begun to think of such heavenly messengers as rivals of Christ and so they needed to understand their place in God’s creation as below Jesus. The second part of the selection brings in Jesus in his humanity, the reconciler through his death and the ‘first’ in resurrection. It continues the theme of Christ’s power extending through all of creation.
Luke has set this in the context of one of many disputes with Pharisees on matters of belief and behaviour. There was a debate going on at that time among Jews about which is the most important commandment of the Law, the basic one that the others can be derived from, In the Gospel accounts, instead of one, there are two Jesus holds to be the essential moral law.
The Greek word translated ‘lawyer’ does not have the present meaning of a civil attorney but means an expert in the Jewish Law, and so a religious leader. When we first hear the lawyer’s question, we might assume he is asking earnestly, but it becomes clear as the exchange continues that he is more interested in justifying himself or challenging Jesus than in learning anything. As an expert in the Law he would be familiar with what the Jewish Bible had to say, and Jesus subtly points this out, by making him answer the question. The lawyer’s reply combines two texts, Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. In Matthew and Mark, there is a similar version, in which Jesus is the one to make the connection between the two texts. We can’t tell now if Luke knows of a different occasion, or if he adapted Mark’s version to use it as the introduction to the parable which follows.
After Jesus has confirmed the words, the lawyer persists with a new question that shows he was not really looking for the important commandment. Asking for a definition means a limitation; the idea is that some are to be loved as neighbours, while others can be ignored or hated. Jesus does not answer the question directly at any point, but instead launches into a story.
Like most of his parables, Jesus sets this in the world his listeners knew well. The road down from the mountain-top city of Jerusalem to the city of Jericho that Herod built on the Jordan plain was eighteen miles long, not far with modern transport but not so easy on foot or with donkeys through steep and rocky passages. It was well-known as a place where robbers preyed on the travellers. So the story starts with a familiar (if fearful) situation, then makes it specific.
The background of the priest and Levite are significant details; in his commentary on Luke, Joseph A. Fitzmyer mentions their ‘privileged status’ in that society as the ones serving in the Temple and upholding the Law. These would be expected to follow the commandments most strictly. The story does not give any reasons for their ‘passing by’ the injured man, but commentators note that he was ‘left for dead’ and there might have been a question of dealing with a corpse. Under the details of ritual purity, contact with the dead was ‘defiling’ and kept one from serving in the Temple until cleansed by the prescribed rituals. The questioner was likely to be uneasy to see the failures of religious leaders. The common people listening to Jesus may now have expected that ‘someone ordinary like one of us’ will come next. If so, all of them were in for a surprise.
But with a change in time, this shock may well be lost on modern hearers. Today because people use the expression ‘the good Samaritan’ as a compliment, it can be hard to appreciate what it meant at that time. There was a long history of antagonism between them and the Jewish people, going back to issues from the time of the Babylonian Exile. The two groups disagreed about some beliefs, and the Samaritans did not worship in the Jerusalem temple but on Mount Gezerim in their own territory between Galilee and Judea. Jews often avoided taking routes through their territory. Notice that in his grudging reply, the lawyer cannot bring himself even to say the word ‘Samaritan’.
While sounding odd in modern times, using wine, which was a mild antiseptic and oil, to sooth the pain would have been a good treatment then. The Samaritan rescues the injured and even goes further – assuring that he was have further care at his own expense. The contrast with the leaders is all the greater
By not answering the direct question, Jesus now casts the issue, not in some moral debate, but as a matter for behaviour. You don’t ask, ‘are you a neighbour who deserves this?’ Instead, you see anyone in need and you do your best to care for them. This is as much of challenge to us as it ever was to unwillingness to ‘get involved’ or make any personal sacrifices for another.
While we may appreciate the history of Jesus’ dealings with his contemporaries, I see another aspect. At most places and times, people still are making distinctions between ‘them and us’ which may result in contempt and worse, persecution. Jesus does not condone such attitudes. and on another occasion condemns his disciples for acting on them. (Luke 9:51-56)
Today in divided and often polarised times, and indeed with ‘hate crimes’ against various minorities, this attitude is another challenge to us. Pope Francis has shown special concern for refugees and ‘migrants’ in contrast to official government attitudes in our country. But I can see many more who are often regarded as unacceptable in various places.
Jesus in not answering the question, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ has made a significant reversal. How do you act if you do love your neighbour? At the end, where our translation reads, ‘Go…’ Luke uses a Greek word with a range of meanings, that are closer to ‘journeying’ – which is the word Nicholas King chooses in his new translation. It shows the command is not just acting in one incident but to go through daily life always being the kind of neighbour who goes out of their way for those in need.