10 July 2022

Some questions raised
by reading the Parable
of the Good Samaritan

An Orthodox icon of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, interpreting the parable according to the Patristic and Orthodox tradition (Click on image for full-screen viewing)

Patrick Comerford

This morning was ‘Good Samaritan Sunday,’ and in church today we heard once again the familiar parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25-37).

Over the past few Sundays, we have seen Christ and the disciples have set out on two separate missions ahead of him on the road to Jerusalem (see Luke 9: 51-56; and Luke 9: 57-62). He has given them advice on how to introduce people to his message and how to respond to those who reject it.

They are about to travel through a Samaritan area, when a lawyer, a man who is an expert in the Mosaic law or halakha, approaches Christ with an interesting question, has the question turned back on him, and when he asks yet another question, the response comes in this, one of the best-known parables in the this Gospel, the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

When the lawyer approaches Jesus, his question is not about the law. Instead, he asks respectfully: ‘Teacher (rabbi), what must I do to inherit eternal life?’

Christ does not answer directly, but instead asks a pair of questions: ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’

The lawyer answers with two citations from the Law, one from the Book Deuteronomy and a second from the Book Leviticus.

The first command is: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might’ (Deuteronomy 6: 5). This verse follows immediately after the Shema, the basic, fundamental prayer of Judaism, recited constantly and twice daily. The response to hearing God’s word and believing in God is to love God.

The Jewish theologian, Professor Michael Fishbane of the University of Chicago, says this great exhortation is at the heart of the Hebrew Bible. In The Kiss of God (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1996), he adds: ‘These words are also at the heart of Judaism and constitute its religious ideal’ (p 3).

In Jewish tradition, the word love stipulates loyalty and covenantal relationship. Each of these loves demands all: all my heart, all my soul and all my might. There is a progression here, moving from my heart or mind, to expanding to my soul or life force, and culminating in my might or locus of energy.

But the lawyer interpolates or enhances this verse, quoting it as: ‘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.’

The addition ‘with all your mind’ (ἐν ὅλῃ τῇ διανοίᾳ σου, en ole te dianoia sou) is significant. Fishbane believes this is undoubtedly a lost midrashic reading of me’odekha (‘your might’) as mada‘akha (‘your mind’).

The mediaeval Jewish philosopher and theologian Maimonides describes a kenosis or self-emptying in prayer focused on the Shema that sets the mind on the course of loving God with all one’s heart (mind), soul and might. After this discipline is perfected, one is properly prepared to attend to things pertaining to the world.

So, it is consonant with Jewish tradition that the lawyer then moves to citing as the second command: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Leviticus 19: 18). Rabbi Avika, who lived at the end of the first and beginning of the second century CE, in the midrashic commentary or Sifre on Leviticus, refers to this command as ‘the greatest principle in the Law.’

Christ then echoes a verse in the Law: ‘You have given the right answer; do this and you will live’ (verse 28). Compare this with: ‘You shall keep my statutes and my ordinances; by doing this one shall live: I am the Lord’ (Leviticus 18: 5).

The promise of life comes not through inheritance or deeds, but through love – love of God, and love of neighbour.

The lawyer then goes on to ask: ‘And who is my neighbour?’ (verse 29).

Their journey to Jerusalem is going to take Jesus and his disciples through Jericho (see Luke 19: 1) and through Bethany (see Luke 19; 29), so they are aware of the dangers they face ahead – the dangerous cost of travelling that road, where so often travellers and pilgrims have been mugged. The road between Jerusalem and Jericho was fraught with danger.

Normally, we think we should identify with the Samaritan in this story. But the first listeners would have identified with the man who was on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem. But everyone listening would have identified with the poor man who had been mugged, from the beginning of the story. Many pious Jews would know someone who had been mugged on this road, a close friend, a member of their own family, maybe it even happened once to themselves.

And they would have known that a priest passing by would have had to walk on the other side of the road (verse 31).

After all, this man had been left ‘half dead’ (verse 30). If a priest touched a corpse, he became ritually unclean. He would have become ritually unclean. He could no longer provide the service in the Temple that was the whole purpose of being on that road. Even if the man is half dead, the priest would have been contaminated by touching his blood. And what if the man died in the process?

In Judaism, a Cohen (כהן), a descendant of Aaron the High Priest, may not come in contact with any dead body, may not enter a building where a dead body of a Jew lays, and outdoors is forbidden to come within four cubits of a Jewish corpse or a Jewish grave. A Cohen is commanded to be in a state of purity and avoid ritual defilement by a corpse, which is ritually unclean (Leviticus 21: 1-2). Cohanim (כהנים) do not take part in a burial unless it is one of their closest relatives.

Ritual impurity was also brought about by contact with a significant amount of blood. So, everyone listening would have realised the priest was behaving properly, impeccably. He had a higher duty, he had no right to contaminate himself wilfully, or to deprive the Temple of his service and his family of their source of income.

So too with the Levite. Should he find himself contaminated ritually by contact with blood or a dead body, he could not officiate at the morning service, offer the blessing at the conclusion of the service – as a direct spokesperson for God – or called upon God in prayer in the Temple; he could longer serve in his role, assisting the Temple priests, serving as a guardian of the Tabernacle, sacrificing the Temple offerings, or performing the ritual slaughters. As a Levite, he had no rights to property or land, so if he became contaminated he would lose his income, there would be no food on the table for his children and his family.

Better let the poor man – dead or alive – to wait for a neighbour who would take care of him. And that would have been the expectation of everyone who listened to this story.

But when the Samaritan arrives, those who are listening would be aghast. Was he going to add to the victim’s distress? Mug him again? Root for his wallet or his credit card or his mobile phone?

The sting in the tail is not that Jesus is saying the Priest or the Levite should have contaminated himself. No at all. The sting in the tail is that the mugged man should accept the Samaritan’s mercy and ministrations, accept him as a good neighbour.

The lawyer recognises that the Samaritan has acted properly, yet even now he cannot bring himself to say ‘the Samaritan.’

By and large, we cannot choose our neighbours. The estate agent and the people selling a house or letting a flat naturally tell us the neighbours are wonderful. They are never going to say we are moving into a house where people on one side or the other are people we could not accept. We have to wait to find out ourselves … when it is too late.

We cannot choose our neighbours. But we can decide whether or not to accept them.

And so this parable, instead of being called the Parable of the Good Samaritan, as it is referred to in the headings in many Bibles, including the NRSV, might be better called the ‘Parable of the Good Neighbour’ or the ‘Parable of the Accepting Neighbour.’ The Early Fathers offered another interpretation of this parable.

The man who goes down from Jerusalem to Jericho is Adam, or humanity, or each and every one of us.

What does it mean that he goes down from Jerusalem to Jericho? Jerusalem is the holy city of God, the place where God is served in worship and in public prayer. It is an impregnable stronghold, but it is located in a hill country, where the soil is stony and barren. On the other hand, Jericho lies below the sea level in the Jordan Valley, in an area that is very fertile and rich in vegetation.

Jerusalem signifies the Divine Commandments. These commandments, like the walls of a city, limit us and our desires, but also create a safe living space where we can live unharmed by sin.

A man being seduced by earthly pleasures, represented by Jericho, goes out from Jerusalem, the stronghold of Divine Commandments. Here, we might think of Adam and Eve.

But the robbers control this way. Who are the robbers?

When people abandon God and seek pleasures in other places, the way of bodily desires first appears to be full of joy. But as time passes, indulging in passions becomes a heavy burden on the soul; in place of pleasure it becomes endless slavery. A man realises that he has lost his freedom and has become a captive of his passions. A soul blinded by passions and wounded by sin becomes incapable of any spiritual activity.

Before God, such a man is half-dead. On the way, the man has been stripped of his raiment, deprived of the raiment of virtues and of the cover of God’s grace and protection.

In this approach to reading the parable, the robbers are demons who act through our own passions. The man wounded by robbers represents fallen humanity before the coming of Christ.

Who then were the Priest and Levite who saw the wounded man and passed by without providing him any help?

The Priest and the Levite are ministers of God. They represent the prophets and saints sent by God from the beginning of time.

Why then is it said that they passed by without helping that man?

Did they not fulfil the ministry of preaching?

Yes, they did. They came to that place, they stopped, they saw the man and they passed by. But the wounded man remained lying on the road. Moses came and passed away, Elijah came and passed away, other prophets came and passed away, but the illness of humanity remained without being healed.

Only God who has created us can recreate us.

This is how Isaiah speaks on the incurable disease of the humanity:

Why do you seek further beatings?
Why do you continue to rebel?
The whole head is sick,
and the whole heart faint.
From the sole of the foot even to the head,
there is no soundness in it,
but bruises and sores
and bleeding wounds;
they have not been drained, or bound up,
or softened with oil. (Isaiah 1: 5-6)

Who then is the Samaritan who goes down on the same road?

The Samaritans were the descendants of Israelites and the nations who migrated to Palestine under Assyrian rule after the destruction of Jerusalem. They lived to the south of Judea, between Judea and Galilee. Samaritans believed in the One God of Israel and kept the Law of Moses, but developed their own traditions. For the Jews, they were heretics, and so Jews kept their distance from Samaritans.

Why then does Christ represent himself as a Samaritan?

The Pharisees mockingly labelled Christ a Samaritan, saying, ‘Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?’ (John 8: 48).

Christ humbly attributes to himself the name given to him by his detractors.

In addition, Greek Orthodox hymns note a similarity between the phrases ‘from Samaria’ and ‘from Mary,’ for in Greek these phrases sound similar.

The Samaritan, moved with compassion, approaches the wounded man. He binds his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them. The oil symbolises mercy and the wine the true teaching of God. Then he brings the man to an inn where he can be taken care of.

The Gospel readings says that the Good Samaritan ‘put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.’ However, in traditional icons, Christ carries the man on his back. Christ in the incarnation takes on our human nature, our soul and body. That is why in the parable he ‘set him on his own beast,’ interpreted by the Early Fathers that Christ makes us members of his own body.

There is a similar image in the parable of the Lost Sheep (see Luke 15). The Good Shepherd left 99 sheep in the desert and went after the lost sheep, representing humanity. When he found the lost sheep, he put it on his shoulders, rejoicing.

The inn in the parable represents the Church. The innkeeper represents bishops and priests. Christ establishes his Church which, like an inn, accepts and provides shelter for all. The wounded man should stay here to be taken care of. The Samaritan has to leave, however. He takes out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper, saying: ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’

Christ indicates his second coming when he will come not to heal our infirmities, but to judge the living and the dead, and to reward each one according to his works.

The silver the Samaritan gives to the innkeeper is the divine grace Christ gives to the Church; it heals and saves souls through the sacraments. Bishops and priests, the ministers of the sacraments of the Church, are the distributors of God’s gifts. They offer to others what they have received: the sacraments and the teaching of Christ. Are they able to spend more? What can they add from themselves to the gift of the Divine Grace? Their labour, their cares, their zeal, which Christ shall recompense them on the day of the Last Judgment.

In this interpretation of the parable of the Good Samaritan, Christ offers himself as the prime example of mercy and compassion. Through his compassion, he takes on our sufferings and becomes the true neighbour of all fallen humanity.

This is a reading of this parable that connects with the assertion in the New Testament reading this morning (Colossians 1: 15-20) that God through Christ ‘has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son’ (Colossians 1: 13).

The Good Samaritan … a modern icon

Luke 10: 25-37

25 Καὶ ἰδοὺ νομικός τις ἀνέστη ἐκπειράζων αὐτὸν λέγων, Διδάσκαλε, τί ποιήσας ζωὴν αἰώνιον κληρονομήσω; 26 ὁ δὲ εἶπεν πρὸς αὐτόν, Ἐν τῷ νόμῳ τί γέγραπται; πῶς ἀναγινώσκεις; 27 ὁ δὲ ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν, Ἀγαπήσεις κύριον τὸν θεόν σου ἐξ ὅλης [τῆς] καρδίας σου καὶ ἐν ὅλῃ τῇ ψυχῇ σου καὶ ἐν ὅλῃ τῇ ἰσχύϊ σου καὶ ἐν ὅλῃ τῇ διανοίᾳ σου, καὶ τὸν πλησίον σου ὡς σεαυτόν. 28 εἶπεν δὲ αὐτῷ, Ὀρθῶς ἀπεκρίθης: τοῦτο ποίει καὶ ζήσῃ.

29 ὁ δὲ θέλων δικαιῶσαι ἑαυτὸν εἶπεν πρὸς τὸν Ἰησοῦν, Καὶ τίς ἐστίν μου πλησίον; 30 ὑπολαβὼν ὁ Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν, Ἄνθρωπός τις κατέβαινεν ἀπὸ Ἰερουσαλὴμ εἰς Ἰεριχὼ καὶ λῃσταῖς περιέπεσεν, οἳ καὶ ἐκδύσαντες αὐτὸν καὶ πληγὰς ἐπιθέντες ἀπῆλθον ἀφέντες ἡμιθανῆ. 31 κατὰ συγκυρίαν δὲ ἱερεύς τις κατέβαινεν ἐν τῇ ὁδῷ ἐκείνῃ, καὶ ἰδὼν αὐτὸν ἀντιπαρῆλθεν: 32 ὁμοίως δὲ καὶ Λευίτης [γενόμενος] κατὰ τὸν τόπον ἐλθὼν καὶ ἰδὼν ἀντιπαρῆλθεν. 33 Σαμαρίτης δέ τις ὁδεύων ἦλθεν κατ' αὐτὸν καὶ ἰδὼν ἐσπλαγχνίσθη, 34 καὶ προσελθὼν κατέδησεν τὰ τραύματα αὐτοῦ ἐπιχέων ἔλαιον καὶ οἶνον, ἐπιβιβάσας δὲ αὐτὸν ἐπὶ τὸ ἴδιον κτῆνος ἤγαγεν αὐτὸν εἰς πανδοχεῖον καὶ ἐπεμελήθη αὐτοῦ. 35 καὶ ἐπὶ τὴν αὔριον ἐκβαλὼν ἔδωκεν δύο δηνάρια τῷ πανδοχεῖ καὶ εἶπεν, Ἐπιμελήθητι αὐτοῦ, καὶ ὅ τι ἂν προσδαπανήσῃς ἐγὼ ἐν τῷ ἐπανέρχεσθαί με ἀποδώσω σοι. 36 τίς τούτων τῶν τριῶν πλησίον δοκεῖ σοι γεγονέναι τοῦ ἐμπεσόντος εἰς τοὺς λῃστάς; 37 ὁ δὲ εἶπεν, Ὁ ποιήσας τὸ ἔλεος μετ' αὐτοῦ. εἶπεν δὲ αὐτῷ ὁ Ἰησοῦς, Πορεύου καὶ σὺ ποίει ὁμοίως.

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 neighbour 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 neighbour?’ 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 neighbour 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 Good Samaritan … a stained glass window in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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