By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The Parable of the Good Samaritan has become one of the most famous stories among all of Jesus’ teachings. Indeed, many people now only know the name of the Samaritans because of Jesus’ story from the Gospel of Luke; the parable even inspired the name of a charity in the United Kingdom, aimed at providing emotional support to anyone in emotional distress. This is known simply as the Samaritans.
But is the parable more than a story about loving our neighbour and showing compassion to those in need? Is it also an allegory for Christianity as a whole? Let’s take a closer look at the Parable of the Good Samaritan and explore why Jesus chose this particular religious group to illustrate his moral point. But before we offer an analysis of the story, here’s a summary of what the Gospel of Luke says.
The Good Samaritan: summary
The parable of the Good Samaritan is found in Luke 10:25-37. Jesus is preaching to his disciples, when a lawyer stands up and asks Jesus what he needs to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus responds by asking the man what the Bible says. The man replies that it states that he will love God with all of his heart and soul, and love his neighbour as he loves himself.
Jesus tells him this is the right answer. But the man asks: who counts as my ‘neighbour’?
Jesus tells his listeners that a man was once travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho when he was attacked by thieves who stole his clothes and wounded him, leaving him half-dead. A Jewish priest came past, but although he saw the man, he passed by on the other side of the road.
Then a Levite, a member of a different tribe, came past and looked at the poor man, but he, too, walked on by on the other side of the road.
But then a Samaritan passed, and when he saw the man in need of help, he had compassion and he went to him and bound up his wounds with oil and wine. Then he put the man on his horse and led him to an inn, where he looked after the man.
The next day, the Samaritan has to leave the inn, but he gives the innkeeper two pence and asks him to look after the wounded man. He also says that if the innkeeper needs to spend more money on looking after the man, the Samaritan will repay him when he returns.
Jesus asks his listeners: which of these was the true neighbour of the man who was attacked by thieves? The answer is the man who showed mercy and helped him in his time of need. He instructs his followers to follow the Samaritan’s example and help any person, regardless of their tribe or ethnic group, if they need a stranger’s help.
The Good Samaritan: analysis
The Gospel of St. John (4:8) tells us that ‘the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans’: in Jesus’ time, Jews and Samaritans hated each other, not least because Samaritans had recently desecrated the Jewish Temple with human bones during Passover: an act guaranteed to ignite existing religious tensions even further. Indeed, even elsewhere in the Gospel of Luke, in the previous chapter to the one containing the parable of the Good Samaritan, we are told that Jesus received a hostile reception in Samaria (9:51-56).
But this evidence elsewhere in the Gospels, of the hatred existing between the two groups, only helps to make Jesus’ point for him. Given the historical enmity between the two groups, the moral of the Parable of the Good Samaritan becomes even clearer: namely, that a member of a despised ‘other’ group can still behave in a morally superior way to a member of one’s own group.
The Jewish priest sees a fellow Jew in need of help, but passes by, despite belonging to the same religion (and, indeed, being a religious leader for Judaism!).
By contrast, a Samaritan, who has been taught to see Jews as the sworn enemy, stops and helps the stranger in his time of great need, almost certainly saving his life in the process.
It’s easy to overlook, now such a moral teaching has become so widespread as to be regarded as a platitude, just how radical such a message probably was 2,000 years ago. Tribal belonging and group identity were the norm. And the lawyer’s question – whom should he regard as his ‘neighbour’? – was not as facile a question then as it is now.
It was normal to view one’s neighbour as a member of one’s own ethnic or religious group, but everyone else as a stranger or outsider. Jesus’ radical message was to tell his followers that every human being is our neighbour, regardless of which race they belong to or what religious beliefs they have.
However, it is worth pointing out that the Samaritans were, in the broadest possible sense, children of Israel too: they had descended from the Israelites and shared many religious beliefs with Jews. ‘Samaritanism’, the religion they practised, was derived from the Pentateuch, so that Jews and Samaritans were a bit like two rival sects in Christianity.
Still, one need only bear in mind the bloody religious conflict between Protestants and Catholics in sixteenth-century Europe to see how two broadly similar religions can hate each other all the more for their relatively minor differences of opinion.
Indeed, the chief bone of contention between Jews and Samaritans was really the location of the Chosen Place to worship God: the Jews believed this was the Temple Mount of Moriah in Jerusalem, while the Samaritans named it as Mount Gerizim.
But is Jesus’ parable more than just a moral story? Is it an allegory for Christianity as a whole? Origen, the third-century Christian theologian, certainly thought so, identifying the man who is attacked as Adam, the first of all men; Jerusalem is Paradise or the Garden of Eden, while Jericho represents the world.
Adam, of course, was cast out of Paradise and into the world following the Fall of Man. The thieves who attack the man represent hostile forces in the world. The priest who passes by the man in need represents the Law, while the Levite represents the prophets; but the Samaritan represents Christ. The inn to which the Samaritan takes the wounded man represents the Church, while the fact that the Samaritan promises he will return represents Jesus’ later promised Second Coming.