The Good Samaritan
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
Good Samaritans on Parade
No doubt you've met a Good Samaritan in your day. They're the ones who rescue people from burning homes, stop for a stray kitten, or pull a child out of an overturned vehicle. No doubt these people are good—but are they Samaritans?
We owe the concept of the Good Samaritan to Luke and to Luke alone. Sure, he never uses the exact words "good Samaritan," that's what we nowadays people like to call the story that is found exclusively in his gospel (10:30-36).
Quick recap: a guy is traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he's brutally waylaid by a gang of thieves. As he lies dying along the side of the road, two Jews past by him on the other side and intentionally ignore him. Then a Samaritan comes by and stops for the injured guy. He dresses his wounds, transports him on his donkey, and pays for a place for him to recover.
Jesus tells this story in response to a lawyer who quizzes Jesus about what he has to do to live forever. His answer: love both God and neighbor (10:25-28). The lawyer tacks on a snotty question: "And who is my neighbor?" (10:29). The story of the good Samaritan is Jesus's answer. Everyone, snotty lawyer—everyone is your neighbor.
The Tensions of Yore
But the story is much more than a little ditty about a guy who does something nice even though he doesn't have to do anything at all. And the frequent news articles about so-called "Good Samaritans" far too often totally miss the story's more profound point.
To really understand what's going on, we first need to understand that the relationship between the Jews and Samaritans was not good. In fact, it was terrible: they were hostile toward and always suspicious of one another (for a typical example, see 9:52-55). The origin of these tensions is a matter of debate, but they had long been in the making by the time of Jesus.
Samaritans were both religiously and ethnically distinct from Jews. They recognized the authority of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible alone and considered Mt. Gerizim in Samaria to be their sacred center, not Jerusalem.
So when Jesus tells the story of a Samaritan who gives aid to the injured person, while two Jews pass right by the guy, he's challenging people to rethink deeply ingrained ethnic hostilities. He's telling us to love everyone, even the people we consider "other."
Searching For Good Samaritans Today
In contemporary terms, we have a few thoughts on who might be Samaritan worthy:
- In the 21st century, a Palestinian who's bringing aid to an Israeli (or vice versa).
- In mid-20th century America, a white person nursing a black person (or vice versa). Think Skeeter Phelan of Kathryn Stockett's The Help.
- In early 1900s India, someone caring for one of the "untouchables."
In short, it's the Martin Luther King, Jr.s, Gandhis, and Skeeters of the world who deserve to be called Good Samaritans. The guy who rescues a cat or a baby is good, absolutely, but he's not quite a Samaritan.