By Jerrod Hugenot
The parable itself is quite unique. In fact, among all of the parables Jesus told as recorded in the four Gospels, this particular parable is one of only four that those who study such things classify as “exemplary stories.” In telling them — the parable of the good Samaritan, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus the poor beggar, the parable of the rich fool, and the parable of two men at prayer (the pious Pharisee and the humble tax collector) — Jesus aims to show his listeners an example of the right (and the wrong) sort of behavior.
What does it mean to be a good example, if that good example is held up to be a beggar, a person who won’t live out life like the vain wealthy fool, the tax collector (publican) who humbly prays, and finally — and most scandalously — being like the “good” Samaritan?
Ask any first-century Israelite listening to these parables, and while they might like the stories that make the “little guy” come out on top, they sure wouldn’t like the punch line to this particular tale. “You’re talking about a ‘good’ Samaritan?” the first-century listener asks. “What about Samaritans is remotely ‘good?’”
In contemporary theology, this parable would be cited as an example of how people of faith deal with “the other.” The term “other” is used for that person or group of persons one cannot see fitting into the worldview or theology one believes. How do religious people handle “those people?”
Who is today’s good Samaritan, if by “good Samaritan” you mean a person or group of persons who raises the same exclusive reaction among us as the original did to those listening to Jesus spin this parable? Who unsettles us as a person that we cannot readily name as “good?” Who is the Samaritan today — “the good Muslim,” “the good gay or lesbian,” the “good illegal immigrant” or “the good welfare mother?”
One has to be careful with this story. The parable asks questions of us that we really don’t want to examine! What do good Christians make of those we might not readily identify as likewise “good?” The Jew/Samaritan divide reflects truths about human nature and religious worldviews alike.
In the teachings of Jesus, the gospel envisions far more inclusion in the Kingdom/Reign of God than we see modeled in the pews of many churches. What sort of example do we set?
If you look down, you see the man left for dead in the ditch. What do you do? Do you stop or try not to get involved? If you find yourself in the ditch at some point and someone reaches out to you in compassion, do you accept it based on your beliefs about the person trying to help you back onto your feet?
The parable claims three people pass by. Each of them (Priest, Levite and Samaritan) sees the man left for dead in the ditch. Only one of them is said to have stopped, moved by compassion. The one who stopped was the least likely person you’d want to see “saving the day.”
Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”
Hmm…. What sort of example is that?