Most people have heard the story of the Good Samaritan. It may be the most widely known of all of Jesus’ parables. What you may not know is that the story was particularly and even purposely offensive to the religious leaders of Jesus’ day. The “experts in the law,” the “priests,” and the “Levites” that Jesus referred to in the text would have understood that Jesus had picked on them intentionally. And they would have been even more deeply offended by his choice of a Samaritan as the hero of the story, for the Samaritans were among the “most despised” people of their day.
So as Jesus told the story, the religious leaders must have squirmed and flinched as their anger grew.
It’s worth another reading—before we retell it in terms that might make us squirm today. Here is Luke 10:25-37 in the NIV:
On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
He answered, “‘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, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
That is the familiar story of Jesus’ day, but since most of us do not identify as priests or Levites, nor do we understand their hatred of Samaritans, it doesn’t make us squirm today as it did them. To get the same response as the original, I offer this simple retelling. If it makes you squirm—or if it makes you mad—then you can understand the intent of the original more clearly:
An expert in theology and ethics asked Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what does it mean to be a Christian?”
“Haven’t you read the Bible?” he replied. “What does it say?”
He answered, “The heart of the Bible’s teaching is found in ‘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, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
“That is correct,” Jesus replied. “Do these things if you want to follow me.”
But the expert wanted to feel good about himself, “And who is my neighbor?”
In reply Jesus said: “A man was traveling from Washington D.C. to Baltimore, when he was attacked by robbers. They stole his car and his wallet, beat him horribly, shot him, and left him on the side of the road, near death.
A conservative evangelical leader happened to be on the same highway and saw the man. He stopped, but with no wallet, he could not verify the man’s citizenship, so he left him there on the side of the road and went on his way.
So too, a progressive leader of a mainline denomination came to the place. He stopped, saw the man, tweeted a passionate cry for gun control, and went on his way, leaving the man on the side of the road.
But an Arab on a student visa saw the man and stopped. He took pity on him. He used his belt for a tourniquet and his shirt for a bandage to stop the bleeding, put him in his car, and drove him to the nearest emergency room. With no wallet, the hospital could not verify the man’s identity or insurance status, so the Arab paid $500 of his own money and asked to be called later that day with more details.
Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
The expert in the law replied, “Obviously, the last of the three—the one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “You have your answer. Go and do likewise if you want to be my follower.”
Jesus’ teaching was incredibly simple even if it was offensive. We are called to love people—all people. It doesn’t matter where their citizenship lies. It doesn’t matter what political party they belong to. It doesn’t matter what skin color they possess or what language they speak or where they are from. It doesn’t even matter if they share my faith.
All men are my neighbors.
Jesus made that clear. And he was perfectly willing to upset some people in order to make it abundantly clear.
“Loving my neighbor as myself” means loving all people.
That’s what Jesus taught. I hope I made that as abundantly clear as Jesus did.