Jesus always had an interesting way of getting to the heart of a problem or issue. In our gospel today, a lawyer tried to set up a trap for Jesus and wanted to get into a philosophical discussion with him about eternal life. When the topic shifted to loving God and our neighbour, the lawyer wanted to get into a discussion about neighbourliness, but Jesus quickly replied with the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus’ encounter with the lawyer started out as a theological controversy, but ended up with the practical helping of a person in need by the roadside. It starts out with a question about eternal life and ends up with payment of room and board at a hotel.
Jesus was concerned about putting philosophy and theology into action. He was concerned about the deeds themselves. As Christians and a church, it is easy to get so caught up in discussing and analyzing the needs around us that we fail to do what we can to meet them. It is so easy for us to become like that lawyer or like that priest and Levite in the parable who passed by on the other side.
The lawyer, the priest and the Levite had adopted a religion of convenience—they had clearly defined the minimal requirements necessary to fulfill their religion. They knew the limits within which to live. These minimal requirements and limits were done with ease—they were not too demanding—they did not have to go out of their way to fulfill them. So minimal and limited were the requirements that their religion had grown uncompassionate toward people in need, like the beaten, robbed man laying by the roadside. You see, they believed that to touch a dead person’s body was to become sinful and unclean. That’s why they were not about to hang around and find out if this man was dead or still alive. They took him for dead, and by doing so, justified with themselves that they had done the right thing by passing by on the other side. In their minds and hearts, they were fulfilling their religion by not getting involved, by not being compassionate toward this man in need. Moreover, given the number of robbers on the byways and highways at that time—and the fact that the man laying on the road had himself been robbed; they may well have believed it was best to be cautious and protect themselves, their families, and those whom they were serving in the community by keeping their distance, remaining alive, and continuing on to their destinations. I’m sure that most of us can empathize with them on that—who wants to place one’s life at risk when one has divinely binding duties towards one’s spouse, children, and community? Is it not the most loving thing to do in a situation like that to protect and preserve one’s life?
However, this is not the response that Jesus wants to emulate. Over against this response, Jesus tells of a beautiful, hope-filled response to the robbed, beaten man in need. The Samaritan turned out to be the truly compassionate, good religious man in a rather surprising, yet clear way.
How does the Samaritan embody being a neighbor? First, he approaches the wounded man. He enters into the wounded man’s situation. The word “compassion,” helps us understand the quality of the “approach.” To have compassion, etymologically, means “to suffer with.” It means to suffer alongside, to enter fully into the situation of the other, sharing whatever comes. The initiative (and this is very important) is not taken to fulfill some formal religious obligation but to act out of care and concern for the other. The Greek word referring to “compassion” in verse 32, (Gustavo) Gutierrez notes, can be translated, “because his heart was melting.” The second thing Gutierrez highlights is that by approaching the wounded man, the Samaritan made him his neighbor. Being a neighbor makes the one who is approached into a neighbor also. In this sense, Gutierrez can affirm, “The neighbor is not (the one) whom I find in my path but rather (the one) in whose path I place myself, (the one) whom I approach and actively seek” –(G. Gutierrez, The Power of the Poor in History, p. 198).1
By making the Samaritan the hero of this parable, Jesus is giving the fellow Jews of his day a tremendous challenge. You see, at this time in history, the Jews and Samaritans were bitter enemies. Both hated and despised the other. The Jews regarded Samaritans quite literally as second or third class citizens. Samaritans were unclean people because they no longer had pure Jewish blood flowing through their veins. In modern-day terms, it would be like a person with A.I.D.S. helping one of us if we were in need like that man along the roadside. By making the Samaritan the hero of this parable, Jesus is saying to his fellow Jews, and to us: “Everyone is at one time or another your neighbour because everyone—at one time or another—has needs, even your worst enemy. Show compassion and feel free to minister to anyone in need.” Now that is truly a powerful, revolutionary, earthshaking, yet very common sense message! It is even more so when we discover how the Samaritan did minister to the man in need. He did everything he possibly could for the man. He utilized every means he had at his disposal to practice compassion. He did it freely and lovingly without any concern whatsoever about minimal requirements and limits. In so doing, the Samaritan discovered a joy and peace, a satisfaction and contentment which he would never have known if he too had passed by on the other side.
The parable of the Good Samaritan is really a parable about each and every one of us. All of us need to ask the question: “Who am I in this parable? Who in this parable do I identify with the most?” Are you like the robbed, beaten man lying half dead on the roadside? Are you the priest or the Levite walking by on the other side and cautious to risk for fear of endangering your own life, as well as that of your family and community? Are you the Good Samaritan or perhaps the innkeeper? Whoever you are; whoever you identify with the most in this parable; it is clear that there are no limits as to who is our neighbour; we are all brothers and sisters; all God’s own people. It is clear also that we are all in need of God and Jesus in our lives—to help us, to heal us, to love care for and accept us, to give us life now and into all of eternity. Because Christ is our Good Samaritan, we are able to go out into the world and “Go and do likewise.”