Good Samaritans and Other Alleged Oxymorons

Proper 10C / Ordinary 15C / Pentecost +8
14, 2013

Amos 7:7-17

Psalm 82

Luke 10:25-27

When I was growing up in the Catholic church, the Parable of the Good Samaritan was one of my favorite Gospel readings.  It was always accompanied by my favorite childhood hymn: “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers / that you do unto me …”  And, of course, the sermon was always an admonition to be a Good Samaritan – help people out, don’t turn a cold shoulder, be the solution, love your neighbor.  It was very formative to my future as one of those dang liberal do-gooders.

"The Good Samaritan, " Vincent van Gogh

“Good Samaritan, ” Vincent van Gogh, 1890

Then I grew up, went to Seminary, and found out who exactly the Samaritans were.  It’s still one of my favorite parables, but now it has an entirely different meaning.

20th Century Samaritans, worshiping at Mt. Gerizim, National Geographic Magazine,1920

20th Century Samaritans, worshiping at Mt. Gerizim, National Geographic Magazine,1920

The Samaritans were (and still are today) an ethno-religious group that occupied the area around the former capital city of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, Samaria.  The area was technically a part of the inheritance of Israel, belonging to the tribes of Ephraim and Manassah.  However, when the Babylonians overran Israel in 722BCE, they took the cream of society with them back to Babylon as captives, leaving the commoners to eke out a living in a land completely devastated by the Babylonian army.  In the process of surviving, the Samaritans that were left behind intermarried with local pagan tribes, formed alliances with them and came up with a version of Judaism that was not approved of by their neighbors to the south, the Judeans.  The Samaritans believed that their version of the Torah (which differed significantly in translation) was the authentic version.  They also established Mount Gerizim as their own holy mountain, as opposed to Mount Zion in Jerusalem.

apostateSo not only were the Samaritans considered apostates, they also violated the purity laws of Judaism by intermarrying with pagans and foreigners.  They were considered outsiders: unclean, untrustworthy, and frankly despised.  They were looked at in much the same way that the Romany people (Gypsies) are regarded in Europe or that Muslims are often regarded in the United States today: worthy of grudging tolerance (at arm’s length) at best, all out persecution at worst.

OxymoronIn Luke’s Parable of the Good Samaritan, the entire notion of a “good Samaritan” would have been – for Luke’s First Century listeners – an outrageously bad joke.  A good Samaritan??  Isn’t that an oxymoron??  But Jesus was entirely serious.  He tells the parable in response to a two-fold question from a lawyer: First the lawyer asks “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:25) and then (in response to Jesus’ “love your neighbor as yourself”) “Who is my neighbor?” (vv.29).  The answer was: The Good Samaritan (yes, laugh if you will) is your neighbor.  You get to love him as you love yourself.  Now put that in your pipe and smoke it.  The parable was also a direct slap in the face at the ruling priests and Levites, who were portrayed as passing the injured man by on the other side of the road, presumably not wanting to risk ritual (or physical) contamination in their strict adherence to Mosaic law.

So what would an updated version of the Parable of the Good Samaritan look like?  Father Gary Pierse, C.Ss.R., provides us with one telling version:

“A student took the boat from Iligan to study in Cebu,” the preacher told the students. “Soon after the boat pulled out from the shore she found that her bag with her money and all of her belongings were gone.  Obviously, some one had stolen them and taken them ashore at the very moment they were leaving.  She felt totally abandoned and powerless and began to cry.  After some time a politician came along.  When he heard her story he said that what happened was a disgrace and he would advise the owner of the shipping line to place more security guards to protect the passengers.  A priest also heard about what happened and told her that it was indeed terrible how people now-a-days have no respect for honesty.  He promised to pray for her.The Good Muslim
All this time there was a Muslim chewing betle nut on a cot nearby.  After a while he came over and offered her some of his food.  Before they reached Cebu he said to her, “I know you will find it difficult to get to your relatives’ place on arrival in Cebu.  Please take this P100.00 to use for your fare when you get there.”  Then the preacher asked the students, “Which of these three – the politician, the priest or the Muslim – was a Christian?”  To this the students shouted back, “The Muslim, of course.”  Then they seemed shocked at what they themselves had said.  (From “The Despised Ones are the Lord”.)

The Parable of the Good Samaritan, then, is much more than a simple admonition to do good deeds when turning the other way would be more convenient.  It is a call to the church to come to know all people – regardless of their ethno-religious background – by the “content of their character” (Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) and to love them as ourselves.   As Jesus said, “Go and do likewise,”  (vv.37).

One thought on “Good Samaritans and Other Alleged Oxymorons

  1. Pingback: Should Women Ditch the Parish Hall Kitchen? | Under the Rose

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