When Jesus told an inquirer that if he would ‘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’ he would have eternal life, the inquirer asked: ‘And who is my neighbor?’
This sets the occasion for Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan which is so familiar to all of us. It is so familiar that most of us can do a pretty good job of repeating the story in detail. Yet I think there is an aspect to the parable most of us completely miss. I missed it myself for 30 years until I read a book that pointed me to this insight.*
The Story of the Good Samaritan
The parable of the Good Samaritan, which is Jesus’ answer to the inquirer’s question, ‘And who is my neighbor?’, is found in Luke 10. Here is the story in its entirety.
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.’
Then Jesus asks the inquirer,
Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?
Of course, the inquirer answers that it is ‘The one who had mercy on him.’ (the Samaritan). So far, the story is very familiar to us; we have heard it perhaps hundreds of times. And the lesson we draw from it is that those whom we should love as our neighbors include people we would not ordinarily consider our neighbor—people outside our personal tribe. For, as we all know, the Jews did not hold Samaritans in high regard.
This is a good lesson on loving others. But there is a twist here I think we should also consider.
The Significant Hidden Twist to the Story
The story of the Good Samaritan addresses the question, ‘Who is the neighbor I should love as myself?’ In other words, ‘Who lies within the scope of those I should love?’ And the answer we usually derive from the story is that we should love the Samaritan, a person that Jews ordinarily despised; Samaritans were mixed descendants of Israelites who held substandard, corrupted, even heretical beliefs.
When the Jews returned from the Babylonian captivity, the Samaritans (remnants of the Northern Kingdom) offered to help them rebuild, but they were rebuffed as impure heretics. The rejection of the Samaritans by the Jews, and the resentment of the Jews by the Samaritans, continued to Jesus’ time.
So it seems we should love even those whom we feel are beneath us; those who are mistaken in their beliefs and impure in the practices. This is a good answer, but it is not what the story says.
The Samaritan does not represent one who reaches down to show love to those beneath him. The Samaritan shows empathy, compassion, and care to a person who normally would look down on him and despise him; in fact this Jew was an oppressor. Yet the Samaritan, with a heart of love, showed empathy, compassion, and care for his very oppressor—apparently because he saw him simply as a human in distress and need.
Note that the question is ‘Who is the neighbor I should love?’ But in the story, the ‘neighbor’ is not the one who received love but the one who demonstrated love. It turns the question completely around.
I don’t know that Jesus intended this secondary message, but the story indicates that those we must love as we love as ourselves include those who oppress us—even our enemies. It is not just a case of the privileged showing love for the lower masses, but a case of showing love to those who look down on us, judge us, and disparage us—those who might even be the very people who dis-empower us.
So love does not just flow downward; love flows upward. In other places Jesus actually says we must love even our enemies, and at points he specifically has in mind the occupying forces of the Roman Empire. If Jesus expected the Jews to love the Romans as they loved themselves, then there can be no limit, nor exclusion, for those we should love.
Let us consider again the inquirer’s question, ‘Who is my neighbor?’ or ‘Who lies within the scope of those I should love as myself?’ We might rephrase this last question as ‘Who lies outside the scope of those I should love as myself?’
The answer is no one. There is no one for whom we should not show love as the Samaritan did—in terms of genuine empathy, compassion, and care. There are no exceptions. Let us dwell on this and consider how it applies to our individual lives.
* I no longer recall the author or title of this book. If you think you recognize it please let me know.
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