The word ‘Samaritan’ has drifted in meaning a bit since Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan. We have charitable groups such as ‘The Samaritans” who run a suicide help line, and do fine work. They’re also contributing to the idea that a Samaritan is a person who goes about doing good, and that we all ought to emulate the Samaritan. But that was not what the story in the Bible actually says. Jesus told this story in response to a question. The question was ‘who is my neighbour?’ and that came up because He had been talking about loving your neighbour. So the question really was ‘who, precisely, should I love? What subset of all the people there are should I confine my love to?’ And the story was given as the answer.
It is an odd answer. In case you’re unfamiliar with it there was a man traveling on a deserted road. He was attacked by thieves, beaten and left for dead. A couple of respectable people passed him by and didn’t help. Then a Samaritan came by, helped the man, applied some first aid, and took him to a hotel and paid for him to stay there while he recovered. We might suppose he did this at no small risk to himself, there were bad guys in the area that might have attacked him too, and he spent good money on a stranger.
So his generosity is the lesson? Well, yes, of course, but not quite.
The story is always called The Good Samaritan. This is because to the people Jesus told the story to Samaritans were always the bad guys. There is long history there, but the Samaritans were Israelites who had gone over to the other side. It happened about the time Solomon died (c. 931BC). The northern part of Israel declared independence and became Samaria. That meant they did not have access to the temple in Jerusalem, so they had to do their own thing both politically and religiously. By the time Jesus was telling this story Samaritans were understood to be heretics and traitors. They were in the country next door to Judea, but they sure weren’t neighbours.
And here’s Jesus saying they were.
Imagine you’re a Christian in 15th century Spain and Jesus tells this story then. Who would he use? Jews, of course. Same in Germany in 1930. The second half of the last century West? Communists. Who would he use today? Who is beyond our love?
He’d use those guys.