This coming Sunday our gospel is the well known story called the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). In yesterday’s post Jesus’ dialogue with the scholar goes well. Jesus accepts the scholar’s answer: “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.” But there are more questions: But because he wished to justify himself… And who is my neighbor?” One wonders why the scholar did not “quit while he was ahead?”
It is almost as though the scholar’s first question was entrée to the real question about who is (or is not) neighbor. In Leviticus 19 the word root neighbor (-ger) includes fellow Israelites, but also strangers and travelers. While that Semitic custom remained present in Jesus’ time, the Pharisees also professed extensive limitations on interactions with non-Jews. (m. Abodah Zarah 1:1, 2:1-2, 4:9-10) To “justify himself” the scholar raises the disputed question about the identity of the neighbor. When the scholar added the Leviticus text, one may well speculate that the scholar’s understanding was that “neighbor” included only one’s fellow Israelite.
Jesus’ response is the parable of the Good Samaritan. As a parable, the story of the Good Samaritan is intended to challenge a wrong but accepted pattern of thought so that values of the kingdom can break into a closed system of living. “With Jesus, the device of parabolic utterance is used not to explain things to people’s satisfaction but to call attention to the unsatisfactoriness of all their previous explanations and understandings.” (Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of the Kingdom, 6)
The unsatisfactoriness of the parable lies with those one would expect to fulfill the two great commandments. To appreciate the power of this parable, the listing of priest, Levite, and Samaritan may be significant. Scholars have shown that forms of the trilogy “priests, Levites, and people” are common in postexilic texts (1 Chron. 28:21; 2 Chron. 34:30; 35:2–3, 8, 18; Ezra 2:70; 7:7, 13; 8:15; 9:1; 10:5, 18–22, 25–43; Neh. 7:73; 8:13; 9:38; 10:28; 11:3, 20; cf. 1QS II, 11, 19–21), and this is what first-century Jews would have expected. The appearance of the Samaritan instead of a lay Judean is therefore striking, and this directly challenges the Jewish interpretation of the “neighbor.”