The Good Samaritan is now a famous story and in our western minds, it is a story about being nice. It's the kind of story that bothers us when we pass the man or woman on the side of the road who is asking for a handout. "Be a Good Samaritan" we say to ourselves and we find a few dollars to give to the addict on the street. Then we scratch our heads and wonder why that doesn't seem more rewarding. Then we subtly become annoyed and even slightly bitter that Jesus' little do-good story hasn't resulted in anything better than getting an addict a fix. Is the point of the Good Samaritan parable simply to say "be nice to poor people"? We hardly need a story about that. What is really going on here? The question being asked by the Lawyer was a standard rabbinic question about present justification. That is, how can you tell in the present who would be part of the renewed Israel of God when the day of renewal finally comes? Or to put it another way, who is to be considered good Jew?
This was not an innocent question. The Lawyer isn't asking the question because he doesn't know the standard answer (You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself). In fact, Jesus turns the question around to the Lawyer who gives this standard answer. But the Lawyer wants to press a particular point: "who is my neighbor?" This is because the Lawyer is trying to smoke Jesus out into articulating a position that could be construed as being disloyal to the Torah. Jesus had healed a Roman centurion's slave and declared that the Centurion had more faith than anyone he had found in Israel. Jesus had allowed a Jewish tax collector for the Romans, a traitor, to become part of His inner circle. And Jesus had received women into His movement who had only recently been prostitutes. Many people suspected that Jesus was playing loose with the Torah and was a dangerous liberal theologian. What was a stake here was the sacredness of the national identity. If Jesus could be shown to be disloyal to Torah, He could also be exposed as being a false teacher who "leads the people astray", as some of Jesus' opponents would later accuse Him. Jews had been stoned in the past for being found guilty of such charges. How would Jesus answer?Jesus' answers by telling a story. The story is of a Samaritan who behaves in a way that fulfills the Torah, even though his technical Torah observance may have been in question. The Samaritans had their own temple and the own Priesthood which was preferred to the Temple and Priesthood in Jerusalem. Thus the Torah purity of the Samaritans was seen as insufficient. The Samaritans were considered to be unjustified, that is, not in a position to inherit the life of the age to come when the fullness of the covenant came, the question at hand. The Samaritans were considered to be outsiders and enemies, not "neighbors". The Lawyer wants to call Jesus out as a teacher who leads the people astray but Jesus turns the question around so that the Lawyer himself acknowledges that the Samaritan in the story would have been the one justified and not the Levite or the priest. Thus Jesus' redemptive actions are justified by the accusing Lawyer and Jesus is found not guilty on the charge of Torah and National disloyalty. It seems that Jesus is far more concerned with the actions of human beings than he is with the intellectual adherence to creeds. What we believe is displayed by our actions more than by our words. And the children of Abraham are revealed by their actions as opposed to the technical adherence to purity codes, as important as those may be. And this Lawyer is forced to agree with Jesus. What about us? Do we judge ourselves to be in the right because we believe in the right systematic theology? What if a young Mormon were to pray for the sick in Jesus' name while the rest of us Christians with the right doctrine simply didn't think of doing that because we were thinking about building budgets and sound systems? Or maybe we were taking about how the Mormon's Jesus is not the right Jesus? (Something I consider to be a fact. The Mormon's don't teach about the real Jesus but about a fictional Jesus made up by misguided, manipulative but persuasive leaders). Which of those two might be found inheriting the life of the age to come? Which of those two might be seen as walking with Jesus? It is a question worth pondering, as well as others like it. The Good Samaritan is not a story about being nice. It is a story about what it means to be God's people and how to recognize a child of God.