What's Good about the Good Samaritan

A scholar explains that the Samaritans were actually a hated ethnic class

BY: Robert W. Funk

 
Excerpted from "Honest to Jesus: Jesus for a New Millennium" with permission of Harper SanFrancisco

The Samaritan works as a parable because it is loaded with heavily freighted literal, social, political, and religious terms. The Jericho road was a lonely and dangerous road. The priests were powerful upper-class authorities governing the temple cult, and the levites were the priests' associates, providing music, incense, sacred bread, temple curtains and adornments, and administration for a national business that included "kosher meatpacking" and banking. The importance of the cult for the economic well-being of Jerusalem cannot be overestimated. Herds and flocks were in constant demand for sacrificial offerings, and the influx of pilgrims at festival times required money changing and banking. Priests and levites were known to have quarters in the Jordan valley near Jericho where they retreated from the beehive of activity surrounding the temple on ordinary days, to say nothings of feasts. The opulence of the priestly class was an irritant for the ordinary Judean, in spite of his or her devotion to the law and the sacrificial system.

The initial face of the story invites the reader to take it in its everyday and literal sense. In other words, the narrative gains the assent of the listener by affirming everyday reality, the world as everyone knows it. The story thus rests on a stock of images that are current, concrete, and cogent.

The everyday and literal sense of the narrative, however, is also laced with barbs. What would have incensed the listeners is the brusque treatment of the priests and levites and the complimentary picture of the Samaritan. Indeed, it is the Samaritan who turns the story into a parable.

The Samaritans were a bastard race by Judean standards. They were presumably descended from Israelites who had remained behind when the Assyrians deported the leading families of the region following their conquest in 722 B.C.E. The Israelites remaining behind intermarried with foreign settlers brought in by the Assyrians in the years that followed, although the Samaritans-the new ethnic group-continued to regard the Torah as their law. They erected their own temple on Mount Gerizim, just outside Shechem (modern Nablus), at a time when there was no temple in Jerusalem. John Hyracanus, a Maccabean ruler, destroyed that temple during his reign (134-104 B.C.E.) and so raised enmity between the Judeans and Samaritans to a new level of intensity. In Luke, Jesus is made to refer to the grateful Samaritan leper as an alien, a foreigner. To call someone a Samaritan was a term of insult; in John, Jesus is called a Samaritan and a madman. The two epithets were taken as synonymous. Samaritans were regarded by Judeans as gentiles, as outside the scope of God's chosen people, in spite of the fact that Samaritans claimed Moses as their teacher and ancestor. In fact, the Samaritans claimed they were descended from the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Galilean pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem for festivals often went through Samaria, which separated Galilee on the north from Judea to the south. The only way to avoid transit through this hostile territory was to cross the Jordan south of the Sea of Galilee, journey south through Transjordan or Perea, and then recross the Jordan at Jericho, to ascend to Jerusalem along the Jericho road. (Consult the map on p.164 for a layout of the land.)

Josephus records one incident that illustrates the enmity between the two groups. In 52 C.E., a group of Galilean pilgrims was attacked and some of them were killed after they crossed the border into Samaria at the village of Jenin. In retaliation, Judean guerrilla forces from Jerusalem raided some Samaritan villages, slaughtered the inhabitants, and burned the towns. The Romans intervened; they crucified or beheaded numerous notables on both sides of the conflict and delivered one of their own tribunes, who had bungled his job, over to the people of Jerusalem. They then dragged him through the streets behind a horse and had him beheaded. It is thus understandable that the labels "Samaritan" and "Judean" stood in considerable tension with each other.

Those who listened to Jesus tell the parable of the Samaritan, as good Judeans, would have expected the third person along that road to be a Judean. The hero of the story would naturally have been one of them. How shocked they must have been when that figure turned out to be a hated Samaritan. At the mention of the Samaritan, Judean listeners would have bristled, rejected the plot, and quit the story, in spite of their initial inclination to give it as sympathetic hearing.

Those who refused the narrative were those who identified themselves literally with participants in the story. Some Judeans, priests, and levites took themselves literally and so were offended. There were probably no Samaritans present. Had thee been, they, too, would have suffered indignity at the thought of giving such profuse assistance to a Judean.

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