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 freightedliteral, social, political, and religious terms. The Jericho road was alonely and dangerous road. The priests were powerful upper-classauthorities governing the temple cult, and the levites were the priests'associates, providing music, incense, sacred bread, temple curtains andadornments, and administration for a national business that included "koshermeatpacking" and banking. The importance of the cult for the economicwell-being of Jerusalem cannot be overestimated. Herds and flocks were inconstant demand for sacrificial offerings, and the influx of pilgrims atfestival times required money changing and banking. Priests and levites wereknown to have quarters in the Jordan valley near Jericho where theyretreated from the beehive of activity surrounding the temple on ordinarydays, to say nothings of feasts. The opulence of the priestly class was anirritant for the ordinary Judean, in spite of his or her devotion to the lawand the sacrificial system.

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

The everyday and literal sense of the narrative, however, is also laced withbarbs. What would have incensed the listeners is the brusque treatment ofthe 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 werepresumably descended from Israelites who had remained behind when theAssyrians deported the leading families of the region following theirconquest in 722 B.C.E. The Israelites remaining behind intermarried withforeign settlers brought in by the Assyrians in the years that followed,although the Samaritans-the new ethnic group-continued to regard the Torah astheir law. They erected their own temple on Mount Gerizim, just outsideShechem (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 toa new level of intensity. In Luke, Jesus is made to refer to the gratefulSamaritan leper as an alien, a foreigner. To call someone a Samaritan was aterm of insult; in John, Jesus is called a Samaritan and a madman. The twoepithets were taken as synonymous. Samaritans were regarded by Judeans asgentiles, as outside the scope of God's chosen people, in spite of the factthat Samaritans claimed Moses as their teacher and ancestor. In fact, theSamaritans claimed they were descended from the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac,and Jacob.

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

Josephus records one incident that illustrates the enmity between the twogroups. In 52 C.E., a group of Galilean pilgrims was attacked and some ofthem were killed after they crossed the border into Samaria at the villageof Jenin. In retaliation, Judean guerrilla forces from Jerusalem raidedsome Samaritan villages, slaughtered the inhabitants, and burned the towns.The Romans intervened; they crucified or beheaded numerous notables on bothsides of the conflict and delivered one of their own tribunes, who hadbungled his job, over to the people of Jerusalem. They then dragged himthrough the streets behind a horse and had him beheaded. It is thusunderstandable that the labels "Samaritan" and "Judean" stood inconsiderable tension with each other.

Those who listened to Jesus tell the parable of the Samaritan, as goodJudeans, would have expected the third person along that road to be aJudean. The hero of the story would naturally have been one of them. Howshocked they must have been when that figure turned out to be a hatedSamaritan.

At the mention of the Samaritan, Judean listeners would havebristled, rejected the plot, and quit the story, in spite of their initialinclination to give it as sympathetic hearing.

Those who refused the narrative were those who identified themselvesliterally with participants in the story. Some Judeans, priests, andlevites took themselves literally and so were offended. There were probablyno Samaritans present. Had thee been, they, too, would have sufferedindignity at the thought of giving such profuse assistance to a Judean.