Perhaps one of the most famous parables of Jesus, besides the parable of the prodigal son, is the parable of the Good Samaritan. Even non-believers who have never picked up a Bible are familiar with the term Good Samaritan as someone who helps another in a time of need. We have organizations honoring the famous Samaritan (such as Samaritan’s Purse) and laws as well (such as the Good Samaritan law). The most obvious meaning is that all of us should be willing to lend a hand when we see someone in a desperate situation.
As much as I love the Sunday School version of the story, this was not the primary meaning to the original hearers of the parable. What would have shocked the first century Jewish audience the most was the fact that the hero of the story was, in fact, a Samaritan. What seems to us like a simple help your neighbor story was acutally a clever literary device by Jesus to condemn one of the most prevalent sins of his era (and our own I might add). The sin Jesus was referring to was, of course, racism. Jews simply didn’t like Samaritans because they were half-breeds, racially impure.
Given that the majority of my readers are Christians with a similar background as myself, I am reasonably sure that what I have written so far should come as no surprise. All of us have heard sermons on racism at one time or another and, thank God, most of us realize that racism is a sin. What may come as a surprise is that the parable of the Good Samaritan was not only a slight against racism but also against another sin that I feel is far less talked about, and that is the sin of religious bigotry.
The Samaritans were not just racial half-breeds between ethnic Jews and Assyrians. They were also apostates from Judiasm. They believed in the God of Abraham and yet, they mixed their belief in God with pagan idolatry. The Samaritans were the descendants of the 10 tribes of Israel who broke away from Judah and Benjamin and set up their own version of temple worship complete with their own priesthood-something they had no authority to do under the Law of Moses. Not only that, when they were finally taken captive by the Assyrians, they interbred with them and adopted some of their religious beliefs as well.
In this remarkable parable, by making a hero out of a despised Samaritan, Jesus cut to the heart of religious pride to teach us that individuals should be judged on the content of their character, not on their race or, yes, even their religion.
If Jesus were giving this story today on a pulpit in one of the thousands of mega-churches that dot the American landscape, I wonder if He would tell the story of the Good Muslim? Or…dare I say….the good Palestinian? Furthermore, I wonder what kind of reaction He would get if He did.