The Good Samaritan and The Value of Life (Part 3)

But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, “Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.” (Luke 10:33–35)

Previously we discussed some possible underlying reasons that both the Kohen and the Levite might have passed over the man left half dead in Yeshua’s parable. First, we looked at some halachic (legal) issues which seemed to justify their doing so. But then we followed that up with the Talmudic obligation to not pass over a possible corpse, based on a deeper look at the biblical prohibition against corpse contamination for the Kohen in Leviticus 21. Now we will turn to examine Yeshua’s choice of hero in this parable.

In Yeshua’s day, his audience would have understood the progression of Yeshua’s characters going from Kohen to Levite, and would have anticipated the last character to most likely be a common Israelite. However, Yeshua, the master story teller, puts an unexpected twist into the storyline by removing the anticipated character of the Israelite and replaces him with a Samaritan, one of the most unlikely candidates they could have imagined.

Who were the Samaritans? Well, their history is not completely clear, but we do know a few things about them. First, they are most likely a people of Jewish descent, but who intermingled with many other people groups through the Assyrian conquest of Samaria and became an ethnicity of their own. In 2 Kings we read that after Assyria conquered Samaria, the king of Assyria deported a large percentage of the population, but allowed a few of the Israelites to remain in the land. He replaced them with people from “Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath and Sepharvaim” (2 Kings 17:24). 

According to this account, after the foreigners had been transplanted into Samaria the Lord sent lions among the people, because they did not fear Him. The new residents sent word back to Assyria that they needed to know how to appease the God of this land, so they were sent one of the Kohanim (priests) that were taken captive in order to teach them how the God of Israel was to be worshipped. However, from the biblical account, their worship of the God of Israel was not pure, but combined with the worship of pagan gods.

Evidently, a type of monotheism, based on a variation of Judaism, developed among the Samaritans not too long after these events. Outside of the fact that the Samaritans believe they carry on the pure religion handed down from the Patriarchs, the most distinguishing differences between the Samaritan religion and that of Judaism was their canon of Scripture: the Samaritan Pentateuch; and their place of worship: Mount Gerazim. We can see these issues surface when Yeshua spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well:

The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. (John 4:19–22)

From the beginning of the conversation the Samaritan woman claimed that Mount Gerazim was the true place of worship. Yeshua corrects her by saying the Samaritans worship in their ignorance, but the Jews worship in truth. He also tells her definitively that salvation is “from the Jews.”

From this encounter we know for certain that Yeshua does not endorse the Samaritan religion. But for some reason, however, Yeshua chooses a Samaritan as the hero to his story. Why? The initial question that served as the catalyst for this parable was, “Who is my neighbor?” This was in response to Yeshua’s directive to “love your neighbor as yourself,” based on Leviticus 19:18. The question of defining the term “neighbor” arose, however, because of the wording of this passage:

You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:18)

The context of this passage seems to imply that one’s neighbor was limited to fellow Israelites. Therefore, this was the traditional interpretation and still is in the mainstream of Judaism today. Samaritans, however, were particularly excluded from this commandment, since they were considered to be a corruption of both Jewish blood and the Jewish religion. Yeshua, however, wanted to show how this passage was being interpreted incorrectly, since the Torah clarifies who should be included in this love just a few verses beyond this passage: 

When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:33–34)

This passage in Leviticus is a direct command to love not only love one’s fellow Israelite, but to love the sojourner, the foreigner, also as oneself. Yeshua chooses the unlikely Samaritan to once again show how human beings are top priority on God’s value system. He is showing that all of the commandments of the Torah are intended to enhance our relationship with both our Creator and our fellow man. He is emphasizing that the value of human dignity should replace any prejudice against another human being who is created in the image of God. He therefore asks the lawyer who posed the original question of “who is my neighbor”:

“Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.” (Luke 10:36–37)

May we never allow our observance of God’s commandments to be an excuse to devalue another human being. May it always serve to remind us to love every individual “as ourselves” to the best of our ability and with the strength of Heaven.