The Good Samaritan
- Become more aware of who our neighbors are.
- Offer ourselves to Jesus in service to others.
- Explain why Jesus told this parable.
Because this parable is so well known, most Christians tend to think it's easily understood. That's why it's especially important to spend some time reading and meditating on it before you teach.
As with many other parables, this one is part of a larger story. An expert in the law---that is, the Torah or first five books of the Bible---asks Jesus a question in order to test him. It's not an unusual question to ask a rabbi, but perhaps the legal expert thought Jesus would trip himself up with an unusual answer. "Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Cleverly Jesus turned the question around. "What do you think? How do you read the law?"
The legal expert gave a wonderful answer, one that he may have heard from Jesus: Love God above all and love your neighbor as yourself. (Jesus often put these two commandments, found in separate passages, alongside each other.) Jesus says to the legal expert, "You're exactly right; do this and you will live."
It's important to understand that Jesus is not commending salvation by works. Loving God with all your heart, soul, and strength means that we must put our trust in his love and grace. It also means that, living in God's love, we extend that loving relationship to our neighbor.
The expert in law was not satisfied. "Who exactly is my neighbor, and how far does that neighborly love extend?" he wondered. At that time, most Jews believed that their neighbor was a fellow Jew, and that that was as far as neighborly love should extend.
As usual, Jesus answered in story rather than sermon---a story of threes. He told his listeners about three people who made their way down the steep, dangerous, lonely road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Each of them saw another traveler, stripped, beaten, and unconscious, lying beside the road. If he had been closer, the travelers could have seen whether or not he was a Jew, and if he had been conscious they could have asked him.
The first passerby was a Jewish priest. Not knowing whether the wounded person was a Jew or Gentile, or even if he was dead or alive, the priest passed by. He did not want to risk ritual defilement by touching the man. The Levite did the same, probably for the same reasons.
The listeners probably expected the third traveler to be an ordinary Jew. Instead the traveler was a Samaritan, a member of a group of "half breeds" who were hated and despised by most Jews. The Samaritan becomes the hero of the story.
What was his motivation? Simply that he had compassion for the injured man. This was an act of great mercy, beyond all the expectations and requirements of the law.
"Who is my neighbor?" That's the central question of the story, and the central question you must pose to yourself and to your children. What is the answer? Jesus doesn't give a direct answer in the parable, but he points in the direction where we can find it. Our neighbor---whoever that may be---is that person in need to whom we should show mercy and compassion. The identity of our neighbor changes from day to day, even from hour to hour, but the driving force of divine love remains the same. Whoever loves God also loves his or her neighbor and shows that love in concrete acts of care and kindness.