A Deconstruction of the Good Samaritan Story

Then Jesus answered and said: “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a certain priest came down that road. And when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite, when he arrived at the place, came and looked, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was. And when he saw him, he had compassion. [Luke 10:30-33]

I’ve heard many pastors preach on these texts. what often tends to happen is that they let loose on the Priest and the Levite, blasting them for their coldness and cruelty and lack of compassion. There is a tendency to  pretty much excoriated these two men in this parable and cast them as unfeeling, heartless, soulless, unredeemed, and without an ounce of empathy in their bones. And I don’t think that’s a fair characterization whatsoever. Let me explain.

Jesus replied, “A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho,…”” This is an actual road. It’s about seventeen miles long, and the road literally drops about 3,000 feet along that seventeen mile stretch. So when it says he’s going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, it really does go down. As it were though, this road wasn’t particularly safe. While these roads would have been patrolled by roman soldiers, they couldn’t be everywhere at once, and we see this play out by the fact that robbers set upon the man and strip him of his clothes and beat him to the point of death. And I think the state he was left in was significant. People’s nationality and background and even profession are identified by clothing and by dialect. It’s how we have historically identified our neighbours and kinsmen, and have been able to tell different people and groups apart. But this man has no clothes, and is unconscious and cannot speak, and therefore he cannot be readily identified, which will come into play pretty quickly.

Now to the crux of the matter. “Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side.” I think the knee-jerk reaction is to be very hard on the priest, but I would argue that we need to be far more merciful to this guy than most have been historically. Let’s set the scene.

The priest is not walking by. As he would have been in upper level in regards to socioeconomic status, it’s almost certain that he would have been riding by on a horse or a mule. The priest is on his way back from his two week stint at the temple, and if he gets even within 4 cubits [6 feet] of this guy, he is ritualistically unclean. So he can’t even get close to this guy to see if he is okay according to religious law. If he gets within 6 feet of him or touches him, he will be deemed by the law ritualistically unclean and he will have to go back to Jerusalem and begin the rights of purification, which are going to require him to purchase a red heifer and turn that thing into ash. It will take at least seven days. He will then have to stand at the Eastern Gate with everyone else who has sinned against God until another priest who, along the same lines as him, purified him. So he would be filled with shame, filled with guilt, out a whole bunch of money, unable to take the tithes and offerings and food. Which means not only will he suffer, but his family will suffer if he helps this man. This is not an easy predicament to be in, and so we ought to be very careful not to judge the priest too harshly, or disregard the laws and the culture in place.

We can all sit back here and call this priest out on this, and talk about how we would surely never do such a thing, and that if we were in the same situation, we wouldn’t even think twice about it. But I’m telling you- it’s not a case where this man has nothing better to do and has time to kill and can call 911 and then be on his way. No. If the priest helps this man, he is an outcast, and it’s possible that he is unable to take care of his family for a few weeks. He’s going to have to purchase cattle, slaughter it, to through the ritualistic rites and probably be taken out of the priestly rotation for a season. It’s an unbelievably costly thing for him to engage this man, especially considering that violence and death were not that uncommon. I mean that. Seeing a man laying dead in a ditch, the victim of some form of barbarous act, would not have been completely out of the ordinary. It was a violent time, with Roman occupation and insurrection and thieves who descend upon a man, kill him and rob him, and disappear without a trace. It was a different time back then, and with no way of knowing who this naked man was, [if he was a fellow Priest or a hated Samaritan or a Gentile or a Roman] or if he was even alive- it at least makes sense that his religion and the burdens of such an action would keep him from engaging. So he sees him and goes along side of him and won’t help.

So let’s look at the next person to come along. “So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.” A Levite is like a junior varsity priest, except he’s never getting bumped to varsity. The Levites assisted the priests in the temple but were in no way economically near what the priests made. So the Levite was a much more humble person in regards to what they made. The Levite is absolutely walking. And the thing about a road that goes for seventeen miles straight down is you could be 3-4 miles ahead and still see. So the Levite who serves the priest, who doesn’t have a lot of money, who is all by himself, passes by the man, bound by the same ritualistic law, already saw the priest pass by [this is a reasonable speculation] and I think must have thought, “If the priest wouldn’t touch him, I most certainly shouldn’t. Besides, where am I going to get the ability to help this guy?” He doesn’t have the kind of money and space that a priest would, and he probably would have had his own family to feed and take care for. So the Levite rushes past by also.

And here’s where the story would have turned scandalous. Up until that point no one would have been outraged or shocked by the actions of these two men, because they understood it.They get what’s going on. “But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion.” It’s real important that you see that that’s the driving force behind this, because let’s talk about the Samaritans. The Samaritans were halfbreeds: half Jews and half Samarians. When Israel was in captivity, they were men or women who married their captors and had children. In this century, the Jews believed that if you had anything to do with a Samaritan…well…let’s just say it’s in the Mishnah that if you ate the bread of a Samaritan is equal to eating the flesh of a swine. There were actually prayers in the synagogue during this period that asked God not to give forgiveness or grace to the Samaritans. That’s a pretty strong level of hatred, isn’t it? So you can see that there’s not a lot of love between these two ethnic groups. But the Samaritan is not a gentile! As such, he is bound by the same ritualistic laws as the Levite and the priest. In this though, the Samaritan is moved with 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.’” and he does the right thing.

I’m not going to take time to carefully exegete these passages, or offer my own interpretation, or talk about whether I am the good Samaritan and the beaten man that I am to help is my neighbor, or if the good Samaritan is Jesus, and the beaten, helpless man that needs saving is me. That’s not my concern. All I wanted to do, was hopefully make the case that we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the Priest and the Levite. It’s not so cut and dry to suggest that these were heartless and uncaring men who had no concern for anyone but themselves. It’s not right or fair or even contextually accurate to rip into them like some pastors do. There’s a lot more at play here, and while I believe that ultimately the Priest and the Levite were wrong not to stop, and that they should have had compassion and done the right, hard thing, It’s not as simple or as uncomplicated a thing to do as some would suggest.

2 thoughts on “A Deconstruction of the Good Samaritan Story

  1. Not a bad interpretation regarding the first two travelers. However, given that this is simply a story Jesus told to make a point and not an actual recounting of an actual event, your interpretation is irrelevant. The whole point of the story is wrapped up in the final character (the star as it were). The point of this make believe story is to get folks to respond likewise. To ask, “who is my neighbor” and then upon realizing that our neighbor is everyone, to act accordingly…as did the star of our story.

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