The ‘Good Samaritan’ is one of Jesus’s parables which has passed into universal use, the story of a man who goes out of his way to help another in distress.
In its original context however, Jesus used this story to illustrate a teaching on salvation, or ‘eternal life’. ‘How does one gain eternal life ?’ asks the questioner. ‘By loving the Lord God totally,’ replies Jesus, ‘and by loving one’s neighbour as oneself.’
‘Ah, but who is my neighbour ?’ pursues the lawyer, for all men have a narrow, self-serving definition of who a neighbour is.
In answer, Jesus describes the story of the hapless traveler who was set upon by brigands, robbed, injured and left for dead by the lonely roadside. A priest passed him by and did nothing. So did a Levite. Finally, a Samaritan passed by, and taking compassion on the man, he bound up his wounds, lifted him up upon his donkey, and placed him in a nearby inn for safety and recovery. ‘Who?’ asks Jesus, ‘showed himself to be neighbour to the man in distress ?’
In the ancient world your neighbour, the one to whom you had obligations, was your clansman, your relative by blood and kinship, nobody else. Neighbourly duty was always defined by prior relationship.
Not so in the kingdom of heaven, which Jesus has come to announce. Here relationship is not exclusive but inclusive, and a neighbour is not one to whom I am related, but one whose need makes a demand on me. This new definition of neighbour opens one to the whole world, to wherever there is someone in need. “For your heavenly Father makes the sun shine upon good and bad alike.”
Jews and Samaritans were enemies, and yet it is the enemy who turns out to be a friend to the injured man, whereas his own fellow Jews – the priest and the Levite –evade their responsibility to help him.
A famous writer put it well: “In times of necessity, remember your common humanity. Forget everything else.”