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047 A Jewish Take on the Good Samaritan

Last time I talked about why there were so many discussions in the gospels over which was the greatest commandment. I also gave you all a little background on a conflict in Judaism between disciples of Rabbis Hillel and Shammai. In the Talmud, the book of Jewish interpretation of the Law of Moses and associated commentary by the Rabbis, there are more than 300 such debates between the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai. Several of these debates show up in the New Testament.

One of the places comes in Jesus' modification of a story that some of the Rabbis told in His day. In the Rabbis' version of the story, a traveler fell victim to robbers on the road (a sadly common event in their world) and was left to die. The victim was approached first by a Priest, and then by a Levite. These men would not have helped the man for legal reasons; they were forbidden by the Law from touching a corpse (see Numbers 19:11-13, for instance). And naturally, if they were offering aid to a dying man beside the road, there would be a real possibility that the victim would die and then they would be ritually unclean.

So the illustration pitted two laws against each other: the ritual cleanliness laws of the priesthood and the temple against the command to love your neighbor as yourself. Obviously, loving one's neighbor would call for helping the man by the road. Just as obviously, obedience to one's priestly calling would call for avoiding the man no matter how badly one wanted to help him. And make no mistake, they wanted to help such victims. They were not heartless, nor did they think that they were above helping people in need like so many preachers suggest. They were obeying the Law of God as they understood it.

In the common form of the story, the third person on the road was a Pharisee, a practitioner of the Torah-based form of Judaism. Whereas most of the Saducees--practitioners of the temple-based form of Judaism--would have placed their ritual cleanness above the command to help one's neighbor, Pharisees, particularly those of the House of Hillel, would have regarded caring for the victim as the higher obedience. So in the common version, where the Priest and the Levite, who were Saducees, passed by the victim, the Pharisee helped the man. By doing so he illustrated how a good, observant Jew would love his neighbor even if it risked ritual uncleanness, because loving his neighbor was the higher law.

The illustration raised a question that you and I might not understand. The command (Leviticus 19:18) says that one should love his neighbor as himself. The discussion among the Rabbis focused on when it was right to obey this command even if it meant disobeying some other command. And they were concerned that God would be angry if they disobeyed for an insufficient reason. So it was important to know: what is meant by "your neighbor?" For what sort of person could they violate some law while helping that person and not incur God's wrath against their disobedience? Luke's account says that the lawyer wanted to justify himself (Luke 10:29), and that may well be true, but the question "Who is my neighbor" was a legitimate question and the Rabbis debated it.

To the House of Shammai, "your neighbor" was an observant Jew, a righteous man. It was acceptable in God's sight to disobey some other command to help a righteous man, but not a sinner or a Gentile. To the House of Hillel, on the other hand, any living soul qualified.

But even the House of Hillel would have drawn the line at Samaritans. They didn't regard Samaritans as living souls.

Here's why:

The Northern Kingdom of Israel, whose capitol Samaria was, was taken captive by the Assyrians around 770 BCE. The Assyrians had the practice of moving conquered peoples to lands other than their own as a way of preventing rebellion--the captives were less likely to rebel when they were far from home. So the Northern Kingdom got taken nobody-knows-where, and the Assyrians brought some other people from nobody-knows-where and deposited them in Samaria.

The new Samaritans from heaven-knows-where apparently adopted some of the practices of Samaria, and became practitioners of the Torah. Only, it wasn't really Judaism; it was adulterated. And in the minds of the Rabbis, to adulterate the true practice of Torah was to lose one's soul.

So even in the liberal view of the House of Hillel, a Samaritan lying in the road was not a living soul. While you could help him if it was in your heart to help him, you could not violate other commandments and be forgiven for those violations if it were a Samaritan that you were helping. In their view, God would forgive your violation of ritual purity to help anybody else, but not a Samaritan.

Now, let's do a little thought experiment. Let's say that you and I want to rework the story to present the lesson, "Even Samaritans are your neighbor, and you need to help them." How would you change the story?

The answer is clearly, "You make the man lying in the road a Samaritan." Then the lesson illustrates that even if the person in the road is less than a person, you can violate other laws to help him.

But that's not how Jesus changed the story, is it? So that wasn't the lesson that He intended, was it?

In Jesus' remake of the story, which appears in Luke 10:25-37, it wasn't the man lying in the road who He said was a Samaritan. It was the third man to find him. The Priest and the Levite obeyed the laws of ritual purity and refused to help the injured traveler. The third man coming along wasn't even a Jew. He didn't even know how to obey the Law of Moses; he adulterated the Law of Moses. He wasn't even human, to them.

So Jesus started telling the story, and the lawyer hearing it would have said inside himself, "Ok, I've heard this before." And the story would have proceeded through the Priest and the Levite and he would have nodded and listened politely.

And then Jesus said, "But a Samaritan..." and the lawyer's head would have exploded.

It should be clear by now that Jesus was not just talking about helping people that you don't like. This was not a lecture against racism. Jesus' version of the story required students of the Law to rethink their entire paradigm of what it meant to obey God. His question at the end amounted to "Who's really obeying the Law of God, and who's adulterating it?" 

The lawyer was so flummoxed that he couldn't even say "Samaritan." The best he could do was "The one who showed mercy."

And Jesus had made his point. "Yes, even if it's a Samaritan doing it, when you show mercy you're doing properly what God wants. Do you want to obey God? Do as this Samaritan did."

The closest I can come to it in the modern Evangelical world would be if I said "But then along came a Jehovah's Witness..." or "But then along came a gay Christian..." Am I endorsing JWs or gay Christians? No, but I'm saying what Jesus said: it's not about what you say you believe, God is looking at What. You. Do.

There are some critics of modern "false teachers" who very badly need to hear Jesus' real version of the Good Samaritan story, and a few of us probably need a second look, too. God doesn't give a fig for correct systematic theology if you're not helping those in need. But if you are, I think there's lots of grace for bad Torah teaching.

One more thing, just for fun: the line where it says that the Priest and the Levite "passed by on the other side?" (Luke 10:31-32). Jesus was making a joke. I've attached a photo of the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Take a look: there is no other side. They may have passed by, but they were within kicking distance.



I think next time I'll talk about a passage that I quoted last time, from Matthew 10:41: "He who gives a prophet a cup of water in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet's reward." That'll be fun.

Until then, God bless.

Phil Weingart

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