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The Parable of the Good Samaritan

“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and he fell among robbers who stripped him, beat him, and went away leaving him half-dead.  Now by chance, a priest was going down the road and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.  Likewise, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, while traveling, came near him, and when he saw him was moved with pity. He went to him, bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them, then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper and said, ‘Take care of him, and when I come back I will repay you whatever more you spend.’” 

On the one hand, this passage presumes absolutely that if you find somebody, even an ethnic opponent in the ditch, you must stop and help.  Jesus takes that for granted; but that’s not really the point of this parable.  The point of the parable is that it’s the Jew who’s in the ditch, and the Samaritan who stops, and Jesus is presumably talking to a Jewish audience, his own contemporaries.  Now that sort of challenges the polarities of their world.  If you are a Jew and you’re in the ditch and a Samaritan stops to help you, do you say, “Excuse me, no we’re ethnic opponents, I don’t want any help from you”?  And if a Samaritan stops, what does that do to your general prejudices, that all Samaritans are somehow our ethnic opponents?  Do you simply say— “well, there’s one exception; I just happened to meet the one good Samaritan?” 

So part of our problem with a story like this is that “Good Samaritan” for us is a cliché, but for the people who would have heard it if they heard that expression, Jewish people talking about a Good Samaritan, that would be a little bit more of an oxymoron or a contradiction in terms, or at least something that challenges your prejudices of what your tradition tells you as you grow up of who is the good guys and who are the bad guys.  It’s important in this story, the priest and the Levite are the good guys; they are not somehow bad or they’re not doing anything wrong.  They are the good guys.  But what happens in what I call a challenge parable, when the polarities of your world are reversed, when the “good guys” don’t do what they should and the “bad guy” does good.  What happens to your world, to the security of your prejudices, your presuppositions, your prejudices to put it bluntly?  They are all challenged. 

  • John Dominic Crossan

    John Dominic Crossan is an emeritus professor from DePaul University and author of numerous popular books on Jesus and the New Testament world.