The story of the good Samaritan occurs in the Gospel of Luke 10:25-37. How many Christians know the parable in full is unknown, but the phrase “good Samaritan” has become a common and consistently used idiom in modern culture. Strangers who help others are designated as “good Samaritans,” laws that punish onlookers from not intervening during a crime are known as “Good Samaritan Laws,” and there are countless organizations and hospitals named after this idiom as well. But like so many idiomatic expressions, the origin and the original meaning of the phrase is lost on so many.
We should begin with some background on Samaritans. Jewish tradition tells that after the death of King Solomon, the kingdom was divided into two political entities, known as the Northern Kingdom, Israel or Samaria and the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Samaria was located between Galilee and Judea. The tales of the kingdoms are told in the 1st and 2nd books of Kings as well as in the prophets in the Tanakh. The Northern Kingdom came under attack from the Assyrian Empire, led by Tiglath-pileser III, who ruled from 745-727 BCE, Shalmaneser V, who ruled from 727-722 BCE, and finally Sargon II, who ruled from 722-705 BCE. It was under Sargon II’s ruling that the Northern Kingdom of Israel fell, at least according to Sargon II who “claims credit in his own inscriptions” Sargon’s accounts also “speak of either 27,280 or 27,290 exiles and of the capture of chariots…he also claims to have rebuilt Samaria ‘better than it was before.’” What is most important for the purposes of our discussion is that when Assyria captured the Northern Kingdom of Samaria, the law of Assyria was followed which led to the mass exile of Jews, and the replacement of them by other cultures within the Assyrian empire.
This was a strategy to ensure loyalty to the area and hope to prevent uprisings. Because this was done, the members of the Southern Kingdom of Judah, and the Jews that followed, considered Samaritans to have lost their Jewish purity. From then, Samaritans were no longer considered Jewish but another group entirely, which created great tension between the two groups. As Sandmel summarizes:
The Jews and the Samaritans regarded each other as false pretenders to the ancient heritage of divine choice and revelation. The Samaritans were, from the viewpoint of the Jews, the descendants of alien tribes transported into the northern kingdom of Israel after the Assyrians had exiled the ten northern Israelite tribes from the region in the eighth pre-Christian century.
With the stage now set, we can read the parable. The account begins with “an expert in the law”, often described as a “lawyer” but most likely a Pharisee who decides to “test” Jesus. We should immediately be reminiscent of the wording from Matthew 22:35, which states “One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: ‘Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?’” We are reminded that the author of the Gospel of Matthew changed an innocent question posed by a Jew in Mark 12:28: “One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, ‘Of all the commandments, which is the most important?’” The Gospel of Luke, which contains the Good Samaritan parable follows Matthew’s interpretation, posing the Pharisee as malicious and attempting to discredit Jesus, and “by testing Jesus, the lawyer takes Satan’s role.” The Jew’s question, in Luke, however, differs from the question in Mark and Matthew, but the idea is the same with Jesus responding with the question asked within Mark and Matthew. While the accounts in Mark and Matthew discuss the words of Deuteronomy 6:4-5, “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might,” Luke’s account adds another quote from the Torah, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” These words are taken from Leviticus 19:18: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your fellow as yourself: I am the LORD.” A similar edict appears in Leviticus 19:34: “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the LORD am your God.”
Jesus answers the Pharisee by telling him that his view is correct, that these two particular laws, from Deuteronomy 6 and Leviticus 19 are the most important commandments in Jesus’ view and should be, according to Jesus, the most important for his followers. I will note that far too many Christian laypeople do not actualize these phrases as coming from the Torah, and believe them to be of Jesus’ own invention. The words of Deuteronomy 6 are still said twice daily in Jewish prayers today and are considered the “watchword of the Jewish faith”; as for Leviticus 19, it was considered by R. Akiva of the 1st century as “an all-embracing principle in the Torah,” and serves as the defining pillar of Judaism’s social justice work in modern times.
However, It is the Jew’s follow-up question of “who is my neighbor” which brings on the parable of the Good Samaritan. On the surface, the parable looks as though Jesus is simply choosing people at random, i.e. priest, Levite, and Samaritan, as characters in his parable to demonstrate that when one sees a stranger in danger or in need, it is commanded to love that person by providing help. However, the true meaning is much darker, and must be uncovered so as to educate Christians of the anti-Jewish and now antisemitic rhetoric. The parable tells of two Jews of certain classes passing by the man, “A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.” The priest, also known as a “Kohein” is classified as a Jew who can trace his lineage back to Aaron, the great priest of the Torah. It is still a status symbol in today’s Jewish world, and with it comes certain restrictions of purity. It is considered the highest of the hierarchy of lineage which contains Coheins, Levites, and Israelites. The “Levite” is one who traces his lineage back to one of the priestly assistants to Aaron, and constitutes the second highest in the hierarchy. While the reader would expect Jesus to choose the Israelite as the third passerby, he instead chooses the enemy of the Jews, who the Jews consider to be impure and outside of Judaism altogether, the Samaritan. There are several things at work here in the parable. While some have come to believe that the Priest and the Levite disregard the man in need because of purity laws, these laws only concern touching of corpses, not those alive. Indeed, the Priest and the Levite have no excuse as to why they would not help the man on the side of the road, according to Jesus, except a disregard for those in need and, more importantly, a disregard for the commandment to “love your neighbor.” Here, Jesus paints the highest Jews of status as arrogant, uncaring, and hypocritical to their own view of the law; indeed, Jesus points to the Jew’s adherence to laws of morality only in theory and not in practice. It is the Samaritan, the member of an impure tribe in the view of Jesus’ audience, that follows the law to the letter, loving the man as himself, and caring for him when the Jews of pure stock would not.
The point of the parable is not to praise the Samaritan nor demonstrate how and why to care for those in need. Rather, it is to discredit the Jewish hierarchy, the Jews’ adherence to their own laws, and claim that it is the non-Jew, the enemy of the Jews, the Samaritan, who shows mercy and love to neighbors. The parable is, indeed, a anti-Jewish polemic which can be, and has been, used to paint Jews as lesser than those of the followers of Jesus (who eventually became Christians), and adds to the antisemitic and supersessionist ideals stemming from Christianity from antiquity to the modern era.
So, I humbly ask that all stop using the “Good Samaritan” as an idiomatic expression in secular or religious circles, as it is not a compliment, but a condemnation of an entire group of people.