But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was. And when he saw him, he had compassion. So he went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; and he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said to him, “Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you.”
Now we get to the Samaritan. The interpretation we’ve been going with throughout our meditation on this week’s Gospel, is that the priest and Levite passed by the other side because they did not want to come in contact with something unclean. It’s not that doing so would cause them to do something illegal according to the Law, but it could make them unclean.
Their lovelessness comes on two fronts. First, they assumed the man was dead and gave him no benefit of the doubt. When they saw him, they could have thought, “Oh, here’s what looks like a dead body, but what if there’s still life in him? I should help him.” Rather they thought, “Oh, there’s a dead body. The Law says I become unclean if I go near it. Better cross the street. And if there’s life in him, I’d still better be safe than sorry.”
Second, even though there was protocol for them to touch bodies – Jewish caretakers of corpses did it all the time (as we’ll see in this coming week’s Gospel) – they chose not to go that path. All they had to do was ceremonially wash and be clean by the next day. Instead, they chose to go the easy way.
But now the Samaritan comes, and he has mercy. He wasn’t as bound by Jewish Law as the Jews were, so his constraints were fewer. Here’s a question: why does the Lord introduce a Samaritan? What’s his purpose?
The traditional interpretation is, Jesus is doing a little “what goes around comes around” with the lawyer. The lawyer is wanting to limit the “love your neighbor” command to just Jews (or so it is assumed), and so Jesus turns the tables on him by introducing this Samaritan and asking, “What limits did the Samaritan place on ‘love your neighbor’?” The answer is, “none.” And the lawyer should do similarly.
This isn’t a bad interpretation but I think it’s a bit removed from the deeper theological point Jesus is making about the Law in general. It’s not so much “what goes around comes around” Jesus is teaching, but “If you live by the Law, you’ll die by the Law.” Or as I’ve been putting it, how will you fare in the universe arising from your own principles?
This takes the personality out of the interpretation. It’s from this interpretation that we get the cliched type of pious, but loveless, religious people, as if to be religious means to put rules and rituals above real people. This in turn feeds that silly narrative in which on one side you have the type of all those loveless, judgmental, hypocritical “church people” with their morality, rituals, and rote religion, who aren’t authentic, would never go to a soup kitchen, or who would never welcome a poor person into the church. On the other hand you have the type of the poor and alienated, not bound by their rules and rituals, who showed true love.
I don’t buy it. Wasn’t Nicodemus a Pharisee and didn’t he take care of Jesus’ body after his death, becoming unclean? Meanwhile wasn’t Judas, the one concerned about giving to the poor and fighting against “the man,” um, Judas? It’s a bit too clean of a trope. But that’s what I fear happens when you turn the Levite and priest versus the Samaritan into character types rather than theological types.
What are those theological types? It’s as we’ve been contemplating. The priest and Levite represented a certain view of the Law, a view that “tithe[s]… mint and anise and cummin,” but neglects “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.” Jesus even adds, “These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.” In other words, yes, you can remain faithful to the Law while observing justice, mercy, and faith. You can check and see if a dead person has some life in him, become unclean, and become ceremonially clean again through the washing.
But how does the Samaritan fit in this interpretation? What is the “Samaritan theological type”? Well, Jesus tells us what that type is. It’s the one who has mercy. And it’s a mercy defined by full care, unconditional care, as we see in our passage for meditation today. And not just immediate, but long term care.
The Samaritan is introduced not so much as a positive character type as he is a counterpoint to the Jewish theological types who represent the Law. We assume Jesus is doing a comeuppance thing with the lawyer as He uses this Samaritan – “You lawyer, you want to limit love away from the Samaritans, but what do you think if the tables were turned?!!” – but that’s not necessarily the case. The lawyer was just being lawyerly and wanting to define the limits of love. The Samaritan is thus a stand-in not for the lawyer’s comeuppance, but for the non-Jewish-Law way to think about things.
By this interpretation, the lawyer was not loath to speak the word “Samaritan” when Jesus asked, “So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?” Rather, he was answering theologically and properly recognizing what Jesus was teaching. In other words, the purpose wasn’t to praise Samaritans as such, as a certain type of alienated demographic group who are truly authentic good people – this in fact borders on the Marxist tendency to romanticize the poor. But it was to grasp the bigger point Jesus was making about being merciful.
The Samaritan’s world wasn’t bound by Jewish Law. That’s all. And if we would be healed from our wounds, we would need a world unbound from Jewish Law as well. Which is exactly what Jesus does. “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” (Romans 10: 4)
He ended it by fulfilling it, “without leaving the others undone.” That is, He lived and died under the Law to redeem us from the Law, so that He could show mercy and justice and faith, binding up our wounds, paying for our stay, and coming back to pay the full cost of our recovery.
The Law had every importance, to get us to Christ, and for those with ears to hear and eyes to see (even as Jesus said the prophets and kings longed to hear and see such things), the Law had within it the very seeds of this future glory in Christ. The priest and Levite did not hear or see these things, got caught up in what in effect were the training wheels, and so created the world where men were left for dead on the side of the road. Not so the one who showed mercy.