A lawyer tries to disconcert Jesus. So many people set trap questions for Jesus. If there is one thing we can learn from the Gospels it is how to ask questions of Jesus. The insincere questions are treated in a different manner to the sincere ones.
His question is a good one. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus replies by asking a question! Indeed, he asks two questions. The lawyer gives the reply of Deuteronomy 6 that is the daily prayer of all the Jews. “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”
Still unbeaten, the lawyer tries again. “And who is my neighbour?”
This leads to the parable of the Good Samaritan. It is a simple story that has been traditionally understood as being very critical of the Levites and the priests and praises the Samaritans. That is fair comment. Modern scholars have given a new interpretation that I find very interesting.
The story starts:
“A man was once on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho”. If the text reads: “a man was on his way from Jericho to Jerusalem”, it could make a difference. Jerusalem was the home of the high Priests (e.g. Zachary). The poorer priests and members of the priestly tribe (Levites) lived outside the city where the cost of living was less. They were rostered on duty for maybe a month at a time and they prepared themselves religiously by keeping all the purification rules that belong to their ministry. The journey took two days. They climbed an altitude of 1000 meters threatened by robbers. They only had one month’s work to support their families. They were on a mission. They were on God’s mission. They were avoiding delays. The culture of the day would excuse them of being ‘neighbourly’.
The Levites and priests had every reason not to stop and help and be made impure by contact with blood. Clearly, it is not a sufficient reason for Jesus.
This makes the story more dramatic. It makes the actions of the Samaritan more outstanding. It is a real rebuff for the sanctimonious lawyer and his confronting questions.
Jesus finishes the story. “Which of these three, do you think proved himself a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of brigands?”. “The one who took pity on him” the man replied. Jesus replied to him, “Go, and do the same yourself”.
So much for trying to disconcert Jesus.
Our traditional way of understanding this parable is still valid. The new insights above help us to focus on racism as well as compassion for the poor. Jesus' immediate aim in telling this parable seems to be to confront the entrenched prejudice of the Jews against the Samaritans.