Few parables of Jesus are so well known as this story of the good Samaritan. One reason for this must surely be the counterintuitive redefinition of what is meant by “neighbor.”
Normative Jewish views on this matter excluded the Samaritans specifically, since they were after all a proscribed group. Accordingly, they were among those to whom one owed no social obligation and with whom one could not so much as break bread without censure (Babylonian Talmud, tractate Sanhedrin 57a); they were in this sense like Gentiles or ritually unclean persons. The Samaritans heartily reciprocated the prejudice. But surely there are few of us who do not have our own versions of the resistance to the demands of neighborliness that Jesus proposes: hence the universal apropos of the story.
As Jesus tells his parable there is much realism in it; highway robbery and attendant brutalizing of victims on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho were all too common. There is something of a pinch for the lawyer when Jesus says that the severely wounded victim, “half dead” (hēmithanēs), is bypassed successively by a priest and a Levite, two members of the religious class.
The one who does stop to help is a evidently a layman; worse, he is religiously opprobrious, a Samaritan. Worse still, this Samaritan is no legal minimalists: he takes careful prophylactic measures with the victim’s wounds, takes him to an inn (a pandocheion, not a katalyma as in Luke 2), stays with him during the first night to ensure that he is responding to treatment, then leaves two pence with the innkeeper (at that time enough for a three-week stay), and says that any further expense (the victim has, after all, been robbed) he will repay on his return.
The standard for who should be understood as one’s neighbor is not the only thing shattered by Jesus’s midrash on the law of love; in this story, authentic love for the neighbor is expressed in an extravagance of generosity.
However uncomfortable he is with the narrative, the lawyer gets it: when Jesus asks his rhetorical question about who acted as a neighbor to the man who fell among thieves, the response is unavoidable: “He who showed mercy on him” (10:37).
When Jesus tells him to go and do likewise, we recognize that a question about an abstraction, “the neighbor,” and about justice according to the law has been turned by Jesus into a personal commandment to show mercy.
As philosopher Paul Ricoeur says in his excellent short essay on this parable, Jesus is not articulating a “sociology of the neighbor”; he is showing forcefully that “one does not have a neighbor. I make myself someone’s neighbor.” It is this element, for Ricoeur, that most trenchantly expresses a “radically anti-modern attitude.” He goes so far as to say that “the Gospel would totally condemn the modern world . . . denounce it as a world without the neighbor, the dehumanized world of abstract, anonymous and distant relationships.”