I have been seeing news articles about people who stepped into an emergency situation and rendered assistance. The headlines describe them as Samaritans, referring to the story in the New Testament of the Good Samaritan. Luke relates the parable Jesus told in which a man had been beaten, stripped and left for dead. A priest and a Levite passed him by while a Samaritan treated his wounds and took him to an inn and paid for his care.
There are several important issues that are not obvious as to the significance of the Good Samaritan. Over 500 years earlier, Samaria had become the capital of the Northern Kingdom when Israel was split. The Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom first, removed many of the Israelites and largely repopulated the area with Gentiles. The Israelis in the Northern Kingdom intermarried and adopted many of the ways of the Gentiles, including their religious practices.
Some years later, the Southern Kingdom was also conquered by the Assyrians, and its people carried off, but 70 years after being conquered, a contingent of 43,000 Jews were allowed to return. These people had maintained their commitment to God, whom they worshiped in captivity and whom they continued to worship when they returned to their homeland. They hated the Samaritans because the Samaritans had chosen to view the Gentile idols as either co-equal with God, or as replacing him.
Jews had nothing to do with Samaritans. Hence the “Good Samaritan” would have been seen as a contradiction of terms during Jesus’ time.
The other significant detail is that the priest and Levite passed the injured man without aiding him. This was not merely hubris. Priests and Levites served in the temple, but anyone who touched a dead or dying person, would be ritually unclean. This meant they could not enter the temple until they had been ritually cleansed, which took seven days.
We don’t know the thoughts of the hypothetical priest and the Levite, but it is not unlikely that Jesus’ listeners would see them as choosing their duty to God over their duty to mankind.
The story of the Good Samaritan was a parable–a story–intended to teach. It was not a historical fact, so if it was intended to teach, it’s good to uncover the hidden wisdom as well as that which is obvious.