Unpacking the Parable of the Good Samaritan

Unpacking the Parable of the Good Samaritan August 28, 2018


A. Why Stories?

What does an infant do as it begins to master the intricacies of its voice box and speech centers? Why, it begins to tell stories! Initially, these are a kind of pre-linguistic vocalizations but, soon, it constructs more elaborate messages. Don’t be fooled into thinking that when she says, ‘dada’ or ‘mama’, the baby is simply saying, “I recognize who you are.” It’s much more wonderful than that. It’s more like, “Dada, I’ve just had this wonderful, transpersonal experience. It’s beyond words; but soon I’ll try to help you to understand my world – the real world – not the one you adults have been deluding into believing is ‘reality.’” But, like a ‘sophisticated’ tourist listening to the speech of the ‘primitive natives’, you smile patronizingly and say, “Yes. Of course. I understand!” The truth is, you probably believe that the natives’ tongue is some antediluvian animal-speak. Eventually, they will become ‘civilized’ and learn a real language – like English for example.

So, you and your spouse smile proudly at each other and at the baby and say, “Soon, she’ll learn to talk!”

Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny; and so, each infant is re-enacting the journey of Homo Sapiens Sapiens who also immediately pressed their newfound linguistic skills into story-telling. And the stories of our forebears fulfilled four functions. First, it was a way for the storyteller to remember an experience he’d just had. Second, it was to share the information he’d gleaned with the 15-20 members of the clan around the fire. Third, it was to archive this in the long-term future memories of the group. And, fourth, it was the primary method of entertainment.

When your baby babbles, she is trying to fulfill the same four functions. It’s a pity that the parents simply reduce this complex contribution to just the entertainment piece. There are very good reasons why Jesus said, “Unless you become as little children you will not even enter the kingdom of heaven.” What a pity, then, that God’s little messengers – generation by generation – simply draw an “Aw! How cute!” response from the adults.

Something of the same frustration is why he also said, in response to the audiences who complained that he always spoke in parables, “I speak in parables so that seeing you may see and not understand; hearing you may hear and not comprehend… I speak in parables so that I may reveal things that have been hidden since the foundation of the world.”

The problem lies not in the stories but in the listeners’ perceptual mechanisms. A literal mind, founded on fear, will hear one message; while a mystical heart, founded on love, will hear a radically different message.

Moreover, stories, like dreams, are multilayered, speaking simultaneously at psychological, sociological, global and heavenly levels. So, you can hear the same story – or a parable of Jesus – at different stages of your life and gain significantly different messages. When my baby sister – Dearbhla who is 22 years younger than me – would ask me to tell her stories when I came home from Kenya every three years, I would do so. She was 18 years old and attending College in 1986, when I left Kenya for the last time. She was studying psychology and sociology and we now revisited the old stories, unpacking them in a very different fashion.

So, today, I’m going to take a story that you all know very well and unpack it for three distinct messages. It’s the parable of the Good Samaritan from the gospel of Luke.


B. Truth Versus Fact

There is a big difference between truth and fact. Something can be true but not factual; while something can be factual but not true! To explain this, I need to provide you with my own definition of truth. I believe that something is true only if it transforms me and aligns me with Love; and something is ultimate truth if it transforms me radically and aligns me permanently with Love.

Any belief that results in creating fear, anger, prejudice or violence in thoughts, words or actions, cannot be true. If you are holding everybody (even your “enemies”, as Jesus enjoined on his followers) in a heart of love, you have found truth. If, because of your beliefs, anybody becomes the target of your anger, then your belief doesn’t square with the core message of Jesus’ example and teaching.

Suppose, now, you were a reporter for the Jerusalem Post and you heard Jesus telling this story. You found it hard to believe, so you spent the next three days interviewing the priests, the Levites and the innkeepers of Jericho. None of them could verify Jesus’s story. In other words, it wasn’t factual. Agreed! It was not based on an actual event. However, by my definition it is indeed true, because, for those who understood the message, it was radically transformative.


C. Love Versus Law

The second great message embedded in this perennial gem is that of ritual human cleanliness versus the overarching Cosmic Law of love. Part of the reason why the priest ignored his mugged countryman, was that it was verboten for a priest to touch a dead or dying person. Such contact would render him ritually defiled and it was a ‘ganza megillah’ to get cleansed and be allowed, once more, to participate in Temple activities. Here is what Leviticus says,

 “The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: ‘A priest must not make himself ceremonially unclean for any of his people who die, except for a close relative, such as his mother or father, his son or daughter, his brother, or an unmarried sister who is dependent on him since she has no husband—for her he may make himself unclean. He must not make himself unclean for people related to him by marriage, and so defile himself… The high priest, the one among his brothers who has had the anointing oil poured on his head and who has been ordained to wear the priestly garments … must not enter a place where there is a dead body. He must not make himself unclean, even for his father or mother.”

And, of course, the Levites had similar, though not as stringent, restrictions. The Levites, who came from the same tribe (Levi son of Jacob) as did the priests, had lesser functions. They acted as – to use a Roman Catholic term – ‘sacristans’, who looked after all of the sacred vessels and vestments and furnishings to be employed by the priests during services. A hugely important part of their functions was to regularly inspect both the moral character and physical health of the priests before the latter were allowed to preside over Temple worship. Leviticus 21 contained a long list of conditions that disbarred a man from serving as a priest:

The Lord said to Moses, Say to Aaron: ‘For the generations to come none of your descendants who has a defect may come near to offer the food of his God. No man who has any defect may come near: no man who is blind or lame, disfigured or deformed; no man with a crippled foot or hand, or who is a hunchback or a dwarf, or who has any eye defect, or who has festering or running sores or damaged testicles.  No descendant of Aaron the priest who has any defect is to come near to present the food offerings to the Lord. He has a defect; he must not come near to offer the food of his God.”

Therefore, it was clear to Jesus’ audience that the priest and the Levite, who ignored their fallen ‘lonsman’, were justified. It was even a display of their holiness. But Jesus would have none of it. The core of his being and the essence of his teaching was the primacy of love. It trumped all other considerations.

In a double demolition, he showed, firstly, the radical inadequacy of the legalistic mindset of the religious leaders; and, secondly, the compassionate heart of the ‘accursed’ Samaritan. The Samaritans were ‘half-breeds’ who were the hybrid progeny of the foreign soldiers and the unimportant ‘little people’ left behind when Assyrians conquered Israel in 721 BCE and when the Babylonians exiled the inhabitants of Jerusalem and its kingdom in 586 BCE.

In one fell swoop, Jesus showed, firstly, that love is a Divine Law before which mere human laws must bow the knee; and, secondly, that love dissolves all religious, national and cultural boundaries.


D. Joshua Versus Jesus

According to Torah, the Israelites, after escaping from Egypt and spending 40 years in the desert, entered the ‘promised land’ at Jericho. They crossed the Jordan river and God collapsed the walls of the city on their behalf. In a sick piece of religious polemic, we read that the Israelites, “devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.” [Joshua 6:21] This is how one devotes a city to God?! And if you are to believe the Book of Joshua, they then set out on a 200-year-long genocidal rampage that only ended when David captured Jerusalem in 1010 BCE. So, the slaughter began in Jericho and ended in Jerusalem.

In the parable of Jesus, we find exactly the opposite. The new ‘conquest’ begins in Jerusalem with mugging of an innocent traveler and ends in Jericho, where the wayside victim is nursed back to health by a ‘foreigner.’ And the conquest (love over law; and neighbor as everybody) leads to a new promised land – the kingdom of God.

It would be a new kind of pilgrimage; not the voyeuristic tracing of the brutal battles of an invading horde but the compassionate Camino of a fully-awakened Spirit-in-a-spacesuit. It’s the kind of journey that a Francis of Assisi might make.

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