Summary: The text takes a sociological view of the parable of the good Samaritan to better understand Christ's definition of a neighbor.
25Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” 28And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” 29But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:25-37)
This text contains one of the more repeatedly preached and taught parables of Jesus Christ. This parable is traditionally referred to as the ‘parable of the good Samaritan’. Today, I want to challenge us to look at this text with a sociological emphasis. The context of Christ sharing this parable was a series of questions with the last one focusing on the operational definition of ‘neighbor’. Mind you, this is a conversation between two Jewish men about the relationship between eternal life and the law. Yet while this conversation addresses theological matters, the answer is framed in the context of community dynamics.
This parable identifies three people – a priest, a Levite and a Samaritan; sociologically speaking – two pedigreed Jewish men and one whose Jewishness was diluted, polluted and assimilated. In terms of social stratification, the priest and Levite were men of high status in the Jewish community; the Samaritan was a man of low status. But the striking element of the parable was that Christ affirmed the man of low status with the title of neighbor. What was the justification for this paradox? Simply that in the economy of God, the characteristic of importance is not status but values. The priest and Levite had high class status but low class values. Conversely, the Samaritan had low class status but high class values.
Let’s place this contradiction within the context of our society. When exploring where people rank, we use the concept of socioeconomic status (SES). SES is defined by one’s income, education and occupation. If you think about it, the inconsistency between the economy of God and human society still exists. For example, we focus on maximizing our income but God asks us if we gave to those without means. We affirm those persons with extensive academic preparation but God wants us to consider ourselves in need of knowing more about Him. When making someone’s acquaintance, we ask ‘What do you do for a living?’ But God asks us ‘What is your reason for living and to whom do you dedicate your life?”
So if we look at this parable from a sociological perspective, we see that God’s definition of neighbor is someone whose values are higher than his/her status. The community of God is typified by individual behavior and interpersonal relationships based on God’s value system.
God’s value system is exemplified by Jesus Christ. Second Corinthians 8:9 says that though Christ was rich, He became poor that we through His poverty might become rich. Philippians 2:6-11 tells us that Christ emptied Himself of His divinity and enfleshed Himself in humanity. In Matthew 23:11, Christ tells His followers that he who is greatest among you will be your servant. In Luke 12:48, Jesus tells us that unto whom much is given, much is required. In Luke 14:21, Christ shares a parable on being hospitable to outsiders. John 3:16-17 tells us that Christ paid debt for a world that was too poor to pay. Hence, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, through His words and deeds teaches us that having mercy on those who are broken, hurt, discouraged, abused, lost and unable to return the kindness, is what He values.