The Good Samaritan — 15th Sunday of Ordinary Time—Year C

Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan is among his most famous and familiar. Yet, like Jesus Christ himself, it has still more to teach us. Today I will share contexts and symbolisms of this parable that you’ve probably never heard before.

Jesus’ story begins, “A man fell victim to robbers as he went down from Jerusalem to Jericho.” In Wisconsin, we talk about going up to Canada or going down to Madison; for us north is “up” and south is down. But in Israel, the city of Jericho lies fourteen miles east of Jerusalem. The man went down to Jericho because Jerusalem has a much higher elevation. Have you ever seen the Sears Tower (now called the Willis Tower) in Chicago? Picture its height from street-level to the top of its two antennas; now imagine stacking another Sears Tower standing on top of those antennas. From top to bottom, that’s how much a traveler descends when going from Jerusalem to Jericho.

Jerusalem was the Holy City, the place of God’s dwelling. But Jericho, as you may recall, was the city which Joshua at God’s command marched the Hebrews around in a circle for seven days, before blowing their horns and shouting, causing its walls to collapse. They conquered the city which symbolizes sin, human fallenness, and rebellion from God. Jericho, incidentally, is not far from the Dead Sea, the shore of which is the lowest dry land on the surface of the earth—the furthest you can be from heaven above.

The robbers stripped and beat the man and went off leaving him half-dead. A priest happened to be going down that road, but when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. In the same way, a Levite came to the place, and when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side.” Who were these men? The Jewish priest would have offered sacrifices at the Temple while the Levite would have assisted there like a sacristan. Why did both men pass by ‘on the opposite side of the road’ as they walked in the direction of Jericho? Perhaps that they thought the motionless body on the shoulder of the road was already dead. Under the Law of Moses, touching a dead body made a person ritually unclean. Whether this was their reason, or they just did not care enough to be bothered, a third man comes along who is both willing and able to help.

A Samaritan traveler came upon him and was moved with compassion at the sight.” We know that Jews and Samaritans didn’t like each other, but why? Who were the Samaritans? Some five hundred years before the coming of Christ the Babylonians were the superpower of the ancient world. When the Jewish king decided he wasn’t going to pay tribute to Babylon anymore, the Babylonian king was not pleased. He sent his army, sieged Jerusalem, conquered it, and carried off the region’s inhabitants into what is called the Babylonian Exile. Not everyone was taken though; some of the poor laborers, the farmers and vine-dressers, were left behind. To ensure that this Jewish remnant did not rebel again, and to make sure the good land did not go idle, the Babylonians resettled the people of five pagan nations among them.

Seventy years after this catastrophe, after the Babylonians themselves were conquered by the Persian Empire, the king of Persia gave the Jews permission to return to their homeland. When they arrived they found that those who had been left behind had intermarried with the pagans and adopted some of their religious practices. The Jews looked down on these people, these Samaritans, as unfaithful to the Lord. It’s no mere coincidence that the Samaritan Woman at the Well with whom Jesus speaks in John’s Gospel has had five husbands—just like the five resettled pagan nations. This real woman symbolizes her people, with whom Jesus desires to be reconciled and whom he wants to save.

Jesus’ chosen hero for this parable, the Good Samaritan, “approached the victim, poured oil and wine over his wounds and bandaged them. Then he lifted him up on his own animal, took him to an inn and cared for him.” In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells the scholar of the law (and us) to be like “the one who treated him with mercy.” That’s a very important, famous, and familiar lesson, but there is symbolism within this parable which teaches even more.
The man who fell to the robbers represents our human race. Traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, we were descending from the height of communion with God to the depths of sin. We fell to robbers, to evil spirits and wicked desire. They stripped us naked, depriving us of our previous glory. They beat us and left us half-dead; biologically we were still living, but spiritually we were dead. No one could or would help us. But then our Good Samaritan came – Jesus Christ.

He looked upon us and was moved with compassion. He approached us and poured His blood over us, like wine, to cleanse the wounds of sin. He poured the Holy Spirit on us, like oil, to strengthen us. He bandaged our members with his teachings; and though these disciplines bind us they are for the freedom of full health. He lifted us up on his beast of burden, his own flesh in the Passion, to bring us to the inn. This inn, where the robbers’ victim is cared for until he comes again, is the Church.

You and I are represented by the robbers’ victim brought into the inn for care. But you and I are also represented by the inn-keeper, for we are likewise called to care for others. The Good Samaritan provides two coins to the inn-keeper along with an instruction and a promise: “Take care of him. If you spend more than what I have given you, I shall repay you on my way back.” In the parable, these are two coins are Roman silver denarii, equal to two day’s wages. Jesus provides for our mission to serve him and our neighbor, for today and for tomorrow, and whatever we expend in time, talent, or treasure in his inn, the Church, will have his divine repayment.

In light of this great parable, ask Jesus to show you your neighbor, who he has entrusted to your care, then “Go and do likewise.” The command which he ‘enjoins on you today is not too mysterious and remote for you. …No, it is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts; you have only to carry it out.’ You shall love the Lord your God supremely, and love your neighbor as yourself.

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