by Martha Stortz—
Do you remember playing with Russian dolls, those precisely nested toys shaped like bowling pins and painted in bright colors? The largest doll opens to reveal a smaller doll. That doll opens to another. And another. And yet another. Until finally a family of dolls gathers in front of you, smiling happily under their babushka scarves.
The parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10 works like a family of Russian dolls, revealing a story within another story within yet another. All these stories are about biblical mercy.
The stories are so familiar, we fail to register their strangeness. Let’s look again, letting each of these stories about mercy surprise us.
INNERMOST: THE PARABLE
The parable of the Good Samaritan tells the story of a man who was robbed, beaten and left for dead by the side of the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. He’s stripped of any clothing that would have identified him as a Jew or Gentile or Samaritan. Two Jewish religious leaders look at him and cross the road to avoid defilement. According to some scholars, contact with bodily fluids or with a corpse would have rendered them ritually impure and therefore incapable of performing their jobs.
A Samaritan stops to help. In the biblical world, Samaritans were not “friends” to the Jews but “enemies.” Their country bordered Judea; they worshiped other gods. Records from the first century note that Samaritans had thrown a corpse inside the Temple precincts, defiling the holy place and making it impossible to celebrate an upcoming religious festival. The concept of a “good” Samaritan would have been a contradiction in terms to a “good” Jew. There were only “bad” Samaritans. Moreover, this particular Samaritan, on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, is deep in Jewish territory. He’s a stranger, a traveler, perhaps a migrant. The Samaritan is out of his country and out of his comfort zone.
The Samaritan sees the beaten man, and he is “moved with compassion” or in Greek, esplanchnisthe, a verb that signals gut-wrenching compassion that moves one into action. The story describes in detail the actions that follow from the Samaritan’s visceral compassion. He binds up the man’s wounds, pouring on them oil, an anti-coagulant, and wine, a disinfectant. He places the man on his own animal. He brings him to an inn; he pays the innkeeper for his care; he promises to check back.
And that’s the end of the parable. It leaves listeners with lots of questions. How does the story end? Does the man recover? Or does the innkeeper pocket the money and kick the sick man out as soon as the Samaritan is over the next hill? Does the Samaritan ever return? What happens to the priest and the Levite?
The absence of much narrative detail forces the listener to attend to those details that are presented, and these give a precise description of what the Samaritan did. The parable describes mercy in motion: compassion.
SECOND: THE ENCOUNTER
But that parable of the Good Samaritan is nested inside a second story, at least as important: an encounter of Jesus out-lawyering a lawyer. The encounter describes mercy with skin.
Trying to “test” Jesus, a lawyer poses a question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responds with a question of his own—always a good move when speaking with someone setting a verbal trap. “What’s in the law?” he asks. The lawyer responds with the Shema, the central Jewish prayer: “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” (Luke 10:27).
Having prompted the lawyer to answer his own question, Jesus says, in effect: “Right answer!” But then the lawyer keeps needling him: “And who is my neighbor?”
Jesus resists a direct answer, responding with a parable instead. He concludes with a final question: “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”
It’s important to note that the question Jesus poses is exactly the opposite of the question the lawyer originally asked. In asking, “And who is my neighbor?” the lawyer wants to know who his neighbors are. Instead, Jesus asks him who he is. Is the lawyer a neighbor? And what does it mean to be a neighbor?
The lawyer wants to build a wall between “good” people and “bad.” It’s standard scaffolding for the classic joke: “There are two kinds of people in the world…” But beneath all the humor is the desire to turn difference into otherness. Beneath all the humor is the sin of building a wall between “us” and “them.” Jesus’ answer exposes the lawyer’s error. The key issue is not who “they” are, but who “we” are. Are we ourselves neighbors?
More importantly, as Jesus shows us, the chief characteristic of neighbors is the gut-wrenching compassion that the Good Samaritan embodied. The encounter between Jesus and the lawyer shows listeners mercy with skin. That skin turns out to be our own.
Martha Stortz is the Bernhard M. Christensen Professor of Religion and Vocation at Augsburg University in Minneapolis. She is author of Called to Follow: Journeys in John (2017). She is a frequent contributor to Gather.
This article is excerpted from the March 2018 issue of Gather magazine. To read the full story or more like it, subscribe to Gather.