The Illegal Samaritan

This essay was originally published in Unity in Christ Magazine on April 24, 2012.


By Paul Louis Metzger

The Good Samaritan story recorded in Luke 10:25-37 could have been titled The Illegal Samaritan story, too. It just depends on who’s telling the tale. Jesus told it first, and so he naturally, or better supernaturally, put a redemptive spin on it.

The Samaritan in this story should have never crossed the road to tend to the Jewish man (the story implies that the robbed and beaten man was Jewish). Why shouldn’t the Samaritan have crossed the road to tend to him? Jews didn’t associate with Samaritans (See Jn. 4:9), and I doubt many Samaritans would have liked for this Samaritan man to associate with Jews. Not even the Jewish religious leaders crossed the boundary in that the half-dead man was probably given up for dead, and they would have been made unclean for touching him (See Num. 19:11). How ironic then that an unclean Samaritan came close, touched the half-dead Jewish man, tended to his wounds, and made him clean.

We all have relational boundaries and borders we won’t cross because of written laws and unspoken rules. The Jewish religious leaders wouldn’t cross to tend to their own because of their laws and rules, whereas the Samaritan crossed because of the law written on his heart. Jesus puts to story form the Law’s command to love our neighbors—those created in the image of God like us—as ourselves. All other laws and customs take a back seat to it and the law that leads to it—loving God with our whole being (Lk. 10:27).

Jesus tells this story to a religious leader, who had come to test Jesus. The religious hierarchy was afraid of Jesus. As illustrated by this story, he was a threat to their positions and to national security (See also Jn. 11:48, where they fear Jesus for his miraculous signs). If given space and time, Jesus would have done away with the boundaries and closed border barriers that kept people of different ethnic and economic heritages separate from one another (Actually, he did remove those barriers through the cross and resurrection, and we have crossed those barriers through our baptism by faith in him [See for example Gal. 3:23-29]. May we live into our life in Christ!).

What would have happened to the Jewish community’s sense of solidarity as a people, if they had allowed Jesus to continue teaching such propaganda? Jesus messed with their personal boundaries and geographic boundaries. Just as he told a lowly Samaritan woman that true worshippers must worship in spirit and in truth (not on this or that mountain (Jn. 4:19-24), so he told this Jewish religious leader he needed to become like this Samaritan and cross the border to care for his neighbor. This Jewish religious leader’s “neighbor” included the half-dead Jew, the half-Jew Samaritan, and everyone else with whom he would come into contact, for everyone is created in God’s image.

As in Jesus’ day, we have written laws and unspoken rules that tell us some people are more equal than others and that some bear God’s image more than others. Just like in the 1st Century A.D., Jesus messes with our boundaries and borders and tells us to tend to everyone and heal their wounds. What borders do we erect personally, nationally, religiously?

A student from Arizona in my world religions class in my evangelical seminary told me that he would never give a cup of water to an illegal immigrant because it is against the law in Arizona. Whether or not it is against the law in Arizona, it is not against Jesus’ law to give a cup of water to such a person. In fact, it would be against Jesus’ law not to give the cup of water to this neighbor, this fellow created in God’s image. Where did my student learn to think this way? From reading his Bible? From hearing sermons of this kind? He didn’t even struggle with his conviction, at least not outwardly. What would Jesus do? What would he have us do? Jesus tells this scholar (me) and that student’s pastors back home to go and do like the illegal Samaritan did and cross customs and boundaries and borders that keep people apart and care for the neighbor in need. If we do so, not only will they live, but also we will live. As Jesus tells the religious leader, so he tells us now: “Go and do likewise” (Lk. 10:37).

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