OBEYING God is supposed to be easy. Deuteronomy says: “surely this commandment is not too hard for you.” Jesus corroborates it: “My yoke is easy” (Matthew 11.30). So, once we hear today’s Gospel, it ought to be simple for us to turn its message into moral action.
The parable of the Good Samaritan does not, strictly speaking, exist; for it is never described as a parable. The good Samaritan is not likened to anyone: the message is drawn from the entire story, not from the points of contact or comparison. Too good not to pass on is Fitzmyer’s observation that the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan are the equivalent of our “Englishman, Irishman, and Scotsman”.
The Gospel makes two characters, not one, the baddies: the priest and the Levite who pass by on the other side. I feel rather sorry for them, as I hear sermon after sermon filling out their back story so as to conclude that they stand for religious intransigence or hard-heartedness.
I would like to know how common it might have been, at that time, for people to encounter the unburied dead in their environment. Roadsides are a place for the poor and desperate to wait — either to rob, like those who attacked the traveller, or to beg. It is not unlikely that some who begged might die if they were not helped. Also, the traveller did look half-dead. The passers-by may have assumed that he was already beyond their aid.
The reason we suppose that the priest and Levite deliberately avoided helping is that they passed by “on the other side”. But we are not told that they changed sides to avoid encountering the half-dead traveller. All that we can say for certain is that they did not react to him. Perhaps they deliberately avoided taking notice of him, as we might a Big Issue seller we walk past every day. Equally likely is the possibility that he simply escaped their notice because the sight of the unburied destitute was nothing out of the ordinary.
It is in the nature of a Bible story like his that we get only the information that we strictly need to evaluate the message. Why the others passed by is not the point. They simply stand for “what most people would do”. Our gaze must remain on the Samaritan. He was “moved with pity”. That is less earthy than the Greek original, which says esplanchnisthe: “His guts were churned.” It is not in our brain or heart that we feel compassion, according to the Bible, but in our guts (Colossians 3.12). Imagine the sort of reaction we have to news of casualties in war, or victims of famine: the impact is “gut-wrenching”.
So, our guts are where we feel compassion for the suffering of others. The name of the feeling that this gives rise to is “mercy”. We could explore the relationship between mercy and pity, but the story is perfectly accessible without fine distinctions and arguments about moral abstracts. Much more important than finessing definitions of these qualities is the form in which the lesson is delivered.
Jesus does not preach at the man who stood up to “test” him. We must not criticise the lawyer for doing so. He is sensible to check that this new teacher is not peddling fake truth. He shows wisdom in trying to “make himself righteous” (put himself in a right relationship with God) by asking how to identify his “neighbour”. The beauty of Jesus’s teaching method is that he makes the lawyer answer his own question.
I think that Jesus knew that the lawyer would give the right answer, because he had asked the right question in the first place. Perhaps it was something that his own conscience had been struggling with for years. Sometimes, the point at which people pluck up the courage to ask a question is years apart from the moment that it first began to trouble their conscience or spirit.
It is a pity that the NRSV and other translations do not deliver exactly what the Greek says for the answer, although it is understandable; for there is no natural equivalent phrase in English. The answer, in verse 37, to the question “Which one was the neighbour?” is, literally, “The one who did mercy upon him.” This is not the first time that the Gospel has told us that merciful feelings are no substitute for merciful actions.