We are all familiar with the story of the Good Samaritan. We marvel at the kindness and generosity of the Samaritan, who poses as a big contrast to the ‘bad guys’ in the story, the Priest and the Levite. We like a straightforward conclusion: the bad guys are selfish, while the good guy is compassionate. Be like the good guy.
Yet why did Jesus go into so many details to describe how the Good Samaritan helps the injured man? The story actually illustrates not the difference between good guys and bad guys, but between healthy boundaries and unhealthy boundaries.
The Priest and the Levite certainly have their boundaries up, and possibly for good reasons. As public religious figures, they are not to defile themselves. We do not know the social status of the unfortunate man. Yet we can speculate from the fact that he is walking in the desert by himself that he is probably not your typical respectable middle-class man. In Moses’ Law, priests are not to touch any one deemed ‘unclean’. And if this person is an outcast (which he probably is), or worse, dead, the priest would have to go through all sorts of ceremonial procedures to cleanse themselves, disrupting a lot of their important religious duties.
The Priest and the Levite certainly knew their boundaries. They knew the Law doesn’t require them to help this mysterious man, but requires them to stay away from the ‘unclean’. So to be ‘safe’, they avoid having anything to do with the man. They “pass by on the other side” as Jesus describes. That is the safe thing to do.
They were ‘protecting’ themselves, and also the Law as well! But is this how God wants His Law to be observed and fulfilled? What exactly are they protecting? God’s Law or themselves?
Now enters the Samaritan. Does he embrace this injured man with no understanding of boundaries? Is he ‘good’ simply because he gives everything to the injured man? Well, Jesus’ description of the Samaritan’s actions reveal at least five important boundaries:
1. Boundaries in physical contact
The Samaritan immediately approaches the injured man and attends to his most urgent need: first aid. In 10:34, Jesus describes, ‘he went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine.’ (Note: that’s not how we treat wounds in modern times). This close contact is important for the man’s safety and possibly even his life. His need for mercy and compassion at the time is far greater than the risks the Priests and the Levite have tried to avoid earlier.
However, after fulfilling this urgent need, the Samaritan does not have any more direct physical contact with him. He simply puts him on his donkey, and brings him to an inn instead of his own home. He takes care of him in the inn. In this way, the Samaritan’s own family is not affected. He himself is also not exhausted by bringing the injured to safety, at least not more than what is necessary.
2. Boundaries in time
The Samaritan does not stay with the injured man for long. Jesus emphasizes he went away the following day (10:35). Right after making sure the injured is being cared for in the inn, the Samaritan goes back to his family, or attends to his own usual business. He still has time for the people and activities he has planned for that day. His family life is not disrupted by the incident. But he hasn’t abandoned the poor man. He will come back to the inn when he is available again. He has full control of the timing of his whereabouts and attention.
3. Boundaries in finances and resources
The Samaritan only pays for what is needed at that time . He does not leave an amount that is larger than necessary. In fact, we know it is exactly 2 denari, equivalent to 2 days of minimum wage in today’s society, a reasonable amount for the innkeeper to take care of the injured man. Yet the Samaritan is still generous. He is to reimburse the innkeeper later in case the 2 denari are not enough. The priority is still ensuring the injured man is receiving the care he needs. But the Samaritan’s resources are to be allocated only according to the actual needs at the right time.
4. Boundaries in involvement
The Samaritan does not provide the need for the injured man by himself. He delegates the hands-on tasks to someone who specialises in the hospitality business rather than doing the work himself, while making sure both the injured and the carer have enough resources to sustain. He involves and partners with the innkeeper throughout the process. He plays the role of a patron, providing for the care for the injured behind the scene, as well as earnings for the innkeeper.
5. Boundaries in decision-making
This boundary is not explicitly described in Jesus’ parable. Yet readers can reasonably deduce the Samaritan is making all the important decisions independently. We do not know whether he is aware of what the Priest and the Levite have just done.
Either way, it is likely he is facing a certain amount of social, religious and cultural expectations and pressure regarding how to react. The expectations are definitely not to help the man. The Samaritan is able to do something, and follow it through to the end, that is so out of the normal bounds of the social constructs of his contemporary world. There is no sign of comparing with other people, or worrying about other people’s opinions and expectations. This independence is much more difficult in the first century than in our modern world. He decides to help and how to help according to what he thinks is right on the spot.
What was the question again?
Yet this is not the end of the story. Note Jesus’ parable is not a logical answer to the question he is being asked, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ (10:29). Perhaps he believes the question should be rephrased. Jesus seems to be answering the question, ‘Who can become my neighbour?’ (if you put yourself in the injured man’s shoes), or ‘To whom can I become a neighbour?’ (if you put yourself in the Samaritan’s shoes). A neighbour is someone who lives in close proximity to you, but in a home that is not in your own home. So there is always a boundary involved. The boundary is what defines us, the neighbour, as well as our relationship.
We are commended by God to love our neighbour as ourselves. In this case, we are to use God’s way of defining our boundaries to define all aspects of our relationship: who we are, our responsibilities for ourselves and for others, the time and resources we devote to one another, and the involvement we have in each other’s lives. The religious leaders, however, invented their own boundaries to protect what they believed to be important rather than what God thinks is important. The Samaritan, on the other hand, has protected what God cares about: both the neighbour’s needs as well as his own needs.