The Bad Samaritan
The scandalous quality of Jesus' parables are lost on us. We've become too accustomed to the stories, domesticating the plot to the point where we no longer wrestle with the subversive intent.
Take, for example, the story of the "Good Samaritan." Notice, no where in the parable does Jesus call the Samaritan "good." But, we have labelled the hero "good" because of his compassionate behavior, showing mercy to an enemy. We know a little about the ethnic hatred between the Jews and the Samaritans. We delight in the juxtapostioning of the religious elites (they do nothing--so typical, huh?) and the outsider (what a great guy!) as they pass by the victim on the side of the road. We like the part where the Samaritan is so generous, he not only takes the wounded man to the inn, but pays the inn-keeper for future expenses and promises to return to settle up the bill. We are inspired to "go and do likewise" by helping stranded motorists, giving hitch-hikers a lift, or perhaps even paying for an evening's stay in a hotel for a homeless man. The privileged helping the under-privileged.
But, that's not the whole story.
It looks perfectly normal to us--perhaps even extraordinary--when the Samaritan pays for the wounded man to stay in the inn. We picture a comfortable place (not the Hilton, but at least a Holiday Inn Express?) between Jerusalem and Jericho. We envision the Samaritan taking care of the man, nursing him back to health, then leaving for a while--only to return to check on his progress and pay the hotel bill. What a guy.
But, this is exactly where we misread the story. First, a Samartian bringing a wounded Jewish man into a Jewish town was incredibly risky (a point made by Kenneth Bailey). Second, there was no "inn" between Jerusalem and Jericho (modern tourist site claims notwithstanding). The "inn" was probably located on the outskirts of Jericho. Third, what the story assumes is what we miss. Hospitality was never purchased; it was earned by honor. In Jewish culture, a traveler looking for accomodations would simply go to the city gate or the city well and wait for someone to recognize him as an honorable man and take him home (the Old Testament is filled with stories like this). If you had to pay for a place to stay, it meant you were a low life. Indeed, "inns" also doubled as houses of "ill repute" (for example, in Jewish literature, Rahab "the harlot" is called an "inn keeper"), which is why inns were often located on the edge of town. All kinds of riff-raff showed up there. Roman philsophers condemned these public houses as moral degradation. "If you don't have enough honor to stay in our fair town, move on!" This Samartian wasn't "good" by any standard. He was a bad man. Fourth, why did the Samaritan leave? More than likely he feared for his life--he was in hostile territory. And, finally, what was a Samaritan doing on the Jericho road anyway? He was probably a merchant, a travelling man who ignored traditions to make a buck. You know the kind--will set aside family loyalities and religious devotion at the drop of a hat if there's money to be made.
This was no "Good Samaritan." This was a bad man, who for some unexplained reason, took pity on a complete stranger and relied upon socially unacceptable practices to save a man's life.