By Joe LaGuardia
In Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan, theories abound as to why the fictitious priest and Levite saw a half-dead man in the ditch along the road from Jerusalem to Jericho and “passed on the other side” (Luke 10:25-37).
One theory is that, as religious officials, the priest and Levite steered clear because touching a half-dead or dead man would have caused ritual impurity. They were coming from Jerusalem, likely from worshipping at Temple. They were pious, and they had a job to do.
Another theory is that the priest and Levite were afraid to help the man. With many blind turns and bends, that winding road descended some 1500 feet and surely had predators lurking in the shadows. If the man was mugged once, what was to stop another from being mugged by the same group?
In fact, decoys were a threat in the ancient world. It was not uncommon for bandits to have an imposter lay on the side of the road. As soon as an unsuspecting person came to help, the bandits would spring the trap.
The priest and Levite did not see a man in need, they saw danger and responded accordingly.
A third theory is that the half-dead man represented an inconvenience or, worse, a person deserving of his fate.
This theory, though tenuous, assumes a particular Jewish worldview: that people who faced tragedy did so because they were either deserving of said tragedy or deserving of God’s judgment and wrath.
This worldview runs as an undercurrent throughout the Old Testament. The Old Testament contains theological leanings that advocate tragedy as the means whereby God punishes a wayward people. The “sin and evil” cycle in Judges, for instance, assumes that national and political events result from the integrity (or lack thereof) of Israel’s obedience to God.
That God forgives sin and puts Israel in right-standing with God is often due to God’s mercy more than anything else.
Other Old Testament books, such as Job, pushed back on that notion. Job faced tragedy for no other reason than bad things happen to everyone, some more than others. Job’s friends claimed that it was God’s wrath that befell him, but God later discredited this line of thinking (Job 42:7).
If the priest and Levite avoided helping the half-dead man in the ditch because they assumed he deserved it, then the priest and Levite did what was natural; yet they failed to balance their dogmatic theology with mercy, an act of helping the man and providing a second chance at life even if it meant that the man would not get what was deserved.
The third person to pass on that road was a Samaritan. Jesus stated that the Samaritan saw the man and had mercy on him. The Samaritan tended to the man, brought him to a nearby hostel and paid for his treatment.
In modern parlance, many pastors state that mercy happens when someone doesn’t get what they deserve, unlike grace, which is a gift given to the undeserving.
With this line of logic, a question arises in light of Jesus’ word choice in the parable. If the Samaritan did have “mercy” (some translations say “pity”) on the man, then does that mean that even the Samaritan assumed the man deserved his fate?
Or, since this was Jesus’s word choice, did Jesus assume that a half-dead man on the side of the road was somehow deserving of his fate, but crafted a character to “have mercy” and change the course of the man’s destiny?
Or did Luke assume this about the man and applied the word “mercy” in this context when he put Jesus’ parable to paper, knowing all along that he employed the word “mercy” in many instances in which Jesus came in contact with those in need?
An astute student of Jesus’ life, words, and teachings will paint a very different picture of mercy and of some of the conclusions these questions may draw.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus combated the Jewish worldview that assumed hardship or tragedy was somehow a consequence of God’s judgment.
In John 9:2-3, some people asked Jesus why a man was born blind, whether the man’s sin or his parents’ sins. Jesus said it was not the result of sin that created this disability.
In Matthew 5:45, Jesus affirmed that “the rain falls on the just and unjust alike.”
The definition of mercy is not as monolithic as pastors make it seem. In fact, mercy can carry a variety of connotations and meanings.
According to the Dictionary of the New Testament, the act of having mercy, when applied to God’s relationship with humans, does imply divine favor in which a person or group does not get what is deserved.
Israel sins, God has mercy and forgives.
When a human has mercy on another, however, it marks reconciliation in a relationship. When one person has pity on someone who is in need or is not well off, it is an act of mercy.
Furthermore, this type of mercy occurs most often within families, say, between a parent and child or among siblings.
When the Samaritan saw the man in the ditch and had mercy, we can rightly assume that it was not an act of divine favor, but of this second type of mercy. More than that, it was as if the Samaritan made a connecton, subconsciously or otherwise, that the man was family.
The Samaritan was not concerned with purity, danger, or a theology of the thing. The Samaritan saw a fellow human being as he was: as part of a larger family to which the Samaritan belonged. And, as family, it was someone who needed both a helping hand and a financial and time investment.
It was this act of seeing the world and a fellow human being a particular way that makes the Samaritan a neighbor that reflects the very love of God.
The goal of the Christian is to see the world as Christ saw the world and, if we use the language of mercy as a primer, than we are to see the world as a family worth our time, attention, investment, and aid.
It is not enough to see the world as deserving of God’s judgment or wrath; we are to see the world through God’s eyes, expressed best in John 3:16-17:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God sent his son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through him.”
If God so loved the world, then we too should love the world and spread the Good News that God is merciful.
In his first of three letters, St. John wrote to churches in Asia Minor,
“If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.”
The language of both family and sight should not be overlooked as it relates to the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
The world is worth our time. It is worth investing in, that the message of second chances and new life may come its way yet again.
There is indeed something about mercy. We would do well to practice it, for this is how Jesus challenges us to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves.