A number of times the Gospels refer to the Samaritans. Saint Luke tells us that when our Lord healed ten lepers, the only one among them to return and thank him was a Samaritan. Saint John relates that the Jews did not talk to the Samaritans, that the Samaritans worshipped in a temple on a mountain (Mount Gerizim) in their own territory instead of at Jerusalem, and that our Lord made a large number of His first converts amongst them. When the Pharisees wanted to insult our Lord, they told Him that ‘He was a Samaritan and had a devil.’ When the Apostles were first sent out to preach, Jesus ordered them not to go to the gentiles nor to the Samaritans.
Samaria is that region of the Holy Land on the west bank of the Jordan River. To its north is the area known as Galilee (where our Lord lived as a boy and began His public ministry). On the south it is bounded by the region known as Judea (which includes Bethlehem where our Lord was born, and Jerusalem with its Temple, and the site of our Lord’s crucifixion.
The Samaritans, then, were sort of Jews, but not quite Jews. Historically we know that Israel was taken into captivity by the Assyrians around the beginning of the eighth century before Christ. In 721 B.C. the Assyrians established a colony of foreign pagan peoples in Samaria to occupy the land. The fourth Book of Kings describes the settlement and relates that they were troubled by a plague of lions, sent by God to compel them to give up their pagan practices and adopt the religion of Israel. Although they did adopt Jewish practices, they never completely gave up their pagan heritage, and had the annoying habit of worshipping in their own temple instead of in the Jewish Temple at Jerusalem. Even by the time of Christ, centuries later, the Samaritans were treated by the Jews with all of the prejudice that ethnic minorities often receive in any society: “They are sort of like us, but not exactly like us, so therefore, we will have nothing to do with them.”
In today’s parable, our Lord “reverses the spin” on this prejudice. The injured man, traveling the road down from Jerusalem to Jericho, near the Dead Sea, would very likely have been a Jew. And the Mosaic Law was very clear about the requirement of hospitality for a fellow Jew in need—surely, the passers-by had some sort of obligation to the injured man. And the first two who passed by were of the highest class in Jewish society—the first was a priest, the second a levite—members of the sacred tribe which saw to the worship of Almighty God in the Temple. The first two were men who should have had the utmost concern for their unfortunate brother, who was suffering or perhaps even dying at the side of the road.
But our Lord portrays the outcast, the Samaritan, as the hero in this parable. Not only does he render medical aid and transport the victim to a place of shelter, but he digs down into his own pocket to make sure that the innkeeper will take care of him in his absence. The two denarii represent two days wages for a common laborer—certainly a significant gift for an utter stranger—and the Samaritan pledges to pay even more if it is reasonably required.
Who is “neighbor” to the injured man? Clearly it is the outcast, the man with whom “respectable” Jews would not even hold a conversation, let alone share quarters with in an Inn—one whom they would view as belonging not just to a lower social class, but to a lower race of people! The priest and the levite are not “neighbors” in any sense of the word, even though Jewish prejudice would view them as the so-called “better” people.
There is a lesson here, surely, that our regard for people ought to be based more on their character than on where they were born, the color of their skin, or accent with which they speak the language. “You shall love the Lord God with your whole heart, and soul, and strength, and mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” You shall love your neighbor as yourself, no matter who he might be.
There is another thing here as well. The relationship of being a “neighbor” is one of reciprocity—that is to say that it works both ways. At the beginning of the parable we are expecting to hear that the injured man is our “neighbor.” After all, he is the one so desperately in need of the charity which is inspired by the love of God. But at the end of the parable, it is the good Samaritan who is called “neighbor.” The reality of it is that we are all called to be “neighbors” of each other, precisely because we are all called to love God with every fiber of our being.
Elsewhere (in Saint Matthew’s Gospel) our Lord uses the word “brother” instead of “neighbor.” From the context it is clear that He is not restricting the word to a biological “brother,” but referring to our “brethren,” our “brothers” and “sisters” in the much wider scope of mankind. He says that if we come to offer our gift before the altar (for our purposes that might be when we come to offer Holy Mass) and we remember that we have some sort of problem with our “neighbor,” we ought to go first and clear up that problem before we come back to the altar.
Well, I was asked just the other night: “What if your neighbor refuses to make peace with you?” The answer, at least from the point of view of fulfilling your religious obligation, is that by trying to make peace with him, you do make peace with him. By your showing charity to someone as a “neighbor” would—as a “brother” would—you earn the right to consider that person as your “neighbor” or your “brother.” Even if that other person is stubborn and unreasonably refuses to settle the mutual difficulty, you have done your part—you have loved him because you have loved God, and there is nothing better that you can do.
The parable of the Good Samaritan may be one of the most widely known in the Bible. It has entered into our language so thoroughly that even people who are not Christians and who have never read Saint Luke’s Gospel use the phrase as a commonplace. The person who comes along and helps strangers without any expectation of reward is a “Good Samaritan” even to those who have no faith. And that is a good thing, because the world would be a whole lot more pleasant if we all helped each other in need.
But, often enough, we find excuses for not showing kindness to this or that person, even though they have every right to think of us as their “neighbor” or their “brother.” It is easy enough to do as the Pharisees did and place restrictions on our “neighborliness” based on distinctions of wealth, or influence, or caste, or class. We really ought not to do that. And when we are tempted too, let us try to call to mind this parable of the Good Samaritan, for we are commanded (commanded, mind you) to “love the Lord God with our whole heart, and soul, and strength, and mind; and (and) our neighbors as ourselves.”
 Luke xvii: 16.
 John iv: 1-44.
 John viii: 48.
 Matthew x: 5.
 IV Kings xvii.
 Gospel: Luke x: 23-37.
 Matthew v: 21-26.