What Does Samaritan Mean?
Even if you’ve never read the Bible and have only a passing understanding of Christianity and the teachings of Jesus, you probably know what a good samaritan is. A good samaritan is someone who steps in to help, even when it isn’t expected of them, and perhaps especially when offering assistance comes with a personal sacrifice on their part.
The term has become so widely used, that it appears in new stories, television and movie scripts, and personal conversations, usually without any sort of explanation or reference to its origin. But the idea of the good samaritan who helps without thought of recognition or reward would have likely been a completely foreign concept to those who were present to hear the original parable as taught by the Savior Himself.
The Parable of the Good Samaritan can be found in the Bible in the Gospel of Luke. In the story, a traveler is attacked by robbers, who beat him nearly to death, steal his clothing, and leave him injured and helpless. As he lays at the side of the road in obvious distress, he is first passed by a Jewish priest, and then by a Levite — neither of whom offer any assistance. Finally, a Samaritan finds the man. He provides help, treating the man’s injuries and carrying the man to an inn where he could recuperate in comfort and safety. The Samaritan then pays the innkeeper to continue to care for the man, promising more money if needed (Luke 10:25-37).
This parable highlights key aspects of the Gospel of Jesus Christ — mercy, charity, and love for one another are all demonstrated by the Samaritan. But to get a clear feeling for the full impact of the parable, we need to look at the significance of the Samaritan, as well as the importance of the two other travelers who passed by the injured man and did nothing to help.
What Is a Samaritan?
In His parable, Jesus is clear in identifying the origins/professions of those who pass on the road. The first two, a priest and a Levite, respectively, do nothing to help the man — despite the fact that both the priest and the Levite would have been considered neighbors to the man, and of whom it might be expected to offer aid. Instead, the one who helps is a Samaritan, meaning a person from Samaria (a region north of Jerusalem).
Why is this significant? Because the people of Samaria and the people of ancient Jerusalem were not on friendly terms. Though they inhabited the same geographic area, the Jewish people looked down on the Samaritans, and generally went out of their way to avoid interacting with them. Although both groups traced their origins to the original tribes of Israel, the Samaritans' religious practices were not compatible with those of the Jews. To the people of Jerusalem, the Samaritans were blasphemers and outsiders, hardly worth any form of consideration at all.
To Jesus’ listeners, the Samaritan would have been about as far from a neighbor as one could be. As such, when the Samaritan demonstrates love for the injured man whom he had likely never before even met, the listeners would have been forced to face their own preconceptions about who deserved charity, and who was capable of providing it.
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10: 36-37)
The Samaritan Woman at the Well
In addition to The Parable of the Good Samaritan, we have the account of Jesus meeting and interacting with the Samaritan woman at the well. In the fourth chapter of the Book of John, we read that as Jesus passed through Samaria, He stopped at a well.
He asked a Samaritan woman who was drawing water to share with Him and give Him a drink. She was surprised that he would even consider speaking with her, considering that He was a Jew and she a Samaritan. Jesus then proceeded to teach the woman Gospel truths, revealing himself as the Messiah and touching her heart through the Spirit in such a way that she began to share His message with others. Soon, many from her town came out to be taught by the Savior, and were converted to His Gospel.
Samaritans as Representative of the Inclusiveness of Christ
What is a Samaritan? Historically it is a member of a people who once lived in Samaria. But the Samaritan definition in the Bible is much more than that. Samaritans are representative of all the world. By ignoring social prejudices and opening up His teachings to those who were not strictly of the Jewish faith, Christ showed that His Gospel truly was for everyone. By including Samaritans in His teachings, Jesus showed His followers that inclusion was the mark of the everlasting Gospel.
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