I often “miscue” in reading the story of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). Here’s how: I sometimes place the Samaritan in the role of the one who was beaten by robbers and later cared for by a stranger. Because Samaritans were hated as “mixed race” people (part Gentile, part Jew) and heretics in the eyes of the Jewish community, the central message I’ve absorbed remains the same: Everyone is your neighbor. You should help them even if it’s dangerous, and even if they’re your enemy.
Jesus could have made most of the usual points associated with this parable equally well if the Samaritan was the victim. Imagine this: The lawyer says “who is my neighbor?” and Jesus replies, “A Samaritan is walking on the road to Jericho. He’s beaten and left half-dead on the side of the road. A Levite and a priest pass by and don’t do anything. But then a Jewish lawyer, just like you, is moved with pity and helps the guy out. Tell me, who was a neighbor to the man?”
The lawyer who asked the question would still be in a rhetorical trap: It’s obvious that the person who helped the Samaritan acted in love—taking risks and putting himself in danger to help the stranger on the side of the road. It’s also obvious that Jesus is scandalously claiming that we should love those whom we hate, despise, and are our culturally defined enemies, the ones we definitely don’t think of as our neighbors.
So why didn’t Jesus tell the story in this more straightforward manner? If he was merely trying to make the point that those we consider our enemies are really our neighbors—that in fact everyone is a neighbor to be loved as we love ourselves, no matter how inconvenient the timing of the need—then making the Samaritan the victim works just as well.
But Jesus didn’t. And I trust that he was a lot wiser about both his society and human nature than my miscuing brain.