In the Western mind, Samaritans denote goodness. Thus, the Oxford English Dictionary that the word itself may denote, figuratively, “a kind and helpful person” and adds: “with reference to the ‘good Samaritan’ in Luke x. 33.” This is true, of course, although ironically the parable in Luke seems to present the notion of a “good Samaritan” as almost an oxymoron. Three men pass by the half dead man (ἡμιθανῆ): A priest (ἱερεύς), a Levite (Λευίτης), and a Samaritan (Σαμαρίτης). The folkloristic element of a triad is apparent, as is the gradual degradation. The priest, of all people, would have been expected to behave righteously by the audience of Jesus. The Levite is not as high as a priest, but still belongs to a religious elite. Surprisingly, the story does not continue with a lay Israelite, as this triad is attested in ancient Judaism, but with a non-Jew.
The meaning of the parable, then, can only be uncovered if the Samaritan is understood here as a stereotype for the least likely to have an ethical standing. The parable goes against the prevalent view of Second Temple Judaism that merit derives from descent. Being a righteous Samaritan is better than being an indifferent priest. Favoring deeds over descent is not solely a Christian notion. The “ways that never parted,” as rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity are viewed today, acknowledging the lively dialogue that took place between them, share a path here, too. The rabbis favor deeds over descent or titles in many cases, although they cannot rid themselves of the legacy of descent as easily as Christianity did.
Surprisingly, this parable appears only in the Gospel of Luke, whose author is least acquainted with Jewish tradition. Nevertheless, the clear indication that the parable is grounded in Second Temple literature (and in the attested tension between Jews and Samaritans) is a strong indication of its authenticity.
The parable is followed by an anecdote of Jesus’ stay at Martha and Mary’s house (Luke 10.38-42). Martha toils to serve Jesus and tires, while Mary sat at his feet, drinking every word. When Martha voices a complaint, Jesus favors Mary, who cares for the necessary (χρεία), and therefore will remain with her.
The author or editor who placed this anecdote after the Good Samaritan parable generated an interesting connection between the two, although one is a parable told by Jesus, and one is an event from his life: deeds are favorable to descent, but it is further important to recognize a hierarchy of deeds. Deeds attending to the spirit are higher than deeds attending to the flesh. The message diminishes the righteous act of the Samaritan, to a lesser degree of goodness, although perhaps the implied hierarchy can be constructed in another triad: mundane servitude to the body, attendance to the body in time of distress, attendance to spiritual teachings and development.
Nevertheless, this story portrays an impatient and somewhat ungrateful aspect in Jesus’ character. The recurrence of this motif in various stories in the gospels is somewhat surprising in a literature that is somewhat propagandist, and hence, too, an indication of authenticity of this detail.