Feb 04 2010
Quick quiz: what is a “Samaritan?”
If you answered “a person who selflessly does a good deed,” you are wrong. A Samaritan is simply a person from Samaria, a mountainous region of the Holy Land between Judea and Galilee — more or less what we now call the West Bank of Israel. The ancient Samaritans had a lot in common with the ancient Jews, but they weren’t on the same team, so to speak. Or perhaps it’s better to say they were on the same team (the Abrahams) but were on different shifts.
Put it this way; when the Parable of the Good Samaritan was written in the first century A.D. the idea of a Samaritan doing a good deed for a non-Samaritan (in this case a Jew) was a bit unusual. Those were very politically, culturally, and religiously loaded days in the Holy Land (not unlike today), so there was not a lot of trust between people of different tribes. So one of the key points of the parable is that one should do good deeds for everyone, even those who are “others.”
In that case, the Samaritan was an “other,” and he did a good deed for a Jew. Jesus, himself a Jew, told this parable as a way of illustrating that even those questionable “others” can do good deeds. But the Samaritan was not a “Samaritan” because he was good. It was because he was from Samaria. The fact that he was good made him a good Samaritan, which does not exclude the possibility of there being loads of bad Samaritans.
It’s as if I wrote a parable about a New Yorker doing a good deed for a Quebecer. It would be the Parable of the Good New Yorker. Naturally, that parable would not imply that every New Yorker is good. More importantly, it would not imply that any good person should be referred to as a “New Yorker!”
And yet I see and hear, on a regular basis, people referring to someone who does a good deed as a “Samaritan.” I hear things like “I had a flat tire and a Samaritan came along and helped me fix it,” or “If it wasn’t for that Samaritan I’d still be down that well!” Really? A Samaritan — a person from the Levant, a old biblical guy in a robe and sandals — came along and fixed your tire?
I think not. However, if you said “I had a flat tire and a Good Samaritan came along and helped me fix it,” or “If it wasn’t for that Good Samaritan I’d still be down that well!” then you would not be making an error. People would understand that by “Good Samaritan” you mean someone like the man in the parable of the Good Samaritan. But when you just say “Samaritan,” all you mean is some dude from Samaria!
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