I've got parables on my mind.
Jesus of Nazareth is known as one of the historical masters of the genre, which is odd considering his parables come to us in watered-down written forms compiled and retold decades after his death. It is a testament to the rhetorical brilliance of his stories that even in such diluted forms, they are able to enlighten, enrich, and even challenge our beliefs and ideas 2,000 years later.
Jesus's most famous parable is probably the Good Samaritan (the only other real contender is the Prodigal Son), which comes from the tenth chapter of Luke. Luke contextualizes the parable around the question of a lawyer; this lawyer asks Jesus first how to inherit eternal life. Jesus's reply is standard: love God, love your neighbor. So far we're still in happy, hold-hands-and-sing-Kumbaya territory. Who can't get down with loving your neighbor?
But the lawyer is not satisfied. He needs to know more: who is his neighbor? Who does this commandment apply to?
Understand that there was no lawyer. This incident never happened. Jesus spent between one and three years wandering the Galilean countryside, speaking in synagogues and village centers to thousands of people, most of whom did not follow him around. The Good Samaritan was told many times, in many different forms, to many different groups of people, and Jesus being the genius of rhetoric and public speaking that he was, would have adapted its content, length, and style depending on the crowd.
Remarkably, Luke's framing is probably close to how Jesus liked to tell the story. Jesus would have known how to work a crowd, and when inquisitive and argumentative peasants began to derail the message he was trying to convey (not on purpose, of course), he would have been able to steer them back on track. The Good Samaritan told as a challenge parable (to borrow a phrase from John Dominic Crossan) works remarkably well as a treatment of "who is my neighbor?" and by extension "who is worthy of God's love?"
Let's modernize the story. Imagine Jesus came back today in disguise and wanted to update his parables for 21st-century America. How would he tell the Good Samaritan?
I think he'd do something like this: he would find the whitest, most Bible-thumping conservative-evangelical congregation there was. A dusty church full of aging blue-collar Trump voters, most likely, frothing at the mouth about immigrants, terrorists, taxes, and government. And then he would stand in their pulpit and ask what makes a good Christian.
"A good Christian is someone who accepts Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, and loves their God and their neighbor!" an eager congregant would say.
"Okay," Jesus would say. Fine. But then he would tell a story like this:
"A man was going down from Chicago to Gary and was set upon by gang members, who recognized him as a former rival gang member, and so stripped him and beat him and departed.
Now by chance a priest at a prominent Evangelical church was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side, for he did not want to be seen associating with a 'thug.' Likewise, a well-known local Republican politician, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side, for the same reason.
But a Syrian refugee, a Muslim, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and called an ambulance, and rode in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. And when the victim was discovered to lack health insurance, he took out his checkbook and wrote a check to the hospital for the balance of the man's bills.
Which of these men, do you think, proved to be a good Christian? The one who showed him compassion*. The Muslim."
Yes, of course a part of the parable is about how we should help people even when there's nothing in it for us. But that's the most blase surface-level understanding. The enlightened Christian must ask, "Why a Samaritan? Why a priest and a Levite?"
The priest and the Levite didn't ignore the victim because they were big dumb meanies. They did it because The Law prohibited them from coming in contact with a corpse (the victim was "half dead.") It wasn't an issue of good or evil; it was a question of right-vs.-respectability.
But the deepest layer of challenge is in the identity of the victim's savior. "Neighbor" did not mean "person who lives next-door" or "friend" in Jesus's time. It meant "equal," and Jews believed they were better than everyone else because they were God's Chosen People (I'm not trying to pick on the Jews; just about every ancient people thought they were The Best Ever). So the question "who is my neighbor?" is best thought among modern Christians as, "Who is the best Christian?" or, even better, "Who is the best at following Jesus?"
Now Samaritans were not Jews. Jews viewed them as apostates, people who'd abandoned God in favor of a false idol. They were actively despised by most Jews, and the chauvinism inherent in that time meant that this detestation went far beyond the levels of mistrust and xenophobia we're familiar with today.
Jesus got the idea of a righteous non-Jew from the Hebrew Bible, which tells of Job, the most righteous, blameless man ever to have lived (yeah, Job was without sin many centuries before Jesus), and of Ruth the Moabite, who was an ancestor of the once and future King David. It was a common revolutionary-prophetic motif that was used to subvert Jewish chauvinism and exclusivity, and Jesus employed it as many had done before him as a part of his radical egalitarian program.
This is in no way a controversial or new interpretation of this parable, but it's good to revisit it periodically and remember what it meant to Jesus, and what, God willing, it can still mean to us today.
*Compassion is a better translation than mercy, which is often used in Luke 10:37.