Jesus' parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) may seem an odd text on which to base a discussion of poverty and wealth. None of the characters appear to be either wealthy or poor.
While the traveler attacked by robbers and left for dead needed assistance, the parable doesn't portray him as poor.
Priests and Levites like the ones in the parable were usually neither wealthy nor poor. The Jewish high priests and their families had amassed immense wealth by controlling the vast resources that flowed into the Jerusalem temple from all over the world. But most common priests and Levites who assisted in the temple service had to find other income to make ends meet.
Similarly, neither the Samaritan nor the innkeeper is presented as wealthy or poor.
|Statue of the good Samaritan by Francois-Leon Sicard in the Tuileries Garden in Paris.|
But let's not forget about the robbers. Who were these people?
In Jesus and the Spiral of Violence (Fortress Press, 1993), biblical historian Richard Horsley describes how the powerful, merciless and corrupt Roman Imperial system (with which the high-priestly families were in close collusion) generated tremendous poverty among the population in the region. As we know from Jesus' parables and sayings, many people were forced to go into debt, forfeit their land and inheritance, sell themselves off as servants or even as prostitutes, and look for any work they could find as day laborers.
Hardships led some to flee to the hills as outlaws, where many turned to banditry to survive. The Greek word lestai used in Jesus' parable referred not simply to robbers or thieves but to these brigands or social bandits.
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