And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him [Jesus] to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”
But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”
— Luke 10:25-37
That is the Parable of the Good Samaritan. This story is interesting on a number levels. First of all, it clearly outlines the prejudices held by society’s upper classes, those in charge of religious practice and local government. During this time, Israel was a Roman territory, so the national and regional government was of Rome. However, the local government was theocratic and generally provided to the Jews through the temple and the synagogue. More interestingly, is how Jesus provides a story that goes against tradition, challenges this prejudice, and promotes a difficult model to emulate. I’m going to describe this and then a couple ways this story is misused.
To start, let’s examine the characters here.
- The Lawyer. By “lawyer” the passage doesn’t mean quite what we’d think of as a lawyer today. This was a scribe. A person educated in the Law of God. The questions he presents are similar to other inquiries. It is likely, since his profession is mentioned, that he was representing the religious leaders in the area. (Luke 18:18-21; Matthew 19:16-22; John 3:1-15)
- Jesus Christ. Our Lord and Savior. He’s being challenged to answer a question the lawyer believes is hard, but Jesus turns the question back on him in some very telling ways.
- Robbers. Not all that important except that they beat and robbed the victim in the story.
- The Man. We know nothing of this man except that he was traveling on the road between Jerusalem to Jericho, which is a somewhat dangerous road about 17 miles long. According to The MarArthur Bible Commentary it was “notorious for being beset with thieves and danger.”
- The Priest. The priests were direct descendants of Aaron, who was the brother of Moses. These were responsible for the details of temple worship, responsible sacrificing animals and grain and such for various reasons. The priests were a special class of individuals.
- The Levite. Aaron and Moses were both descendants from a man named Levi, who was the son of Israel. A Levite would be a person in the same tribe as the priests, but a different clan. Levites were generally responsible for other religious tasks, such as managing the temple treasury, guarding the entrances to the temple, and other services across the country.
- The Samaritan. Samaritans were hated and despised by Israelites. (John 8:48) They mixed worship of Yahweh with idol worship (2 Kings 17:41) and were really the descendants of people resettled there when the king of Assyria conquered Israel a few centuries earlier. (2 Kings 17:24) In general, they had few, if any, dealings with Jews. (John 4:9)First
If you think about it from the perspective of the lawyer: a Samaritan is a descendant of a people who lived on your ancestor’s land after they had been conquered by a foreign king. It might not matter greatly to you if they were just as forcibly resettled as your ancestors were when they were taken away to Assyria and Babylon because they were living in the land promised to you and your ancestors by God. It might not have been easy for the lawyer to agree with Jesus in the end that the Samaritan was obviously the good neighbor here. In fact, since he doesn’t answer directly, but says, “the one who…” it looks very much like he didn’t want to say, “The Samaritan.”
Okay, let’s summarize. A man is beaten and left for dead. Two members of the religious and political upper class walk by without helping him. A member of a despised group comes and helps the man out, nurses him to health, and even pays for his stay in an inn with no hope of repayment. The Samaritan’s not even in the right part of the country, so he’s not in a good position himself, but he helps anyway.
This is proving to be a really peculiar story. But then the real kicker is that Jesus doesn’t even answer the lawyer’s question! The lawyer asked, “Who is my neighbor?” So, we read the story, get right up to verse 36, “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” Prior to reading that, the obvious answer to the lawyer’s question is, “the man who was robbed” is the neighbor he asked about. The Samaritan just looks like color to shame the lawyer, but that’s not the point Jesus makes.
Rather, Jesus asks that question, “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” Jesus’s question is the opposite of the lawyer’s. Not who should I serve, but who was the one who served? It’s a very poignant challenge. It states that a Jew should emulate, of all people, a lousy Samaritan.
So, what do we learn? Lot’s of things. A true follower of God’s Kingdom is one like this Samaritan. His background is questionable, but his actions are righteous. We all sin, but once we have been redeemed by Jesus Christ, we should seek to serve others in need, without regard to what that means to ourselves. This is hard to practice. It is obviously much easier to behave like the priest and the Levite.
But, that’s not all. This service is very, very personal and extremely generous. The Samaritan didn’t just notify the next town that a Jew was on the road needing help, he didn’t just pick him up and help him to the next village, he didn’t just pass him a few coins for the inn. This man “had compassion.” He, personally, cleaned and treated the man’s wounds. He “brought him to an inn and took care of him.” He stayed the night with the man to make sure he was alright and then, before traveling on, payed the innkeeper two denarii, which was 2 day’s wages. Think about how much you earn in two days. Would you give that kind of money to a complete stranger? But he didn’t stop there, “Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.” This is like giving them his credit card and saying, “Just charge that for whatever he needs.”
Going back to what I said before now, following Christ’s suggestion, “You go, and do likewise,” is a very hefty proposition. Serving others in need with such generosity is very difficult. I’d say it’s pretty nearly impossible. I can’t imagine there are many people who come close.
Now, my final point. I hear this parable cheapened and distorted far too often and it grates on my soul. Here are a couple things I hear the term “Good Samaritan” used to describe, which water down the meaning in ways that bother me:
- Good Samaritan Law. It does not strike me as particularly ethical to force ethics on people by law. In any case, it takes a beautiful portrait of what the Samaritan does voluntarily and turns it into an obligation. I say that cheapens this beautiful portrait Christ painted.That’s bothersome.
- Social action. Social action typically implies some sort of detached service, not personal service, at least not for most people. For example, there’s an organization in town (I used to fix their computers) called Kansas Guardianship Program. Their purpose is to help guardians who help people unable to care for themselves pay for the care they give. It’s more complicated than that, but that’s the gist. To call this kind of social action a Good Samaritan program cheapens the story of the Good Samaritan. One of these guardians might be comparable to the Good Samaritan, but a program of social workers who coordinate with these folks and deliver checks are not Good Samaritans. I’m not making any comment regarding KGP, itself, by the way. Just noting that calling them Good Samaritans for doing this would be an exaggeration of what they do professionally and/or a cheapening of the story.
If you want to use the above terms, fine, but realize it’s a misuse.
The real point, however, is that we should each be humbled by this story and realize how we’ve failed to serve others personally when opportunities have presented themselves. We should keep our eyes peeled for the people in need we run across and give of ourselves sacrificially. This isn’t a parable about serving others in the abstract, but of giving up that which is valuable to serve others directly and personally.