The Good Samaritan is one of Jesus’ most popular parables. Preachers often use it to encourage people to be unselfish, to think ahead and help others. But there is more to the story than that. Jesus was doing far more than putting hypocritical religious leaders in their place. Let’s take a closer look.
A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead.
A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.
But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. “Look after him,” he said, “and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.”
Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers? (Luke 10:30-37)
The answer to Jesus’ question was obvious. But Jesus was teaching much more than a lesson in social responsibility. Let’s consider the context. Jesus was answering a lawyer who had asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (verse 25). This man was a religious lawyer, priding himself in his understanding of all 613 points of the Torah. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day had inherited a system that had turned obedience to God into an obstacle course, so strewn with picky dos and don’ts that it left the average person on a permanent guilt trip.
This approach contradicted what Jesus taught, and confrontation became inevitable. The lawyers, along with the Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes and others in religious leadership, were constantly trying to discredit Jesus. There was a motive behind the lawyer’s apparently innocent question. So Jesus let the expert speak first: “What is written in the law?… How do you read it?” (verse 26).
The lawyer knew the answer: “‘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, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (verse 27).
“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live” (verse 28).
It was a good answer, as far as it went. But you know what lawyers are like. They are trained to look for some extenuating circumstance that might in some way limit the extent of the law. The lawyer knew that the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” was impossible to fulfill. So he thought he had found a loophole. “Who is my neighbor?” he asked Jesus. That is when Jesus gave his famous parable.
Cast and location
Jesus set his story on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, a distance of about 17 miles. Jerusalem was where the Temple was, the center of the Levitical priesthood. The priests were the highest class of the Levites. They were supported by thousands of other Levites who served at lower levels, doing such tasks as keeping the altar fire going, lighting the incense, singing in the Temple chorus and playing musical instruments. When they were not on duty, many of these priests and temple workers lived in Jericho. They often traveled this road between Jerusalem and Jericho.
Travel in those days could be hazardous. One stretch of the Jericho road was known as the “Way of Blood,” because so many people were robbed and killed there. This was where Jesus set the scene for his parable. People knew exactly where he was talking about.
In Jesus’ story, the first person to see the victim is a priest, but rather than get involved, he passes by on the other side of the road. He is followed by a Levite, a temple-worker. The Levite does the same—he passes by. Then along comes a Samaritan.
A what? Jesus would have caused a stir with that. The Samaritans were a mix of Jew and Gentile, and the Jews did not like them. They had names for Samaritans like “half breeds” and “heathen dogs,” and considered them to be spiritually defiled. The Jews of that time did not often hear the words “good” and “Samaritan” used in the same sentence.
But in Jesus’ story, it is this outcast who stops to help. Not only does this Samaritan help, but he goes far beyond what most people do. He cleans the victim’s wounds with oil and wine, then bandages them. People didn’t carry first-aid kits back then. He likely would have had to tear up some of his own clothing to make a bandage. Next, he puts the injured man on his donkey and takes him to an inn. He takes two silver coins, a considerable amount in those days, and promises to reimburse the innkeeper for any further expense. This is an exceptional level of assistance, especially for a total stranger and someone who is supposed to be a social enemy. But the Samaritan did not let that stand in the way.
With this deceptively simple little story, Jesus impales the lawyer on his own hook. He asks him, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” (verse 36). Jesus has turned the question around. He is not asking, “Which people should I help?” He is saying: To answer the question, you need to put yourself into the shoes (or lack thereof) of the man who was beaten and left to die. The better question is: “When I need help, who do I want to help me?” Don’t you hope that the Samaritan will be a neighbor to you?
Who was a good neighbor? The answer is obvious, but the expert in the law didn’t want to say the word Samaritan, so he said, “The one who had mercy on him.” Then Jesus delivers the knockout blow: “Go and do likewise” (verse 37).
Remember, this “teacher of the law” was from a class of people who prided themselves on how carefully they obeyed God. For example, they would not pronounce God’s name, considering it too holy to utter. They would even take a ritual bath to ensure purity before writing God’s name. Along with the Pharisees, they were fastidious about observing the law in every detail. The lawyer had asked what he needed to do in order to inherit eternal life. Jesus’ answer was, in effect, “You have to do the impossible.” Your love for others needs to extend far beyond what humans are capable of doing.
A story of salvation
How could anyone be expected to live up to the standard of the Samaritan in this story? If that is what God expects, even the meticulous lawyer was doomed. Jesus was showing that humans cannot meet the perfect requirements of the law. Even those who dedicate themselves to it fall short. Jesus is the only one to fulfill the law in its deepest intent. Jesus is the Good Samaritan.
Jesus knew that there is nothing we can “do” to earn an eternity with a holy God. So he crafted his answer-story at two levels of meaning. On the surface, it made the point that people ought to love and do good to their enemies. But on a deeper level, it addressed the question of eternal life. To answer the question, we need to put ourselves in the place of the man who was beaten and left to die. He represents us—all humanity. The robbers correspond to sin and the forces of evil, the devil and his dominion. We do not have enough strength to combat these forces, and if we are left to ourselves, we will die.
The priest and the Levite represent the laws and sacrifices of the old covenant. They can’t help us. The Good Samaritan is the only one who can help. The wine and the oil correspond, roughly, to the blood Jesus shed for us and the Holy Spirit who dwells in us. That is what heals us. The inn could then represent the church, where God puts his people to be spiritually nurtured until he returns for them. Jesus pays for this ongoing need in our life, too.
Jesus used the lawyer’s question to show how inadequate for salvation even the best human effort is, and how wonderful and sure is his work of redemption for humanity. Jesus, and only Jesus, can rescue us from the “Way of Blood”—and he did it by way of his own blood.
Author: Joseph Tkach