Jesus replied and said, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among robbers, and they stripped him and beat him, and went away leaving him half dead. And by chance a priest was going down on that road, and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite also, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, who was on a journey, came upon him; and when he saw him, he felt compassion, and came to him and bandaged up his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them; and he put him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn and took care of him. On the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper and said, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I return I will repay you.’ Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the robbers’ hands?” And he said, “The one who showed mercy toward him.” Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do the same” (Luke 10:30-37, NASB).
In these verses, Jesus tells the commonly known parable of the Good Samaritan. It is important to note that this narrative is in fact an answer given by Jesus to the question posed in verse 29 by an unnamed lawyer: “And who is my neighbor?”
There are several keys terms in the text that require explanation. Understanding these terms doesn’t necessarily take away from the central thrust of the parable, but it does illuminate the reader’s understanding of the deeper meaning of the text.
And a lawyer stood up and put Him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” And He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How does it read to you?” 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 ” (Luke 10:25-28).
Lawyer. If we take a few steps back to verse 25, we obtain some background information on the lawyer who asks the question that prompts Jesus to tell the parable. The term lawyer comes from the Greek nomikos, meaning an expert in the law, particularly one who is well learned in the Mosaic Law. The text says that this nomikos asks Jesus a question in order to test Him. This term comes from the Greek ekpeirazō, meaning to examine thoroughly or to tempt. The one asking the question, then, is not genuinely interested in information but rather searching for a pretext to accuse the Messiah.
Priest. This is a religious official, one who offers sacrifices in the Temple. The fact that this person was traveling from Jerusalem (where the Temple was) to Jericho means that whatever this fictional character was going to do, it was not en route to serving in the Temple.
Levite. In a narrow sense, these were members of a group who served as assistants to the priests in the Temple. This group had a concern for holiness and also depended on the tithes of the people for support (Deut. 26:12-13).
Samaritan. This is one of the most important terms for one to understand if not familiar with Jewish history and tradition. Basically, in the past, Israel was one unified kingdom. After the death of King Solomon, the kingdom split into two: a northern part and a southern part. Subsequently, the Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom and the Babylonians conquered the southern kingdom. When the north was displaced, much “intermixing” went on between families, religious practices, cultures, and customs. Samaritans descended from the Israelites who were transplanted after the conquest of the Assyrians of the northern kingdom. Resultantly, many from the south viewed the Samaritans as “tainted,” to the extent that Samaritans were regarded as foreigners (e.g., Luke 17:16-18).
They and the Jews were openly hostile, and the Samaritans were regarded as unclean and spiritual and physical “half-breeds.” Essentially, Jesus makes the Samaritan the hero of the story, which is revolutionary considering the social and historical context. In this parable, Jesus was telling the lawyer that the very group that he despised was the very group that he ought to emulate.
Justify. The NRSV of Luke 10:29 says, “But wanting to justify himself, [the lawyer] asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” (emphasis added). The Greek word for justify is dikaioō, which according to Strong’s Concordance means “to render just or innocent; to show one to be righteous, such as he is and wishes himself to be considered.” The reason why this word is important is twofold: (1) The internal motivation of self-justification reveals that the lawyer is concerned with his own credibility and thus requests an interpretation of “neighbor.” (2) The lawyer implies a sense of exclusion in the concept of neighbor, contextualized in the notion of justification. As Jesus will explain, inclusion is what characterizes His formulation of neighbor, even those whom you scorn. Hence, inclusive kindness to all is what will make one just.
The words of Jesus at the end of telling the parable highlight the overall message of this story: “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:36-37; emphasis added). Recall that the purpose of Jesus telling this parable was to answer a question: “And who is my neighbor?” (verse 29). Jesus answers the question not by describing qualifying characteristics of other people—this would be a formula for exclusion.
Instead, Jesus qualifies neighborliness by what the lawyer should do—this is a formula of inclusion and knows no boundaries, whether they be sex, age, race, ethnicity, culture, or economic status. The issue now is not the limit of obligation but the limitless extent of opportunity to love one’s neighbor.
In the Bible, there is never a commandment against asking questions. Yet, asking them, as the lawyer did, for the purpose of gaining over someone else, is not a way to eternal life. Asking a question without earnest intent to implement the answer also renders the question futile. In a very insightful and meaningful way, Jesus is telling the lawyer that his question is flawed. The lawyer should not be asking, “Whom is deserving of my mercy?” Rather, he should ask, “How can I show mercy to everyone?” The word mercy is also important because it is translated from the Greek eleos, which means “compassion; kindness; good will toward the miserable and afflicted.” Eleos also refers to the concept of the clemency of God in providing and offering salvation to humankind. If there is any crucial correlation to the entire gospel message, it would be here, in the word mercy. For God so loved the world that He sent Jesus (John 3:16), and through the exclusive door of Christ, humankind may at last be reconciled back to God. The fact that Jesus dwelt among us is an act of eleos from a God who needs nothing toward a creation that is undeserving.
There are several other minor points within the parable that are worth highlighting briefly.
Knowing. Knowing about God and doing God’s will are two separate concepts. The lawyer, the priest, and the Levite all knew God’s commands. The lawyer was even able to answer Jesus’s Bible trivia question correctly. The priest and the Levite, for obvious reasons, were well educated in the Law. Yet, none of these individuals actually did the will of God. Having the right knowledge does not mean one will actually act on that knowledge. And, if we take out the parable from Luke 10, we essentially find the lawyer asking, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus then replies, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer then says, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus’s final answer is then, “Go and do likewise.” In other words, “You know what is good, and now you know who your neighbor is. Now go and do.”
Inversion. As Fred B. Craddock (2009) writes in Luke Interpretation:
“Ceremonially unclean, socially outcast, and religiously a heretic, the Samaritan is the very opposite of the lawyer as well as the priest and the Levite. The story must have been a socking one to the first audience, shattering their categories of who are and who are not the people of God.” (p. 150)
Jesus shattered the social norms of the day by inverting people’s perceptions of others. He revealed that those who considered themselves “upright” were acting shamefully, and He lifted up those on the margins as people who were “worthy” enough to be treated well. It is very significant that the person Jesus commended was neither a religious leader or an associate, but the despised alien. He also offered a timeless example that acting in love and neighborliness is without preference, is without partiality, and expects nothing in return. This again ties in to the grand message of the gospel as Jesus declares earlier in Luke 4:18-19:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
The Characters. Psychologically speaking, if the priest and Levite are depicted in wholly detestable terms, readers or listeners will fail to see themselves in the story. On the other hand, a person can also not be too quick to associate themselves with the Samaritan.
After all, the text describes a Samaritan who abruptly changed his itinerary and delayed his travel plans to assist a roadside stranger; he voluntarily assumed risk upon himself to assist the victim; he spent his own money—with no promise of reimbursement—and then offered to provide more financial assistance if further care was required. All of this was done cognizant of the possibility that when the victim fully recovered he may scorn and spite the Samaritan because of who he was. This is a very tough act to follow.
The Law versus the Law. Finally, it must be mentioned that all blame cannot be hurled at the priest and the Levite. That is, technically speaking, Mosaic Law prescribed that contact with a corpse would have made these two men ceremonially unclean and therefore disqualified them from their temple duties (Leviticus 21:1; Numbers 19:11). And yes, the victim on the road was not dead, but he may have appeared that way after being left by the robbers “half dead.” Resultantly, it is plausible to say that the priest and the Levite may have been in tension as one part of the Law (don’t touch) fought against another part of the Law (love your neighbor). I will not explore expansive theological connections between the Mosaic Law and Christ, but it is worth mentioning that in our everyday lives, when duty seems to conflict with duty, we have to remember what the two greatest commandments are: to love God to love your neighbor (Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-31). Purity rules did not save the man on the side of the road. It was the love and compassion that one neighbor had for another.
Dr. C. H. E. Sadaphal