The Parable of the Good Samaritan
25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
26 "What is written in the Law?" he replied. "How do you read it?"
27 He answered, " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind' [c]; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' [d]"
28 "You have answered correctly," Jesus replied. "Do this and you will live."
29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"
30 In reply Jesus said: "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. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii [e] 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.'
36 "Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?"
37 The expert in the law replied, "The one who had mercy on him."
Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise."
As Christians we all should be rather familiar with the call to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength. We are equally familiar with the call to love our neighbor as ourselves and we well know that Jesus said that the identifying mark of his true disciples would be the way that we love one another. We know that in our head, but that can be much more challenge to actually live that all out. One of the things that can slowly creep into our hearts is the idea that we really only need to love our fellow Christians. Surely the call to love others as ourselves only applies to those who love God and are pleasant to be around. It cannot apply to a Middle Eastern terrorist or a neighborhood prostitute can it? Surely Jesus didn’t mean for us to love the drug dealer on the corner who is slowly bringing our neighborhood into worse and worse living conditions? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about hating or mistreating anyone, just the logical realization that Christians are members of the family of God and, thus, worthy of the self-giving love that Jesus called for. All others are deserving, perhaps, of a different kind of concern and care but certainly they are not the ones that Jesus was referring to when he called us to love our neighbors. Did Jesus really mean that we should love criminals, terrorists, drug dealers, pimps, prostitutes and the like in the same way that we love ourselves? Did he really mean that the way we love those kind of people would demonstrate how we truly love him?
But imagine that a man was walking home one night after his car broke down. The only way to get home was through the worst and most dangerous road in his town but he had no choice. Along the way, a gang of teenage thugs, who were well known in the neighborhood for dealing drugs and violent behavior, jumped this man, robbed him, and left him for dead. As he was laying on the side of the road, near dead, a car appeared in the distance. Driving the car was a local pastor from a nearby church. He slowed his car down, saw the man and his condition but decided that the best thing for him to do was to drive on and say a prayer for the man. He had a cell phone with him but didn’t call 911, thinking that it was best to not get involved, especially since he wasn’t entirely sure if the man was dead or if he was alive would make it before help could arrive. And besides, he was late for the midweek service anyway. A few minutes later, a lawyer who was a deacon from another church came by on a motorcycle. He too looked at the man but decided to leave him. After all, this was a dangerous neighborhood, but even more importantly, he was in a hurry, being that he was late for his men’s Bible study group that evening already. He was supposed to give the opening prayer for the group that evening and to stop might mean he miss fulfilling his responsibility. So, he made the choice to drive on and say a little prayer for the man as he continued on to church.
Just then, a local gang member came by. The young man had been in and out of jail his whole young life despite the fact that he had grown up Muslim. In fact, not only was he connected with local crime, he had used much of the money from his drug dealing to launder through various routes so that he could support Muslim terrorists in the Middle East. He also had five children with four different mothers and was not married to any of the mothers. But this man came by and took compassion on the injured man. He went over to him to see if he was okay. He picked him up and carried him to a nearby neighborhood clinic and took him in. Since the injured man’s identification was gone, including any insurance documentation, the young man offered cash for his care and said he would come back in a few days and take care of any expense that went beyond what he had already given.
Now, here is the important question. Who really loved the injured man? Who acted in a way that was truly the way that God would want his people to act? Whose actions looked more like the kingdom of God? Who loved the injured man the way God wants his people to love everyone?
Before we fully consider those questions, let’s look at today’s passage in Luke. The expert in the law that stood up to Jesus seems to have wanted to trap Jesus into making a controversial, if not heretical statement. His question as to what he needed to do to inherit eternal life was a standard Jewish question, but as the scene develops, it becomes clear that his intent was to expose what he thought was Jesus’ errors in his implications that God’s kingdom would be available to all equally.
First, we have to understand that when inquired about eternal life, he was not speaking of getting to heaven and living there eternally in a spirit-like state. “Eternal life” was literally “the life of the coming age.” He wanted to know how Jesus would define the boundary markers of those who would take part in the resurrection as God’s people and live in God’s age to come. Jesus’ answer was also not particularly unique by appealing to the law. Surely this was not what the expert expected from Jesus, but he gave the standard answer which was to love God in the manner described by the Shema (an important Jewish daily prayer that comes from Deuteronomy 6:4) and to love your neighbor in the manner described in Leviticus 19:18.
Apparently Jesus wasn’t going to fall into a trap and say something that could be misused against him, but this expert wanted to make sure that his conception, the popular Jewish one, was correct. The belief was that God had called his people to love their neighbor but many defined the term “neighbor” down to mean those in Israel who were righteous. Surely the rest were sinners who should rightly be avoided. If Jesus were to contradict this tightly held belief he would, no doubt the expert thought, discredit himself. But just as Jesus would not directly state that he was the Jewish Messiah and so feed into misconceptions (he instead answered questions about his messianic identity by directing people to look at what he was doing and thus redefined their notions about what the Messiah would be like), he would not directly answer this man and feed into his preconceived notions. He would instead answer through what has become one of the most famous and beloved parables of all time.
One of the problems with stories that are so well known and well-loved are that they can lose much of their original punch and intended meaning because of our familiarity with them. This has certainly happened to this parable. We must be careful not to reduce this to a pithy little story about our need to be a “good Samaritan” and help those in need. This story would have been powerful, even to the point of being distasteful in Jesus’ day. He purposefully set the story on one of the most dangerous roads in Israel, a road that he was soon to take himself. The expectation would have been that the hero of the story would have been the socially acceptable and respected priest or Levite. But Jesus blows the story up by having a Samaritan be the hero. It would have been difficult in Jesus’ day to manufacture a more hated protagonist than a Samaritan. It would be on par with telling this same story in Israel today and having a Palestinian or Iranian take the role of hero.
To fully appreciate and understand this story, we have to try to enter into it and put it in our own cultural context. This is why I tried to re-tell the story above and do just that. The opening question that the expert had was who exactly his neighbor was. Who did he have to treat with love and respect? Who would be in God’s age to come? The hero in our version was someone who runs afoul of many of our cultural boundaries. He was a drug-dealing, Muslim terrorist-supporting, illegitimate child-producing, street thug. It would be hard for an American, from our cultural perspective to invent someone more deserving of being left out of God’s kingdom, someone less deserving of being loved as our neighbor. And that is just the point. Everything in us tells us to despise this person. The question is not whether or not the man by the side of the road is our neighbor and whether or not we should help him. That’s what we often reduce this story to and that would be to miss the point. The point is that the Samaritan was the neighbor. The drug-dealing terrorist was a neighbor.
What Jesus did in essence was to turn the question upside-down and indeed he upended the entire worldview of the questioner. The priest and the Levite lived in a world where they were regarded as righteous because of who they were regardless of their actions. They were sure that their status as descendants of Abraham automatically made them the people of God (cf. Lk. 3:7-9). Many who were standing in Jesus’ presence would probably have even applauded the decision of the men to avoid the injured man. (Sirach 12:1-7, a popular Jewish non-canonical book of wisdom of the time, said “If you do good, know to whom you do it. . . Give to the one who is good, but do not help the sinner.”) What set apart the Samaritan was nothing more than his compassionate love, which stood in stark contrast to their inaction.
Jesus didn’t answer the question of who was the expert in the law’s neighbor but flipped the question to ask who acted as a neighbor. The expert in the law would have wanted to know if the injured man was really his neighbor and really required help. Jesus makes that a non-issue. Jesus’ presupposition is that everyone is already a neighbor, the question is whether we love like God’s people or not. He has successfully undermined the entire worldview of this man by making clear that a new reality has come. The issue is not one of assessing people and determining who is worthy of God’s radical love but of being a kingdom person yourself. Rather than worrying about who is your neighbor, Jesus calls us to be a neighbor to all. If even the Samaritan can act like a neighbor to someone he didn’t know, then why wouldn’t someone who wants to be part of God’s people?
This scene ends with a bit of a mystery, though. Has the point gotten through to the expert in the law? Jesus has turned his entire world of what it means to be God’s people, how one is to view others, and his justification of prejudice completely on its head. He has made the most reviled of all people a symbol of what God’s people should be like. Jesus assaulted every stronghold this man had in a few short sentences and sometimes things like that take time to sink in. He still so reviles the idea of a Samaritan being exemplified that rather than speaking of his nationality, he simply calls him “the one who had mercy on him.” Jesus’ rebuking challenge is not to try to determine who is a proper neighbor to love but to go and be a neighbor, a loving kingdom person to everyone. He has heard the word of God, but the question remains. Will he do it? Will he go and do likewise? And even more importantly for today; will you?
Can you identify with the expert in the law? Do you sometimes find yourself drawing boundaries on who you will love and accept? What is Jesus’ radical call to love others and be a neighbor to all calling you to do today? Where do you need to change your mind? How does this parable challenge your worldview?