The Parables in the Gospel of St. Luke
Fr. John A. Roop
Lesson 2: The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37)
The Lord be with you.
And with your spirit.
Let us pray.
Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to thee, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly thine, utterly dedicated to thee; and then use us, we pray thee, as thou wilt, and always to thy glory and the welfare of thy people; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen (BCP 2019, p. 668, traditional language).
On almost any ranking of most well known and most beloved parables, I suspect that the Parable of the Good Samaritan would appear near the top, jockeying with the Prodigal Son for first and second place. It has transcended its original context, first century Jewish culture, and even Christian culture to become part of the Western ethos, even among non-Christians. It speaks to the deeply human issue of the limits of concern and probes the common human question, To whom are we responsible?
In his classic work of Christian apologetics, Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis built the case for the existence of a moral law within all people: one we all know but didn’t choose or create, one that comes to us — one that is in us — from “outside” us. As I remember, he uses the example of a man who happens upon a burning home in which people are trapped. He does not know the people. By the standards of culture, he is certainly free to prioritize his own safety over theirs. It is perfectly logical and culturally acceptable for him call for the professionals and then be on his way. And yet, if he learns the next day that a child died in the fire, he will still feel — illogically, perhaps — he will still feel that he should have gone in the house and attempted a rescue, that the limits of his responsibility somehow encompassed those strangers. It is not a stretch to see that as a re-telling of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The truth of that parable is written deeply within us.
The Parable of the Good Samaritan
Though we are familiar with the broad outlines of the parable, let’s start by listening to it again.
Luke 10:25–37 (ESV): 25 And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” 27 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.” 28 And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”
29 But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 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. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. 34 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. 35 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.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”
Let’s begin by looking at the rhetorical structure of the interaction between Jesus and the lawyer. If we envision it as a play, there are two acts, each with four scenes. I am indebted to Kenneth Bailey for this structural scheme (Bailey, p. 285). He presents it as two separate dialogues while I present it as two scenes in the same play, but the primary analysis is his.
Scene 1: The Lawyer’s Question: Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?
Scene 2: Jesus’ Question: What is written in the Law? How do you read it?
Scene 3: The Lawyer’s Answer: 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.
Scene 4: Jesus’ Answer: You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.
Scene 1: The Lawyer’s Question: And who is my neighbor?
Scene 2: The Parable and Jesus’ Question: Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?
Scene 3: The Lawyer’s Answer: The one who showed him mercy.
Scene 4: Jesus’ Answer: You go, and do likewise.
It is a beautifully constructed bit of writing, which shows that Jesus was a profoundly good theologian and orator. We will look more at the Q&A proper in a bit. But, for now, let’s turn our attention to some historical and cultural background.
History and Culture
The account opens with a lawyer standing to ask Jesus a question. We hear “lawyer” and we naturally think “attorney.” But, you know that a Jewish lawyer was not the same as an English barrister or an American attorney. The lawyer (or scribe) has an ancient and venerable heritage in Judaism. As I write this, we have just finished reading the Ezra-Nehemiah accounts in the Daily Office. Ezra was a priest, but he was also a lawyer/scribe. The description of his vocation in Ezra 7:8-11 gives us an appreciation for the nature and work of a Jewish lawyer:
Ezra 7:8–11 (ESV): 8 And Ezra came to Jerusalem in the fifth month, which was in the seventh year of the king. 9 For on the first day of the first month he began to go up from Babylonia, and on the first day of the fifth month he came to Jerusalem, for the good hand of his God was on him. 10 For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the Lord, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel.
11 This is a copy of the letter that King Artaxerxes gave to Ezra the priest, the scribe, a man learned in matters of the commandments of the Lord and his statutes for Israel….
This is the vocation of a Jewish lawyer: to study the Law of the Lord, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel. In the first century there was an additional charge: to help adjudicate religious Law in the Sanhedrin, the great Jewish Council of Elders. Lawyers had voice and vote in the Council.
So, this man who comes to Jesus to ask a question of the Law is himself a recognized expert in the Law. Notice his posture: he stands to ask his question. On this surface, this seems like the appropriately humble approach. Rabbis sat to teach and disciples stood to learn. In behavior this lawyer presents as a student — a genuine inquirer — asking for wisdom from his Rabbi; he even addresses Jesus as Rabbi/Teacher. But his humility is sham. He did not ask a genuine question in order to learn, but rather posed a challenge in order to test Jesus. So, the lawyer is disingenuous from the start. Whether the gathered people knew it or not is uncertain, but Jesus certainly realized the ploy; he had seen it often enough. And that explains the structure of the encounter.
The lawyer poses his question, most likely to trap Jesus in some fine point of the Law. Instead of answering directly, Jesus turns the question back on the lawyer and gives him the chance to show off for the crowd: “What does the Law say? How do you read it?” And the lawyer answers well, giving what was likely a standard answer to such a question. So, Jesus answers the question without answering the question. He commends the lawyer and tell him to do just as he said: “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” The problem is that the lawyer can’t do this perfectly; no one can. A deeper problem is that the lawyer doesn’t even want to; remember, this was a trap and not an honest inquiry.
Jesus has dodged the first bullet, so the lawyer pulls the trigger again with his second question: “And who is my neighbor?” He asked the first question to test/trap Jesus. Why does he ask the second question? To justify himself. I don’t know exactly and fully what that means, but I suspect there are at least two elements at play: (1) to establish his position as an expert in the Law and as the equal or better of this itinerant Rabbi from Nazareth, and (2) to show his own righteousness, i.e., to show that by any reasonable definition of neighbor he was already loving his neighbor as himself.
Before we move on from the lawyer’s question, it might be helpful to try to answer the question — “And who is my neighbor?” — as the lawyer might have done. Suppose Jesus had turned the question around on him immediately as he had done previously and asked: “What does it say in the Law? How do you read it?” The lawyer might have had trouble quoting “chapter-and-verse” but the essence of his answer would have been on the order of “righteous Jews who interpret and live the Law as he does,” in other words, people just like himself: his community, his tribe, his party. It’s not too hard — most of the time — to love people like you. But not them; not the others.
But Jesus doesn’t quite turn the question back to the lawyer — not yet, at least. Instead, Jesus tells the parable and closes it not with an answer — the parable was the answer — but with a question, just like he did in Act I. And notice this, because it is inherent in so many of Jesus’ parables. In Act I Jesus appealed to the Law; in Act II he tells a story and appeals to his own authority. His words take the place of the Law in the sense of fulfilling the Law. This is just like the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says repeatedly, “You have heard it said (in the Law), but I say to you…”.
Now, before we get into the details of the parable itself, we need to look at a few members of the cast.
Priests you know. Levites assisted the priests. When the Tabernacle was in use, the Levites cared for the physical structure and its utensils and transported it during the movement in the wilderness. During the second temple period (Jesus’ time) the Levites were liturgical singers/musicians, Temple guards, and general assistants to the priests. If you think of them as a blend of deacons, altar guild, vestry, ushers, acolytes, and choir, you won’t be far off. Priests and Levites were the clerical class of Jesus’ day.
The other major player — other than the Jew who is beaten and left for dead — is an unnamed Samaritan. No name is necessary because they are interchangeable; they are all the same, just as Jews were in Nazi Germany. Once you had said Jew, you didn’t need to specify which one; they were all the same. Once you’ve said Samaritan in a story told to a Jewish audience, you didn’t need to say anything more.
But who were they really, and what was the source of enmity between the Jews and the Samaritans? It’s a Hatfield and McCoy like feud story of ancient vintage. It began seven centuries before the telling of the parable, with the destruction and deportation of the northern tribes of Israel (722-721 BC) — whose capital was Samaria — by the Assyrians. It is detailed in 2 Kings 17:24-41 — a long passage, but one worth reading. It documents the standard practice of Assyria once it had conquered a people and taken them into exile. Instead of leaving the land empty, the Assyrians moved other conquered people into it to secure the territory and to work it to pay tribute. As we enter the text, Israel has been conquered and taken into exile by the king of Assyria.
2 Kings 17:24–41 (ESV): 24 And the king of Assyria brought people from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim, and placed them in the cities of Samaria instead of the people of Israel. And they took possession of Samaria and lived in its cities. 25 And at the beginning of their dwelling there, they did not fear the Lord. Therefore the Lord sent lions among them, which killed some of them. 26 So the king of Assyria was told, “The nations that you have carried away and placed in the cities of Samaria do not know the law of the god of the land. Therefore he has sent lions among them, and behold, they are killing them, because they do not know the law of the god of the land.” 27 Then the king of Assyria commanded, “Send there one of the priests whom you carried away from there, and let him go and dwell there and teach them the law of the god of the land.” 28 So one of the priests whom they had carried away from Samaria came and lived in Bethel and taught them how they should fear the Lord.
29 But every nation still made gods of its own and put them in the shrines of the high places that the Samaritans had made, every nation in the cities in which they lived. 30 The men of Babylon made Succoth-benoth, the men of Cuth made Nergal, the men of Hamath made Ashima, 31 and the Avvites made Nibhaz and Tartak; and the Sepharvites burned their children in the fire to Adrammelech and Anammelech, the gods of Sepharvaim. 32 They also feared the Lord and appointed from among themselves all sorts of people as priests of the high places, who sacrificed for them in the shrines of the high places. 33 So they feared the Lord but also served their own gods, after the manner of the nations from among whom they had been carried away.
[34 To this day they do according to the former manner. They do not fear the Lord, and they do not follow the statutes or the rules or the law or the commandment that the Lord commanded the children of Jacob, whom he named Israel. 35 The Lord made a covenant with them and commanded them, “You shall not fear other gods or bow yourselves to them or serve them or sacrifice to them, 36 but you shall fear the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt with great power and with an outstretched arm. You shall bow yourselves to him, and to him you shall sacrifice. 37 And the statutes and the rules and the law and the commandment that he wrote for you, you shall always be careful to do. You shall not fear other gods, 38 and you shall not forget the covenant that I have made with you. You shall not fear other gods, 39 but you shall fear the Lord your God, and he will deliver you out of the hand of all your enemies.” 40 However, they would not listen, but they did according to their former manner.]
41 So these nations feared the Lord and also served their carved images. Their children did likewise, and their children’s children—as their fathers did, so they do to this day.
So, who are the Samaritans? Mongrels. Half-bloods. Idolaters. And, to make matters even worse, when Judah returned from Babylonian captivity to rebuild Jerusalem, the Samaritans weren’t there waiting with open arms. First, the Samaritans tried to infiltrate the effort — likely to sabotage it — by pretending to be true Jews. When that didn’t work, they opposed the rebuilding — open and surreptitiously — in every way possible. That account is found in Ezra 4:1-6:
[Ezra 4:1–6 (ESV): 4 Now when the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the returned exiles were building a temple to the Lord, the God of Israel, 2 they approached Zerubbabel and the heads of fathers’ houses and said to them, “Let us build with you, for we worship your God as you do, and we have been sacrificing to him ever since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assyria who brought us here.” 3 But Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and the rest of the heads of fathers’ houses in Israel said to them, “You have nothing to do with us in building a house to our God; but we alone will build to the Lord, the God of Israel, as King Cyrus the king of Persia has commanded us.”
4 Then the people of the land discouraged the people of Judah and made them afraid to build 5 and bribed counselors against them to frustrate their purpose, all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia.
6 And in the reign of Ahasuerus, in the beginning of his reign, they wrote an accusation against the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem.]
So, not just mongrels and half-bloods, but ancient, idolatrous enemies. The Jews hated the Samaritans and the Samaritans hated the Jews — Hatfields and McCoys — and each group thought itself righteous.
Now, we can enter the parable.
Parable of the Good Samaritan
An unnamed man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho. Even though he is unnamed, he is not unidentified; we know everything we need to know about him. If he is going down from Jerusalem (Jerusalem is on a mountain, so leaving Jerusalem is always going down), if he is going down from Jerusalem, he is a Jew. At least that would be the common presumption of those hearing the story.
It was then a rough and dangerous road, and to travel it alone was a bit foolhardy. So, none of Jesus’ listeners would have been surprised at the man’s fate: beaten, robbed, stripped, left for dead. Now, enter the cast of main characters: a priest and a Levite. They both see their fellow Jew’s predicament, and they both pass by on the other side. There are several justifiable reasons they might behave this way. If the man is dead, they will be rendered ritually impure and unable to fulfill their liturgical duties. But wait: at least in the case of the priest — and it is assumed in the case of the Levite — he is going “down” the road: down, away from Jerusalem, away from any liturgical responsibilities. Fear of ritual impurity cannot explain their action. Perhaps they are just scared. Perhaps the thieves are still in the area waiting for more travelers: best not to linger. After all, they don’t know this man. Why prioritize his welfare over their own? Lewis might have an answer to that objection; it’s the burning house problem. Or it might just be that the wounded man is not one of them, not in their tribe or party: not a member of the family, not a friend, not a priest, not a Levite, maybe not a righteous Jew. In other words, he was not a neighbor as the lawyer defined neighbor. You might not think them particularly noble or hospitable for not stopping, but you can perhaps understand and excuse their actions.
Can we now engage in a bit of speculation? When Jesus said, “But,” indicating that someone else would come down the road, who do you think (1) the lawyer and (2) the people thought that someone would be? And what did they think that someone would do? Well, we can’t know, but it’s interesting to wonder about that.
We do know who actually came next in the story, and we can be almost certain that he came as a surprise: a Samaritan. When the priest and the Levite failed to stop, while we might understand their reasoning, there is still a nagging voice inside that whispers, “Yes, but…”. But the voice is silenced by the Samaritan’s arrival. Boo! Hiss! Of course he won’t stop and no good Jew would even want him to. Better to die with honor that to be saved by a Samaritan — unless you happen to be the one beaten, robbed, stripped, and left for dead. But — Surprise! What’s this Jesus playing at?! — the Samaritan does stop and provide every assistance to the wounded Jew, putting himself at risk and incurring not a little cost. You know the details about the bandaging and the wine and the inn and the money. It is the most amazing surprise ending of an otherwise conventional story.
Now, having told this parable — and presenting it as the true fulfillment of the Law — Jesus asks his question to the lawyer: “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” There is an important twist here that we can’t afford to miss. The lawyer asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” This is a question that seeks to define the limit of neighborliness, that intends to minimize the meaning of neighbor and to determine who falls outside boundary. But, Jesus’ question is different and opposite in intent. If I may paraphrase, Jesus’ question is, Who became a neighbor in the story? Don’t worry about who falls into the limited and limiting category of “your neighbor.” Instead, expand the boundaries of mercy and neighborliness to ask, “To whom may I become a neighbor?” And the parable answers that: to anyone in need, even to my enemy.
The lawyer cannot save face now, even though he tries feebly to do by refusing to say the word Samaritan: “The one who showed him mercy,” is the best he can muster, showing that he got the point of the story but is unwilling to acknowledge its moral claim on him.
Jesus has the final word: “You go, and do likewise.” That is the answer to the original question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” because to go and to do likewise is to accept Jesus’ authority and to become his true disciple. Jesus is showing a new way to be Israel and a new way to be human, a way based on showing mercy. That is, I think, the meaning of the parable in its historical and cultural context.
Now that we have a sense of what the parable likely meant to the original audience, we can perhaps safely ask what it should mean to us. What lessons might we draw from it?
Do not let the strictures of nationality, party, tribe, or even enmity limit mercy. Now, lest anyone misunderstand me, I note that in another encounter with a Samaritan — the woman at the well, Photini — Jesus made clear that the Samaritans were wrong about some important matters of worship and that salvation was of the Jews. He did not endorse the errors of the Samaritans; rather, he spoke correcting truth. But, in doing so, he treated the Samaritan woman with dignity and mercy. There are many groups with whose agendas we must disagree: LGBTQ and transgender activists, radical pro-choice advocates, advocates of Wokeism, the virulent new atheists, etc. We must speak truth against these agendas. But we must show mercy to those who are left beaten, robbed, stripped, and dying from the delusion of these false ideologies. The real enemy, the one enemy that we are perhaps allowed to consider an enemy, is Satan and his fallen angels — the robbers in Jesus’ parable.
Having said that, we are not finished. We need to remember what Ken Bailey said about parables: we don’t try to mine them for morals and then leave the parable behind; instead, the parable becomes a house in which we are invited to take up residence and out of whose windows we are to view the world. In other words, whatever our answer to what this parable means for us, that answer is not complete; it is never finished, and we never exhaust the parable. We continue to live in the parable because it continues to shape our worldview and our obedience. We must continually ask, To whom may I become a neighbor? and What would that look like?
Let us pray.
Increase, O God, the spirit of neighborliness among us, that in peril we may uphold one another, in suffering tend to one another, and in homelessness, loneliness, or exile befriend one another. Grant us brave and enduring hearts that we may strengthen one another, until the disciplines and testing of these days are ended, and you again give peace in our time; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen (BCP 2019, p. 659).
Bailey, K.E. (2008). Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. InterVarsity Press.