The parable of the Good Samaritan can be found in Luke chapter 10. It is one of the more famous and well known parables in the Bible. It also happens to be one of my favorites, behind maybe only The Prodigal Son. The parable itself starts at verse 30 and continues through 37. However, I think much is added by looking at the verses just prior in verses 25 through 29.
And behold, a lawyer stood up to put [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 [the lawyer] 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 your self." And [Jesus] 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?"These are the circumstances that precede the parable that many of us have heard many times. It begins by saying that the lawyer, someone who by occupation was intimately familiar with the Law, was trying to test Jesus. He was attempting to use his strengths to see if Jesus was for real. He was trying to see if he would slip up. Jesus answers with a question of his own, to which the lawyer responds with what is often referred to as "the great commandment". Jesus gives almost the same answer in Matthew 34-40 in a very similar situation where Jesus is being tested by a Pharisee who also happens to be a lawyer. In the passage in Matthew Jesus, as does the lawyer in this passage, ties together hand in hand the commandments to love God and to love others. The lawyer, like many of us, knows the correct answer. He knows the right words to say. In this we, along with the lawyer, are successful. However, it's one thing to have the right answer; it's quite another to know what it really means. This is where I believe (myself included) a lot of Christians stop. We love studying and reading the latest book (or blog post for that matter). We learn a few of the Greek words and what they directly translate to. We discuss things in small groups and we pass the Sunday School tests. I'm certainly not condemning any of these practices and wish that I myself had the disciple to participate in these activities more regularly. We just can't let it stop with knowledge. It does us no good. The lawyer knew the right answer. Jesus may well have answered by saying, "You have answered correctly and you will live."; but it's the inclusion of two little words, "do this", that make all the difference. It's because of those two words that the lawyer follows up with the question, "And who is my neighbor?" It says the lawyer's desire was to justify himself. He wanted to know that what he was doing was enough. He wanted to know who he did, and maybe who did not, have to love. The parable of The Good Samaritan is a direct response to this question.
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 a brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denariiand 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 a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?"Jesus introduces us to a man who we assume is a Jew traveling from Jerusalem. This is a man not dissimilar to the crowd and lawyer that Jesus was speaking to. Of no fault of his own, our man falls victim to robbers who leave him helpless on the side of the road. Jesus goes as far as to tells us he is "half dead."
The next two characters in our story are a priest and a Levite. These two men are interesting choices as they would have been Jewish men who, like our lawyer, had an extensive knowledge of the law. It's not unreasonable to assume that they would have answered Jesus's question in a similar fashion as the lawyer. They know the right answer for how to, "inherit eternal life." Both of these men, however, respond to the sight of the beaten man in the same way. They, "passed by on the other side." I recall someone I once heard preaching on this parable say that this stretch of road, from Jerusalem to Jericho, was known for being particularly dangerous to travel. This is reinforced by the fact that our first man was robbed and beaten. Perhaps our priest and Levite were trying to protect against falling victim to a similar fate. Perhaps they even suspected that the injured man might be a decoy, and they would be jumped and robbed as they made an attempt to help. There are also laws that determined cleanliness in Jewish culture. Both the priest and Levite would have to be ceremonially clean to perform the duties required by their jobs and helping the injured man would certainly have caused them to become unclean. I don't want to simply paint these men as cold and selfish. I'm trying to establish that they probably had their reasons for passing on the other side of the road. They were probably good reasons. They were probably justifiable reasons.
The third traveler to happen upon the helpless man, we are told, was a Samaritan. There are a few assumptions about this Samaritan that I think are reasonable to make. The passage states that he came upon the injured man, "as he journeyed", implying that he was in a place that was not his home. I have thought in the past that Jesus chooses to use a Samaritan in this passage as a way to shame the Jews who were not living up to God's commandments since the Jews and Samaritans had contentious relationship and Samaritans were often considered lower class by the Jewish people. Looking at this passage again, I came to another realization as to why Jesus may have decided to make this character in our story a Samaritan. As a Samaritan, he would not have known the scriptures in the same way as our other characters. He wouldn't be bound by the same laws. He wouldn't necessarily have the "right answer" for what he should do in this situation. He wouldn't be trying to live by a, "love God and love others" motto. What this story does specifically tell us, is that when the Samaritan came across the man, "he had compassion." His actions weren't motivated by trying to achieve eternal life or trying to check off a "love your neighbor" box. He saw a fellow man in need and had compassion on him. He had compassion on a Jewish man who could have been considered an enemy and who was, at the very least, very different culturally and socially from himself. He put that man's needs before his own. You can see from the scripture passage above, the extent to which the Samaritan went to care for the man who was in need. He put himself in potential danger. He gave his time and his money and his energy. He even promised to follow up when he returned to make sure that the man had everything he needed.
Jesus concludes the parable by positing the question, "Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?" I would like each of us to think about and answer that question ourselves, but I believe the vast majority of us would come to the same conclusion as the lawyer.
He said, "The one who showed him mercy." And Jesus said to him, "You go and do likewise."