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Countless hospitals across the nation bear the name “Good Samaritan,” all a tribute to Jesus’ masterful parable about the injured traveler. So ubiquitous is this story that it has become a cliché to call someone who helps another “a good Samaritan.” Yet, as with so many sayings of Jesus, the more popular it became, the more it was domesticated and dulled so as to no longer present a challenge. Like cereal left sitting in milk too long, the good Samaritan today communicates the soggy, tepid truth that we should occasionally help the needy if it is not too much trouble. Furthermore, the command of Jesus to love ones’ neighbor as oneself remains divorced from the story, as if the two were unrelated. We forget that Jesus’ little story is intended to illustrate and set a standard for how his followers neighbor others. In what follows, we will make our way through the parable, paying careful attention to the historical context in order to recalibrate our senses and learn how best to live this out today.

The passage opens with an expert in the Law of Moses putting Jesus—the up and coming rabbi—to the test. Although we cannot be sure how innocent or malicious the lawyer was, we know that he already knew the answer to the question he asked Jesus, or at least he thought he did. He pops the question, “Teacher, what should I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:25).1 Rather than answering him outright, Jesus replies with his own query, “What has been written in the Law? How do you read it?” (v26). This put the scribe on the spot: if he wanted to defend his expert knowledge of the Scriptures, he needed to answer, but by answering he loses his opportunity to hear Jesus’ reply. In the end, he decided to respond by quoting part of the Shema, the core creed of Judaism (Deuteronomy 6:4-5), “You will love the Lord your God from your whole heart and in your whole soul and in your whole strength and in your whole mind.” Then he added a well-known text from Leviticus 19:18, “and your neighbor as yourself” (v27). Recognizing the validity of the man’s answer, Jesus said, “You answered correctly; do this and you will live” (v28). Ironically, rather than checking out Jesus’ orthodoxy and biblical knowledge, the reverse happened—Jesus ended up testing the lawyer and approving his answer. I imagine the lawyer was a bit bewildered and frustrated by the sudden turn of events. Luke reports that the man’s next question was motivated by a desire to justify himself. He had stood up and gone toe to toe with the new teacher and he probably felt embarrassed before his peers who were listening. Now another question formed in his mind, one likely influenced by his vast experience in exegeting Scripture and contemplating the practical application of Torah to daily life. He asked, “And who is my neighbor?” (v29).

In order to understand why he asked this clarifying follow-up question, we need to turn to the book of Leviticus. Gaining some context proves helpful:

Leviticus 19:17-18 (NASB)
You shall not hate your fellow countryman in your heart; you may surely reprove your neighbor, but shall not incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD.

The “love your neighbor as yourself” commandment was construed ethnically—one must love his fellow Israelite. The chapter begins with Moses speaking to “all the congregation of the people of Israel” and telling them to be holy as God is. Throughout Leviticus, it is clear that God intends Israel to remain separate from the other nations, especially her immediate neighbors. Thus, the lawyer posing this question to Jesus is capitalizing on a genuine ambiguity in the text—one that no doubt puzzled the theologians of his day. The minimalist answer saw the neighbor as a fellow Torah-observant Jew, whereas the maximalist sought to extend love to everyone. Where would Jesus fall on this question? Would he grasp the complexity of the issue? Would he provide a half-way satisfying answer easily rebutted by a trained scribe? Jesus decided not to answer directly; instead, he told a story to illustrate his point.

Jesus begins, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell among bandits, who after both stripping and beating him departed, leaving him half dead” (Luke 10:30). Bandits were a real problem in the ancient world. Often, when making long journeys, people traveled together in a caravan for protection. This man was alone, and he was traveling a treacherous road infamous for the dangers it posed. It was a rocky and winding desert road that began in Jerusalem at 2,600 feet above sea level and descended to Jericho at 825 feet below sea level in a mere seventeen miles. Furthermore, caves lined many parts of the road which provided robbers with ideal hideouts to plunder unsuspecting passersby. This unfortunate man was outnumbered and taken for all he had, even his clothing. In a world without cell phones or ambulances, his fate wholly depended on a chance encounter with someone who was willing to help. All of this would have been familiar to Jesus’ hearers, and they may have even anticipated the next line.

Jesus continued, “And by chance a priest went down on that way” (v31). The priest is an ideal candidate for a man to show compassion and do what is right in the eyes of God. Priests were professional worship facilitators who offered sacrifices in the inner courtyard of the temple precinct. They were mediators, and Jesus’ audience likely expected this man to intercede for the wounded in God’s name. Yet, Jesus inverts his role saying, “And seeing him he passed by on the other side” (v31). No reason is given for the priest’s callused negligence. We are left guessing what he must have told himself to soothe his conscience and justify his blatant disregard for a wounded stranger. Perhaps he was in a hurry—maybe even to do something for God. Did he fear contamination from touching a dead body? Was he worried that the robbers might still be around? Did he think the man was faking it to set up an ambush? We simply don’t know; all we are told is that he passed by on the other side. Next, the Levite arrives on the scene: “And likewise a Levite going down to the place and seeing him passed by on the other side” (v32). Like priests, Levites too were servants of God, but they were not permitted to do as much as the priests and were more like assistants. Still, Levites were revered, and so this man’s flagrant lack of care for his fellow traveler would have shocked the hearers.

Enter the Samaritan: “And a Samaritan journeying came upon him” (v33). By the time of Jesus, deep-seated animosity had brewed between Jews and Samaritans for centuries, sometimes erupting in outright violence. They were sworn enemies who avoided one another, each regarding the other as heretical. The Samaritans only accepted the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, the Torah, as inspired. They believed the monarchy was a mistake and David’s beloved city along with Solomon’s ornate temple was illegitimate. They clung to mount Gerizim, the lofty peak where Moses commanded the blessings to be pronounced once the Israelites entered the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 11:29; 27:12; Joshua 8:33). Later, they built a temple there and worshipped on Mt. Gerizim instead of Jerusalem (John 4:20). A little more than a century before Christ (128 B.C.), the priest-king John Hyrcanus conquered Samaria for Judah and destroyed their temple in the process. By the first century, Herod the Great’s impressive renovations to the Jerusalem temple stirred disdain among the Samaritans whose own temple lay in ruins atop what they regarded as the true holy place. Samaria lay between Judah and Galilee, so when Galilean Jews made pilgrimage to the temple in Jerusalem, they had to either go through Samaria or walk the long way around it. Most Jews chose to travel the extra distance to avoid the despised Samaritans. In one incident, Jesus went through Samaria on his way to attend a festival at the temple. He sent ahead messengers to make arrangements for him in a Samaritan village. They refused to receive him “because his face was set toward Jerusalem” (Luke 9:53). Jesus’ disciples asked “Lord, do you wish that we call fire to come down out of heaven and consume them?” (v54). Jesus rebuked them and they resumed their journey.

The Jews likewise despised the Samaritans calling them Cutheans whose blood was not really Israelite in origin but Gentile from Cuthah in Persian.2 They libeled them as turncoats who vacillated between identifying as Jews or Gentiles depending on who was asking.3 In the Samaritan town of Sychar, Jesus surprised a woman at Jacob’s well by asking her for a drink of water. John helpfully explains with the editorial note, “For Jews do not use anything in common with Samaritans” (John 4:9). Even just asking for a sip of water from her drinking vessel was crossing the line. So much did the Jews despise the Samaritans that they considered eating with them the same as eating the flesh of a pig and any contact with a Samaritan female as contaminating as touching a menstruating woman.4 Given this complicated and spiteful history, Jews hearing a story about a Samaritan would naturally expect him to do something wicked. At best, he might pass by on the other side like his two forerunners; at worst, he would take advantage of the wounded man and finish the job the bandits only halfway completed.

Again Jesus violates expectation by inverting the role of the Samaritan. He narrates, “And a Samaritan journeying came upon him and seeing him felt compassion, and approaching he bound his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them. Having put him upon his own animal, he brought him to an inn and cared for him. And when he was departing on the next day, he gave the inn keeper two denarii and said, ‘Take care of him, and what more you may spend I will pay you when I return’” (Luke 10:33-35). Not only does the Samaritan feel compassion, but immediately jumps in and does everything he possibly can to help. He pours oil on his wounds to soothe them, disinfects them with wine, and then binds him with his own fabric (perhaps torn from his turban or tunic). Putting him on his own animal likely meant the Samaritan would have to walk the rest of the way. Upon arriving at the inn, he does not drop the man off, leaving him at the mercy of the inn keeper, but spends the night caring for him. He gives the keeper two days’ wages, which according to Darrell Bock, would have provided lodging for up to twenty-four days.5 Even at today’s minimum wage, this would amount to over a hundred dollars. And what is more, he is willing to pay any further expenses accrued for the stranger’s recovery. The Samaritan does not merely assuage his own guilt by doing the minimum to insure the half-dead man’s blood would not be on his head, he does everything possible to meet the man’s needs genuinely and competently regardless of the inconvenience or the cost. M.L. King Jr. was right to note that rather than asking, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” like the priest and the Levite, the Samaritan said to himself, “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”6

Next Jesus asks, “Who of these three appears to you to be a neighbor to the one who fell among bandits?” (v36). The man responded, “The one who had compassion on him” (v36). And Jesus said to him, “Go and you do likewise” (v36). Needless to say, the lawyer did not pose any more questions. Jesus had just defined what a neighbor meant in living color. One’s neighbor is not merely the person next door or even one’s fellow countryman, but one’s neighbor is the one who is nearby, even if he or she is a sworn enemy. Samaritans hated Jews, and yet this Samaritan neighbored his enemy. To do this was risky and cost him time and money, but he did it anyhow, and as a result, twenty centuries later, Good Samaritan hospitals abound across the land.

The funny thing is there was no good Samaritan. He was merely an oral fiction Jesus used to teach something about loving others. Yet, even if the original good Samaritan was fiction, countless imitators wooed by God’s outrageous love and committed to obeying the Son of God, have arisen throughout the centuries to love in even hazardous situations. For example in A.D. 250, a pandemic broke out across the Roman Empire infecting thousands, perhaps even millions. Thousands died daily afflicted with horrible symptoms including diarrhea, vomiting, burning eyes, loss of limbs, loss of hearing, and loss of sight.7 Pontius, a deacon in the congregation at Carthage, noted how the city was littered with “no longer bodies, but the carcasses of many.”8 The stench of death must have been unbearable as the plague ravaged house after house. Dionysius, the pastor of the congregation at Alexandria, relates the following description:

They pushed away those with the first signs of the disease and fled from their dearest. They even threw them half dead into the roads and treated unburied corpses like refuse in hopes of avoiding the plague of death, which, for all their efforts, was difficult to escape.9

But even if fear and panic shot through the hearts of the people, not knowing who would be next, the Christians, in contrast, responded quite differently. Rather than ditching their loved ones, they bravely cared for their own, making sure the sick had the necessary provisions and sanitation to get better. Of course, nursing someone sick of a communicable disease in the ancient world was extremely risky. Dionysius goes on to tell us how severe it was:

They would also take up the bodies of the saints, close their eyes, shut their mouths, and carry them on their shoulders. They would embrace them, wash and dress them in burial clothes, and soon receive the same services themselves.10

Undaunted by death and without putting their own well-being first, they reached out to the dying pagans all around them as well. Christian leaders urged their flocks to extend love to even their enemies.

Then afterwards he [Cyprian] subjoined, that there was nothing wonderful in our cherishing our own people only with the needed attentions of love, but that he might become perfect who would do something more than the publican or the heathen, who, overcoming evil with good, and practicing a clemency which was like the divine clemency, loved even his enemies, who would pray for the salvation of those that persecute him, as the Lord admonishes and exhorts.11

At great personal risk, they reached out to the infected pagans and nursed them back to health or else guaranteed they died without lacking care or company. Although Christians died in great numbers, their fellow brothers and sisters regarded them fortunate to have given their lives on behalf of others. They were even considered martyrs! It turns out that this pestilence coincided with one of the greatest periods of growth for third century Christianity. I can imagine just how eager an unbeliever would be to hear the gospel after being abandoned by his own family and nursed back to health by courageous, loving Christ-followers.

Jesus said to the lawyer, “Go and you do likewise.” Even so, “doing likewise” may cost us great pain, financial hardship, and even our own lives. Many times those we reach out to will lack gratitude, and sometimes they may even hate us for trying to help. We may get sued for trying to aid someone in a car accident, or robbed for showing a homeless person hospitality. But we cannot, we will not, for these reasons pass by on the other side. For if we do, Jesus is not our Lord; he is just a nice dead religious figure whose likeness is fit for gluing to our dashboard or hanging from our rear-view mirror, but who presents no challenge to us today.

1 All translations from the New Testament are my own.
2 Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 9.14.3 (288)
3 ibid., 9.14.3 (291).
4 Babylonian Talmud, Seder Zera’im, Shebi’ith 8.10; Babylonian Talmud, Seder Tohoroth, Niddah 4 (31b)
5 Darrell L. Bock, Luke, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Baker 1996), 1031.
6 Martin Luther King, Jr: “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” delivered April 3, 1968 at Mason Temple, Memphis, Tennessee.
7 Cyprian, Treatise 7: On the Mortality 14
8 Pontius, The Life and Passion of Cyprian 9, trans. Ernest Wallis, ed. Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson, Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 5 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson 2004), 270.
9 Quoted by Eusebius, Church History 7.22.7, trans. Paul L. Maier, Eusebius: The Church History (Grand Rapids: Kregel 2007), 240.
10 Eusebius, 7.22.9
11 Pontius, 9

13 Responses to “The Good Samaritan: Jesus’ Challenge to Us Today”

  1. on 08 Mar 2012 at 8:21 pmDoubting Thomas

    Thanks for another great article Sean. It has certainly made me think. I don’t know if I would have the courage to behave in the same manner as these Christians did during this plague. I would like to think that I would, but I don’t know for sure…

  2. on 08 Mar 2012 at 9:46 pmtimothy

    Doubting Thomas and Sean,

    65 years ago i starting going to a southern bible belt Baptist Sunday school. we were taught all the bible stories like Noah’s ark, David and Goliath and the good Samaritan.

    At the same time i was allowed to listen to the radio for entertainment. the lone ranger and Tonto with high o silver and gettum up SCOUT and country gospel music with Hank Williams. Some of his song were sung in church and later when i went to a twig fellowship. “I Saw The Light” is an oldie but goody. Recently I discovered Hank’s music on you tube and try to find scripture that inspired him to sing some of the gospel songs.

    Thomas after i read and muse about Sean’s new article, could we discuss what Jesus is extorting us to do?

    Here is Hank Williams sr…..circa 1949:


  3. on 09 Mar 2012 at 4:55 amFiona

    Thanks Sean, for a really uplifting read. If only we all had love like these ones, what a wonderful place the world would be. Thank you especially for the historical references, they all helped to give perspective to the article.

  4. on 09 Mar 2012 at 9:42 pmDoubting Thomas

    Hi timothy,
    I enjoyed the Hank Williams link. We can discuss anything that you like. I enjoy discussing my beliefs with people. Having discussions helps you to grow in knowledge and wisdom… 🙂

  5. on 09 Mar 2012 at 11:49 pmtimothy

    Doubting Thomas,

    After reading all of Seans historical documentation about ancient plagues……wow……how would we react? As a child we were vaccinated
    for small pocks in grade school. Now the WHO has eliminated the terrible disease. Our first responders were heroic with their twin tower

    “So called” natural disasters happen all over the globe daily. Why don’t we start with “Christians responding” to geographic and weather disasters?


  6. on 10 Mar 2012 at 12:21 amtimothy

    Doubting Thomas,

    Here is an article about one disaster and Christians,

    Timothy 8)

  7. on 10 Mar 2012 at 7:26 pmDoubting Thomas

    Hi timothy,
    That was a good article about how churches responded to hurricane Katrina. I believe that faith based organizations do play a big role in helping people in disasters. I personally support World Vision, which is a Christian organization that helps children all around the world. There are many Christian organizations. I like the fact that it is so easy for me to help a child on the other side of the world just by making monthly donations and such…

  8. on 10 Mar 2012 at 7:34 pmSean

    Compassion is really good too


  9. on 11 Mar 2012 at 12:47 pmtimothy

    Doubting Thomas,

    I am sure you remember this….

    Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day.
    Teach a man to fish and he will eat every day.

    In the Congo there is no free school for children. The LHIM has several fellowships where a scholarship sponsorship allows the children to learn how to read and write. Now these children are learning to read GODs word in French.

    here are some articles: http://lhim.org/gladtidings/gladtidings_short.php?category=20

    Timothy 8)

  10. on 11 Mar 2012 at 4:23 pmDoubting Thomas

    Hi timothy,
    The Congo Connection looks like a wonderful example of Christians doing God’s work in the world.

    BTW – I was wondering how you make the smiley face with the sunglasses… 🙂

  11. on 11 Mar 2012 at 5:25 pmtimothy

    Doubting Thomas,

    yes, and I especially like the “learning to read the Bible” part.

    I discovered it by accident pasteing 1 Cor 13:8 in English and German. Thought that it was devine as those are Love of GOD/agape verses. try 8 plus ) here 8)

  12. on 11 Mar 2012 at 6:24 pmDoubting Thomas

    OK. I will try it. It does look really cool… 8)

  13. on 21 Mar 2012 at 8:57 amtimothy

    Doubting Thomas,

    Back to Congo Connection…..

    Many of the LHIM Congo brethren are on facebook now. They use a French bible and the children are learning French in school.

    I speak King James English, American, high and low German and Cuban Spanish. What languages do you speak ?

    I posted this Congolese gospel on the Pastors wall.


    GOD bless you.

    Timothy 🙂


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