We continue this series by looking at a third example of a parable from Jesus to uncover how it reflects his teaching to serve God faithfully, not successfully.
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 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 given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, 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 while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 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 10:25-37)
The introduction to The Parable of the Good Samaritan (vv. 25-29) is important context. Jesus is being tested by a lawyer. The “lawyer” is a Jewish scribe who is learned in the law of the Torah (i.e., Genesis-Deuteronomy). In the Gospels and Acts, lawyers typically stand in opposition to Jesus, often being associated with the Pharisees. The lawyer here was likely either trying to humiliate Jesus (believing Him to be unlearned) or to genuinely see if He understands Jewish Scriptures. But Jesus responds with a question of his own to which the lawyer answers by referencing two commands from the Jewish Scriptures (i.e., Old Testament):
- “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5)
- “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:18)
Both commandments were two of the 613 total commandments found in the Torah according to Jewish tradition. Elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus cites these two as the greatest commandments (e.g., Matthew 22:34-40 and Mark 12:28-34). Not satisfied with the interaction, the lawyer tests Jesus further by asking Him to define who counts as a “neighbor.” Jesus then changes their interaction from debate to storytelling, a medium that would invite all around them to listen and join the discussion.
This parable is arguably one of the most well-known stories in Western literature. It was always taught to me growing up as a simple story of how I should help others in need. But we must be aware of the illusion of biblical transparency by which we can tend to interpret it. What may appear easy on the surface to understand and apply, in reality holds a deeper point being revealed by Jesus. First, a few background points:
- The road “from Jerusalem to Jericho” was commonly traveled by many different people. Being robbed while traveling on it was a constant threat.
- Samaritans were a people of mixed ethnicity. Hundreds of years prior to Jesus, Samaritans were a sect of Judaism who had a bitter breakaway from it. Since that time, Jews and Samaritans did not mix religiously or culturally even though the Torah was also the Samaritans’ primary scripture. An editorial note in John 4:9 from the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman reflects this: “The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans).”
- The purity laws in the book of Leviticus provided regulations on everyday Jewish practices. They arose from well-intentioned efforts to honor God by having the community separate (i.e., make holy) itself from those things that would make them unclean. It was the traditional role of priests and Levites (which are temple assistants) to enforce the purity laws over Israel by calling out what sacrifices and remedies were required to return oneself to a pure state before God.
Jesus’ story states that the priest and the Levite “passed by on the other side.” This small detail implies they assumed the victim was dead. In such a situation, priests and Levites would likely move away from what they presumed to be a corpse. In their minds, such action would be honoring God by ensuring they avoided any dead bodies. According to their understanding of scripture, they would become unclean (i.e., spiritually contaminated) if they touched a dead person.
The Samaritan, who reveres the same scriptures but is not bound by those same interpretations, is the one who “came near him.” This allows him to see the victim is still alive and thus be “moved with pity.” Two peoples who do not associate but hold the same inspired scripture react in opposite manners. This division grows exponentially as the Samaritan performs not only multiple immediate acts of help but continued to follow up with acts of mercy and kindness until the traveler was well.
Jesus’ story exalts the person whom the lawyer would judge to be an unclean, outcast, heretical offender to God while simultaneously disparaging religious leaders whom the lawyer would have revered as righteous. Jesus perfectly crafted story leaves the lawyer to answer his own question as Jesus asks “which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” Unable to escape the truth of how Jesus’ story played out, the lawyer gives the only possible response: “The one who showed him mercy.”
And then one last beautiful Jesus thing takes place. He does not gloat or claim status for Himself, but instead Jesus gives the lawyer an encouraging command— “Go and do likewise.” Ever everyone’s Savior, Jesus’ end game is never about winning the argument but always following God’s desire— He redirects the lawyer’s well-intended actions into a teachable moment that provides the lawyer an opportunity to re-claim the status God desired for him all along. The mercy denied the fallen traveler by spiritual leaders admired by the lawyer is now what Jesus offers him.
Discipleship based on successfulness requires we feel good about our choices, our religious practices, and the scripture interpretations on which they are based. It is a constant battle to attain and then maintain that status for ourselves, a status we will claim is for God. The lawyer knew the priest’s and Levite’s actions aligned with their fear of uncleanliness causing them to withdraw from even being available to help the assaulted traveler.
Jesus was not simply providing a morality tale but was directly challenging core understandings of scripture that the lawyer and other religious leaders held. Like a master surgeon, Jesus cut right through their human-made interpretations of scripture to reveal its cancerous center. Jesus’ simple story reveals how the predominant religious view, developed over hundreds of years, discriminated against both those in need and those thought of as lesser. It is a rich irony as Jesus storytelling is so masterful it exposes those who had dedicated themselves to obeying the scriptures to actually be the ones disobeying its greatest commandments, the same commandments the lawyer had just answered are what bring us “eternal life.”
Loving God is not through seeking or maintaining personal righteousness but in loving others. Being faithful to God’s desire means giving honor to others, even if at the expense of our own status.
The difference between following Jesus successfully or faithfully can be as simple as whether we “(pass) by on the other side” or “(come) near.”
Reflection: Does your understanding of scripture cause you to move away from those who you assume to be dead in God? Or do you risk your own position to come near to others so you can see how God would have you serve them?
Next post: Jesus and Nicodemus