The Parable of
the Good Samaritan
The Parable of the Good Samaritan is probably the best known of Jesus' wonderful stories. Its perceived moral is used in all kinds of ways in ordinary conversation and its title has been used in various forms including a well-known charity. The record of the parable is in Luke 10.25-37 and Jesus told it in reply to the question 'who is my neighbour?' A scribe asked Jesus what he had to do to obtain 'eternal life'. He really started off on the wrong foot. Firstly, he stood up to test Jesus, which places suspicion on his motives for asking the question ‑ did he really want Jesus to lead him to eternal life or did he just ask to see if he could trap Jesus? Was it all academic? Like so many religious people the lawyer wanted know what he had to do by which he could earn eternal life. Jesus replied by asking the lawyer what the Law had to say about the question. When the Lawyer recited the summary of the Law from Deuteronomy 6.4 and Leviticus 19.18, Jesus said that if he did that he would live.
Students of the Word frequently assume that perfect keeping of the Law would give people in Israel "everlasting life" and quote such Scriptures as Deut 30.15 but it may not be as simple as that. Firstly, the ancient concept of 'living for ever' may not be the same as our idea today. Secondly, Moses may have been speaking of the corporate body of the nation that would go on living for ever, if faithful to the Law, rather than individual Israelites. 'Eternal life' can be a concept of the quality of life rather than one of years and centuries and millennia. God knew at Sinai that He was giving the Law to sinful people and that as individuals they could never wholly keep the Law. That is why it contains means by which they could be forgiven but even that means was a picture of the real process of providing forgiveness in Christ.
Apparently the scribe already knew the answer to his question but he wanted to justify asking it in his effort to 'test' Jesus. In His interpretation of the Law, Jesus appeared in the eyes of Jewish religious lawyers to encourage His followers to break the Law. That was not so and now He advocated keeping it. In the 'Sermon on the Mount' Jesus had already shown that He interpreted keeping the Law in a very different way from the Jewish teachers. He now had an opportunity to show that living to please God is very different from that of human religion or philosophy. It is a life style that He demonstrated in His own life.
So Jesus answered the Lawyer's second question in a simple tale with a profound meaning. It is a parable which shows what God's love is like. 'Love', is like the word 'good', as used in the title of this parable, and has a very wide spectrum of meaning in English. We use one word 'love' in all kinds of ways, but a first century Greek speaking person would use several different words. God's love is denoted by the Greek word 'agape' and is described in Paul's well-known chapter in 1 Cor.13. The prophets of Israel had been working towards a clearer understanding of God's love, otherwise it was unknown until Jesus gave mankind the new concept. 'Agape' must be differentiated from the love between the sexes ‑ eros ‑ which is never used by New Testament writers, and the love within the family circle, 'storge', is rarely used. The love between friends - 'phileo' occurs more often in the NT and is carefully differentiated from 'agape' in John 21. The love of God is always described by 'agape' and is the love that bears the fruit of the Spirit. But the word is not actually used in the parable of the 'Good Samaritan'.
It may be surprising that Jesus used a member of the hated Samaritan race as the hero of this parable. It was to a disreputable Samaritan woman (John 4) that Jesus revealed His Father's requirements in worship ‑ not in place nor form but in what is sincere and true. Jesus had wanted to stay for a night in a Samaritan village but the villagers rejected Him ‑ it's in the previous chapter Luke 9.
When ten men with leprosy asked Jesus for help, he healed the medical condition of them all but only a Samaritan returned to say 'thank you'. Jesus commented on this and called the man a 'foreigner'. So what was the Lord doing by taking a different attitude to the Samaritans from what Jews usually took? Was He pointing the way that the Gospel would take after Pentecost? When He gave directions after His resurrection He told the disciples that they must go to preach the good news of the Kingdom in Judea, Samaria and the uttermost part of the earth (Acts 1.8). This began to be fulfilled when Philip the evangelist went to Samaria (Acts 8.4-25).
In the story, a traveller appears to have taken the lonely road down from Jerusalem towards the River Jordan ‑ a winding road that drops more than 3600 feet. It is still notorious for brigands and robbery. Robbers set upon him as he went and took all that was worth taking and left him dying by the roadside. Two 'religious men' looked at the injured man, and did not give him a second glance. They avoided the problem of defiling themselves by touching what might have been a corpse. As Barclay points out they "set the claims of ceremonial above the claims of charity" and "the Temple and its liturgy meant more to them that the pain of a man". Both worked in the 'holy Temple'. They could jeopardize their opportunity to serve God in His house. After all the man had been fool hardy to travel alone and with valuables worth stealing. The bandits might still be in the vicinity.
Then a Samaritan came by. Religious Jews had called Jesus a Samaritan (John 8). They thought of Samaritans as foreigners because their ancestry included people who had been moved there by the King of Assyria when he conquered the land hundreds of years before. They possessed the Pentateuch containing the Law of Moses and they had learned much of the Jewish religion, but they were regarded as a mixed race by pure-bred Jews. The Samaritan stopped his donkey, got down to the injured man and examined him. He washed the man's wounds with wine to cleanse them, useful antiseptic in days when water was often contaminated. He then used oil to soothe the wounds as an ointment binding it in with cloths. Finally, he sat the man on his donkey, himself probably walking, and took the 'patient' to the nearest inn. He left him there until he should return and meantime paid for the man's care and keep.
The Lawyer spoke of the Samaritan as having 'mercy'. In Micah 6.8 the prophet tells Israel what the Lord requires of His people ‑"do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God". The Septuagint translation of that text uses the same Greek word for mercy 'eleos' (Luke 10.37). But Jesus uses the word 'splanchnizomai' which means 'compassion'(10.33). It is a word used in the Gospel to describe Jesus' deep concern for those in need. It is a word regarded by scholars as having not come into use until the dispersion.
The holy men of the Temple knew the Law of Moses by heart and the interpretations of it by the rabbis. What they did not know was that God's holiness is a positive quality not a negative one. Maybe they failed to see the glory of God that Moses had seen on the Holy Mount when he learned that his Maker was a God of compassion (Ex.34). Or how the great man of God practised in his daily life what he had learned in the vision, when he prayed that his rebellious sister should be forgiven and that God would remove her leprosy.
As one child of God said as he neared the end of his long journey, just as he reached his hundredth year, "it isn't what we know or even what we do that matters, but what we are." We may know all manner of things about the Scriptures that help us on our way toward 'Life Eternal' with Christ in the Heavens. But that elusive quality of life is not ours till we have learned to be like Christ, totally compassionate and merciful. We begin to take on that quality, not from reading books but from reading the 'Good Book' itself and from walking every day with Jesus. Then when we walk our 'Jerusalem to Jericho road' we shall know exactly what we should be doing and we shall do it.