The Good Samaritan story has influenced the world throughout the centuries since Jesus introduced it. Many institutions all over the world use this fictitious name, “Good Samaritan.” However, the church fathers presented Jesus himself as a Good Samaritan who risked his life for saving the fallen humanity. Like the priest and the Levite in the story, the Jewish leaders did not help those who needed their care. Jesus who taught us that God seeks mercy than sacrifice (Matthew 9:13) has given us this touching story for the Christian charitable approach to people of all races who need our help.
The Greatest Commandment.
(Luke 10:25) Then a teacher of the Law came and began to test Jesus. He said, “Master, what shall I do to receive eternal life?” (26) Jesus replied, “What is written in the Law? How do you understand it?” (27) The man answered, “It is written: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength and with all your mind. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (28) Jesus replied, “You have answered correctly! Do this and you shall live.”
The Parable of the Good Samaritan
(29) The man wanted to justify himself so he asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” (30) Jesus then said, “There was a man going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him, beat him and went off leaving him half dead. (31) It happened that a priest was going along that road and saw the man, but passed by on the other side. (32) Likewise a Levite saw the man and passed by on the other side. (33) But a Samaritan, too, was going along that road, and when he came upon the man, he was moved with compassion. (34) He went over to him and treated his wounds with oil and wine and wrapped them with bandages. Then he put him on his own animal and brought him to an inn where he took care of him. (35) The next day he had to set off, but he gave two denarii to the innkeeper and told him: ‘Take care of him and if you spend more, I will repay when I come back.’”
(36) Jesus then asked, “Which of these three, do you think, made himself a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” (37) The teacher of the Law answered, “The one who had mercy on him.” And Jesus said, “Go then and do the same.”
The Greatest Commandment
(25) There was a scholar of the law who stood up to test him and said, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
A scholar of the law
The scholar of the law does not mean secular lawyer expert in civil or criminal law. The lawyer who questioned Jesus was an expert in the Mosaic Laws given in the first five books of the Bible called Torah or Pentateuch. Some identify the teacher as a scribe. The scribe was an expert in the whole Old Testament who used to make copies of the Holy Scripture and served in the synagogues as the reader and interpreter of the Bible. The difference between a scribe and scholar of the law is that the scholar of the law was a scribe who specialized in the Mosaic laws than in the other sections of the scripture. There was much demand for such teachers of Torah because the laws and their interpretations governed the lives of the Israelites.
Who stood up
This gives us a setup of the situation. Jesus might have been preaching in a house like that of Lazarus or in a synagogue. The listeners might have been sitting around him. The scholar stood up to get Jesus’s attention.
To test him
The scholar questioned Jesus to assess his knowledge in the field rather than to enrich himself. He is like some people who raise spiritual or moral questions to religious leaders not to enhance their understanding but to test the preacher or to show their own expertise in the subject.
“Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
A rich man also had asked Jesus the same question to Jesus (Mark 10:17). The inheritance of eternal life was a controversial issue between Sadducees who denied resurrection (Mark 12:18-27) and Pharisees who believed in the eternal life (Acts 23:8). Even for those who believed in the life after death, what one must do to inherit eternal life was a concern.
There were teachings on the life after death in the Old Testament, but they were less, and some were unclear. “Your dead will live, their corpses will rise again. Awake and sing for joy, you who lie in the dust! For your dew will be a sparkling dew, and the earth will give birth to those who have been long dead.” (Isaiah 26:19). Daniel 12:1-3 is another example of the prophecy of the resurrection and ultimate reward or punishment. However, the issue was that these and similar writings on the life after death were in the prophetic works or psalms. The scholars of the law specialized in the Mosaic laws, where this theme is unavailable. Moses gave importance to a long and fulfilling life in the promised land in Canaan for those who keep God’s commandments. “Honor your father and mother. Then you will live a long, full life in the land the LORD your God is giving you.” (Exodus 20:12). Jesus gave clarity on resurrection of the dead, the last judgement, and reward or punishment after death.
(26) Jesus replied, “What is written in the Law? How do you understand it?”
The orthodox Jews wear two small square leather boxes containing selected texts from the Torah. They wore them one on the wrist of the left arm and the other on the forehead. Jesus was pointing to these phylacteries which the lawyer was wearing when he asked for the writings in the law. When the expert in the law attempted to assess Jesus, he made the lawyer to answer by asking him a question.
(27) The man answered, “It is written: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength and with all your mind. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
This combined passage from Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Lev. 19:18 was a favorite to the Jews, and they wrote that on their phylacteries. They used to recite this everyday morning and evening. “Engrave on your heart the words that I command you today. Repeat them over and over to your children, speak of them when you are at home and when you travel, when you lie down and when you rise. Tie them around your arm as a sign and let them be as a band on your forehead. Engrave them on your doorposts and on your city gates.” (Deut. 6:6-9). So, Jesus knew that the Jewish lawyer would answer this central message of the Holy Scripture to his question.
(28) Jesus replied, “You have answered correctly! Do this and you shall live.”
Jesus added: “do this and you will live” into eternity. He had noticed that though the Jews recited this central theme of the scripture every day twice, they were not practicing it. Mere recitation of the law of the love of God and neighbors was not enough. Religion is not for learning but for practicing.
The Parable of the Good Samaritan
(29) The man wanted to justify himself so he asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”
Because he wished to justify himself
Luke the Evangelist gives the lawyer’s intention in raising the question, “who is my neighbor?” The lawyer wanted an assurance that he was perfect in practicing the religion. His expected answer from Jesus must be the widespread belief of the time. During the Old Testament times, people understood the neighbor as a fellow Israelite who lived in the locality.
(30) Jesus then said, “There was a man going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him, beat him and went off leaving him half dead.”
Went down from Jerusalem to Jericho.
Jesus gives this story based on crimes happening on the dangerous way from Jerusalem to Jericho. Within a short distance of 21 miles, a person was traveling down from Jerusalem that is 2,300 feet above sea level to Jericho, which is 1,300 feet below sea level. While going down 3,600 feet, the road was narrow, rocky with scarves and had sudden turnings. Since robbers attacked the travelers, the road had a nickname, “bloody way.”
The victim in the story is a man with no other details like his race, nationality, or class. Jesus gave importance to the suffering man, regardless of who he was. He could be a Jew because he was on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho.
(31) It happened that a priest was going along that road and saw the man, but passed by on the other side.
This parable has a priest and a Levite as characters. There is a difference in their designation. All priests were Levites, but not all Levites were priests. The Levites descended from the Levi, one of the 12 sons of Jacob. Before God’s covenant with Israelites at Mount Sinai, all the heads of the families were priests. After the sin of the Golden Calf, only the Levites declared faithfulness to God. So, God selected them for divine service at the Holy Place in the tabernacle and later in the Temple of Jerusalem. God selected Aron, the brother of Moses, who was also a Levite as the chief priest. His sons and their descendants were the priests and the High Priests.
The priest was also going from Jerusalem, after his priestly duty in the Temple. Jericho was the second city of Judea were many priests and Levites lived. So, it was natural that the Levites and the priests who do Temple service used to travel back and forth between Jerusalem and Jericho.
He passed by on the opposite side.
The priest used the opposite side of the road for his safety to avoid uncleanliness by touching a dead body if the victim would die. Or he did not want to take the risk of attack from the same robbers. The victim’s dreadful situation was a sure proof of the robbers’ presence there. So, he rushed for his safety without caring for the victim.
(32) Likewise a Levite saw the man and passed by on the other side.
The Levite was a little more considerate because he looked at the person and understood his situation. Though he felt sympathy, he also did nothing and went on the opposite side for his safety. Humanity had the same approach to those in need throughout the centuries. Jesus wanted to change this attitude. Mere sympathy without action for help is unchristian.
(33) But a Samaritan, too, was going along that road, and when he came upon the man, he was moved with compassion.
The Jews would hate Jesus for projecting a Samaritan as the generous man in the parable in comparison with the priest and the Levite. The Jews and Samaritans were hostile for centuries. The Samaritans were the occupants of the territory Joshua had assigned to the tribes of Ephraim and the half-tribe Manasseh. Samaria was its capital.
When the Assyrians deported and scattered in captivity the ten tribes of the Northern Israel, “The king of Assyria brought people from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath and Sepharvaim, and he settled them in the cities of Samaria in place of the Israelites. These people occupied the country of Samaria and resided in its cities.” (2 Kings 17:24). They had intermarriages with the remaining Israelites in the occupied area. The pagans who inhabited Samaria continued worship of their idols. So, God sent lions among them that killed some people. The king of Assyria sent them an Israelite priest from exile to teach them the worship of the God of the land. They studied the books of Moses and worshipped the God of Israel, but continued their idolatry. “They honored the LORD but at the same time, served their own gods, according to the customs of the nations from where they had been banished.” (2 Kings 17:33). Because of this mixed race and mixed worship, the Jews considered Samaritans as “half-breeds” and hated them.
The animosity between the Jews and Samaritans escalated because of several other reasons: (1) When the Jews returned from Babylonian exile and started rebuilding the Temple and the walls of Jerusalem, the Samaritans opposed it and halted it for some time (Nehemiah 6:1-14). (2) The Samaritans perpetuated their idolatrous worship by building a temple for the idols on Mount Gerizim. (3) Samaritans offered a refuge for all the outlaws of Judea (Joshua 20:6-7; 21:21). (4) Though Samaritans accepted the Torah, they rejected other Jewish scriptures and traditions. Hence, the Jews hated Samaritans and had no contact with them (John 4:9. 8:48).
Jesus drew a contrast between the Jews and Samaritans in their faith in action. The Samaritan, whom the Jews hated and considered worthless because of his non-Jewish beliefs and practices, became a compassionate and helping neighbor for the helpless and suffering Jew.
(34) He went over to him and treated his wounds with oil and wine and wrapped them with bandages. Then he put him on his own animal and brought him to an inn where he took care of him.
Unlike the priest and the Levite who passed by on the opposite side avoiding any contact with the victim, the Samaritan expressed his compassion in action. When the priest and the Levite thought of what bad would happen to them if they take care of the victim, the Samaritan considered what would happen to the victim if he would not care for him. With this difference in approach, the Samaritan took the risk of potential attack on him by the robbers who had attacked the victim.
The Samaritan used oil, wine, and cloth he had as first aid for the victim. Israelites used these to heal the sore from circumcision. Ignoring the Jewish-Samaritan rivalry, the Samaritan treated the victim as his own, shared what he had, spent time from his busy life, supplied the service of his ass to carry the victim while he went on foot to the nearby inn, and contributed money for the treatment.
(35) The next day he had to set off, but he gave two denarii to the innkeeper and told him: ‘Take care of him and if you spend more, I will repay when I come back.’
The next day
The Good Samaritan spent one night with this sick stranger, took care of him in the inn, and made sure that he got better. Two silver coins were the wage of a laborer for two days. He gave that for the victim’s food, lodging, and medical expenses because the victim had nothing left with him after the robbery. That amount was more than what was due for the care. The Good Samaritan was kind enough to meet the expense of the continued treatment of this Jew who might have been one among those who hated the Samaritans. This shows that his compassion was not just an ordinary impulse of sympathy. It was a generosity from his heart.
According to St. Paul, Jesus is the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:24). So, the teachings of Jesus have extraordinary meaning and everlasting relevance. Some parables of Jesus have in depth meaning than the simple message that we understand first. Though parable is a simple story to illustrate a spiritual or moral lesson, some have allegorical applications to the salvation history. In an allegory, there will be two levels of meaning. Besides the surface story, there will be a symbolic level with the characters, place, and plot match with the story of the Kingdom of God. The early church fathers have given an allegorical interpretation to the parable of the Good Samaritan.
This parable has a simple message without an allegorical interpretation. However, an understanding of the allegorical interpretation of this parable can help us realize the message from the perspective of the fall of mankind and the redemption of humanity by Jesus as a Good Samaritan. Church fathers like Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen in the second century, and Chrysostom, Ambrose, and Augustine in the fourth and fifth centuries have given the allegorical interpretation of this parable.
According to these church fathers, Jerusalem was the paradise, and Jericho was the sinful world. Adam was “the man” going down from Jerusalem. The robbers were Satan and his followers. They stripped off the man from his original grace and immortality. The priest is the Law and the Levite, the prophets of the Old Testament period. They did not save the humanity. Jesus is the Good Samaritan. The Jews had called Jesus a Samaritan while accusing him: “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and are possessed?” (John 8:48). The oil stands for the anointing with the Holy Spirit and wine for the blood of Jesus he offered for us. The inn is the church, and the innkeeper is Apostle Peter. The promise of the Samaritan that he will return to repay stands for the second coming of Christ.
The victim would have died without someone’s help. Similarly, we would have been dead, if Jesus had not come to rescue us like the Good Samaritan. Like him, Jesus did not consider the religion or status of the victim in his redemptive plan. The concern of the ancient Jewish leaders were religious rituals, their own welfare and status than of the people they served. Our call is to follow Jesus, the Good Samaritan, who risked and sacrificed himself for all humanity to rescue us from the attack of the evil.
(36) Jesus then asked, “Which of these three, do you think, made himself a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
Jesus did not give a direct answer to the scholar who questioned him. Instead, as an efficient teacher, Jesus let the scholar answer from the parable. The victim and all the three passengers were strangers and not neighbors. Still, Jesus presents them as neighbors who were responsible to help the victim. However, only one acted as a neighbor.
(37) The teacher of the Law answered, “The one who had mercy on him.” And Jesus said, “Go then and do the same.”
Though the lawyer did not like to acknowledge the Samaritan as a good neighbor, he had to answer that. He did not say the Samaritan, instead he answered indirectly: “The one who treated him with mercy.” Then Jesus commanded the lawyer and other listeners to do as the Samaritan did. That means:
1) We must take initiative to help those in need and shall not wait for them to seek our help.
2) We should spend our time for those who need our care.
3) We need to share the little resources we have like the wine, oil, cloth, means of transportation, and money as the Good Samaritan did.
4) We should even be willing to risk our lives for others. The robbers could attack the Good Samaritan while he was taking care of the victim.
5) We should ask ourselves, what would happen if I did not help him rather than what I would lose if I help him.