Many of us are familiar with the parable of the good Samaritan in Luke 10:25–37. However, because we live in cultures very different from that of first-century Palestine, there are aspects of the story that we may not relate to. When we hear or read this parable, it doesn’t necessarily shock us or defy the status quo of today’s world. Yet the first-century listeners who heard Jesus tell this parable would have been taken aback by it. The message would have run contrary to their expectations and challenged their cultural boundaries.
Let’s begin by taking a look at the cast of characters in the order of their appearance.
The parable tells us very little about the first character, the man who was beaten and robbed, but it does provide one fact that is crucial to the story. He was stripped of his clothes and was lying on the ground, severely beaten and unconscious.1
These details are more significant than we might think, because people in the first century were easily identifiable by the style of clothes they wore and their language or accent. Because the beaten man had no clothes, it was impossible to tell his nationality. And because he was unconscious and unable to speak, it was impossible to identify who he was or where he was from.
The second character in the story is the priest. Jewish priests were the clergy who ministered at the temple in Jerusalem for one week at a time every 24 weeks. There are no details given about the priest in this story, but those who heard Jesus’ parable most likely assumed that he was returning to his home in Jericho after his week ministering in the temple.
The third character in the parable is the Levite. While all priests were Levites, not all Levites were priests. They were considered minor clergy and, like the priests, they served for a week at a time twice a year.
The Samaritan: The Samaritans were a people who lived in the hill country of Samaria between Galilee in the north and Judea in the south. They believed in the first five books of Moses, but considered that God had ordained Mount Gerizim as the place to worship instead of Jerusalem.
In 128 BC, the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim was destroyed by the Jewish army. Between AD 6 and 7 some Samaritans scattered human bones in the Jewish temple, thus defiling it. These two events played a role in the deep animosity that existed between the Jews and Samaritans, evident within the New Testament. It was within this setting of cultural, racial, and religious animosity that Jesus told the parable of the good Samaritan.
Our last character is the lawyer. While the lawyer isn’t part of the parable, it is because of the questions he asks Jesus that the parable is told. In New Testament times, lawyers were specialists in religious law and were called on to interpret and teach the laws of Moses. They examined the more difficult and subtle legal questions and gave opinions. This lawyer’s motive for asking Jesus his questions might have been to begin a debate about the interpretation of Scripture. It also might have been that he was a spiritual seeker.
Luke tells us, “Behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, ‘Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’” The question of how to obtain eternal life was debated among Jewish scholars in the first century, with the emphasis put on obeying the law as the means of gaining eternal life.
“[Jesus] said to him, ‘What is written in the Law? How do you read it?’ And he [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 yourself.’”2
As seen throughout the Gospels, this was exactly what Jesus had been teaching, and perhaps the lawyer had heard Jesus uphold this standard of loving God with all that is within us and loving our neighbor. But he goes on: “He … said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’”3
The lawyer wants to know who is it exactly that he needs to love. He knows that his neighbor includes fellow Jews. But Gentiles weren’t considered neighbors, though it does say in Leviticus 19:34 to “treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself.” Based on this, the lawyer would have already assumed that his neighbors would be fellow Jews, along with any non-Jew living in his town, and he seems to want to know if Jesus agrees. It’s in response to this question, “Who is my neighbor,” that Jesus tells the parable.
“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.’”4 While it was impossible to tell the nationality of the man, in the context of the story the listeners would most likely have assumed this man was a Jew.
“Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side.”5 As mentioned earlier, it’s likely that the priest was returning from one of his weeks of service in the temple. Because of his status, he was likely riding on a donkey and could have transported the injured man to Jericho.
The problem was that he couldn’t tell who, or what nationality, the man was, since he was both unconscious and naked. The Mosaic law required the priest to help a fellow Jew, but not a foreigner. On top of it, the priest didn’t know if the man was dead or not, and according to the law, going near or touching a dead body would cause him to be ceremonially unclean. Under these circumstances, he decided to pass by the man, staying on the other side of the road to make sure he kept the proper distance from him, and perhaps also to avoid discovering for certain who the man was and whether he was alive, which might have required action from him.
The parable continues: “Likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.”6 The Levite does the same as the priest, and in the absence of any clear religious injunction to help, he also makes the decision not to get involved.
The third person who enters the scene is a despised Samaritan, an enemy. Jesus describes all the Samaritan does for the dying man, things that the priest and the Levite, who both served in the temple, should have done. “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 and brought him to an inn and took care of him.”7
The Samaritan has compassion on the wounded man, binds up his wounds, then pours on wine and oil for disinfecting. Beyond that, he lifts the man onto his own animal and takes him to an inn, presumably in Jericho.
And then he did even more. “And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’”8 Two denarii was the equivalent of two days’ wages for a laborer. The Samaritan’s promise to return and pay any extra expenses ensured the safety and continued care of the beaten man.
Upon finishing the story, Jesus asks the lawyer: “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”9
When the lawyer asked, “Who is my neighbor?” he wanted a categorical, black-and-white type of answer. But Jesus’ story showed that there is no short list limiting who you are responsible to love or who you are supposed to consider your neighbor. Jesus defined “your neighbor” as anyone in need whom God brings across your path.
Through this parable Jesus was making it clear that our neighbor is anyone in need, regardless of their race, religion, or standing in the community. There are no boundaries when it comes to whom we should show love and compassion to. Compassion goes way beyond the requirements of the law, and we are even expected to love our enemies.
The beaten men and women whom we come across in our lives may not be physically half dead by the side of the road. But so many need to feel love and compassion, to receive a helping hand, or someone willing to listen to their heart cries, so they know that they matter, that someone cares for them. If God has brought you across their path, then He may be calling you to be that person.
Jesus set the bar for love and compassion in this parable, and His closing words to you and me—the listeners of today—are “Go, and do likewise.”