Of all parables the world has yet produced, our Lord’s parable of the good Samaritan is perhaps the most famous. Its impact on civilized culture is extensive; its influence for good, unmatched.
In this article, we examine selected details of this exceptional sacred narrative.
The Environment (Luke 10.30a)
"Then Jesus answered and said: ‘A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho…”
The north-easterly road from Jerusalem to Jericho was notoriously treacherous. In distance, it spanned a meager 17 miles. However, in that brief stretch of land, the topography, as Jesus intimates (i.e., “went down”), drops rapidly — some 4,000 feet from the Mount of Olives! Jerusalem itself resides approximately 2500 feet above sea level, while Jericho, near the Dead Sea, lies 825 feet below the sea.
Because of this dramatic descent in elevation, travelers on this road struggled with three major hardships:
(1) weariness due to the six-hour journey and steep elevation changes;
(2) a rapid shift in environmental conditions (Jericho was surrounded by a dry, desert-like climate, with minimal vegetation); and
(3) robbers and bandits, who could easily hide, assault their weary victims, and flea through the surrounding desert.
For these reasons, the road was given the nickname, “The Bloody Way.”
The Assault (v. 30b)
“…and fell among thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.”
While the New Kings James Version suggests that the man traveling this road fell among “thieves,” the original text instead insists he encountered robbers. A thief (kleptes) steals property by stealth, avoiding force; a robber (lestes), on the other hand, plunders their victims openly and violently (see Trench, 171-173).
In this case, the bandits “stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.” These men were ruthless, rapacious, blood-thirsty criminals, scarcely interested in anything other than self-gain. For them, compassion embodied weakness.
Incidentally, it is noteworthy that Jesus was crucified between two such blood-thirsty “robbers” (lestes, Mk. 15.27). And while they each bled on Calvary’s mount, these same calloused-hearted men sadistically abused the savior’s enervated ears with words of contempt and scorn (cf. Mt. 27.44).
Over the next six hours, however, the cross-enduring meekness of the Lord managed to soften one robber’s steely resolve, leading the penitent robber to submit humbly to the reign of the king of kings (cf. Lk. 24.39-43; 1 Tim. 6.15).
Indeed, the savior, even at his weakest physical hour, had the power to melt even the hardest heart of stone (cf. Eze. 36.26)!
The Passersby (vv. 31-32)
“31 Now by chance a certain priest came down that road. And when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 Likewise a Levite, when he arrived at the place, came and looked, and passed by on the other side.”
As the unnamed traveller lay half-dead in a pool of his own blood, two men, a priest and a Levite, happened “by chance” to see him in his helpless condition. Ordinarily, this might have been a most fortuitous turn of circumstances for the victim. But, alas, all hopes for rescue were briefly dashed.
A priest (a descendant of Aaron) was a member of one of 24 orders (1 Chron. 24.4ff), alternating his service at the temple in Jerusalem (cf. Lk. 1.8-9). He was a teacher of the law of God (Lev. 10.8-11), who officiated at the altar and in the worship ceremonies (cf. Lev. 9.7f; chps. 13-15). This position should have enabled the priest to “have compassion” on others, “since he himself is also subject to weakness” (Heb. 5.1-4).
A Levite (from the tribe of Levi) was a subordinate to the priests. They were caretakers of the temple and ministers in the temple service (cf. Num. 16.8-10). A Levite especially, who was sanctified by God to serve the people, should have been quick to service in this case. Both men ought to have been paragons of pure religion and benevolence. But neither were.
Some have quibbled, in an effort to excuse their actions, that the priest and Levite were perhaps going to Jerusalem to fulfill their sacerdotal duties at the temple. Not wanting to become “unclean” for touching a presumed dead body (cf. Num. 19.11), they passed by. But this theory does not pass muster.
First, the men were going “down that road.” As referenced earlier, Bible writers customarily spoke of traveling from Jerusalem in terms of elevation instead of direction. Although north of Jerusalem, Jericho required a trip down from Jerusalem’s heights. Hence, the men were traveling away from Jerusalem, likely returning home to Jericho, where many priests and Levites may have lived (possibly 12,000 in number).
Second, far from excusing the actions of these two men, Jesus plainly stipulates that only one of the three individuals in the parable did the ethical, neighborly thing. And it wasn’t the priest or the Levite!
Third, even if these two men were traveling up to Jerusalem to fulfill their duties at the temple, they ought to have rendered assistance anyway, for compassion, in this case, should have superseded ceremony (cf. Hosea 6.6; Mt. 12.1-8).
The Good Samaritan (v. 33)
“33 But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was. And when he saw him, he had compassion.”
Samaritans were neither distinctly Jewish nor Gentile, but may have been a mix of both ethnic groups (Mt. 10.5-6). For this reason, the Jews generally did not interact with them (Jn. 4.9), and harbored as much antipathy for them as they did evil demons (Jn. 8.48). But Jesus did not paint them with such a large brush, and instead made a Samaritan the hero of this parable.
Essential to the Samaritan’s heroic neighborliness was his “compassion” — a word which suggests, to be moved as to one’s inwards, to yearn so deeply as to be physically affected. To be this moved by the plight of a total stranger would have required an exceedingly noble heart indeed!
The Extraordinary Sacrifices (vv. 34-35)
“34 So he went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; and he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said to him, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you’.”
Our protaganist did not merely feel for the injured man; he took action, sacrificing his time, energy, and resources to help a man about whom he knew nothing.
First, what is not directly stated, but what is most certainly indicated, is that the Samaritan was the only one who willingly placed himself in potential danger.
The priest saw the man, but did not so much as pause to approach him. The Levite seems to have paused, and perhaps even looked at the situation a bit closer than the priest, before moving on. Only the Samaritan came near (proselthon) to the man. In so doing, he could have easily been walking into a trap. As Plummer put it:
“The fear of being himself overtaken by brigands, or of being suspected of the robbery, does not influence him” (287).
Second, the Samaritan nursed the victim back to health. The oil and wine would have served as an antiseptic, cleaning the man’s wounds. The bandages would have helped prevent further infection. But he didn’t stop there.
Next, the Samaritan took him to an inn, and “took care” of him all night, refusing to leave his side until “the next day” (v. 35) — no doubt to make sure he had sufficiently stabilized the ailing traveller before leaving him.
The inn would have cost the Samaritan about 1/12 of a denarius per day (Jeremias, 1950). He gave the innkeeper “two denarii” — enough for twenty-four days (which indicates just how wounded the traveller must have been)! In today’s terms (staying twenty-four days in a cheap motel), the Samaritan would have paid well in excess of $1000 for this total stranger, asking nothing in return!
But, still, that was not enough for the Samaritan.
Finally, he further pledged to return and pay for any extra expenses the innkeeper might have incurred in caring for the man (v. 35). To make sure he is understood clearly, the Samaritan uses the emphatic form, ego — i.e., “I will repay you (not the Samaritan, or anyone else).”
Going “above and beyond” doesn’t do justice to describing the extraordinary sacrifices the Samaritan made for this poor stranger. What a neighbor!
The Lessons Learned (v. 36)
This parable offers its students a number of lessons, which promote the highest of ethical standards.
In the first place, prejudice is selfish, but love behaves beneficially toward all.
It was a Jewish lawyer — one who “expounded the oral law or traditions of the elders” (McGarvey, 314) — who had provoked the Lord to deliver this parable with the question: “who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10.25-29). His question was self-serving, not genuine, for he desired to “justify himself” (v. 29; cf. v. 25).
Doubtless, he, like many of his Jewish contemporaries, prejudicially placed a limitation on who deserved to receive his charity (that is, who could be his “neighbor”) — Samaritans, Gentiles, and any of his personal, Jewish enemies were generally excluded (cf. Matthew 5.43).
In turn, instead of answering the lawyer’s question, the Lord asked him a probing question: “So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the robbers?” (v. 36). Revealingly, though he knew the answer, the lawyer could not quite bring himself to say, “the Samaritan!” Rather, he said: “he who showed mercy on him.” Prejudice chokes on words of praise for those it hates.
The brunt of Jesus’ parable is clear: neighborliness should never be limited to those of whom you approve.
Indeed, Scripture frequently reminds us of our duty to “do good to all men” (Gal. 6.10). Because of his own salvation and apostleship, Paul regarded himself as “a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to wise and to unwise” (Rom. 1.14).
Since we are disciples of Christ (who made himself the world’s servant — Mt. 20.28), we must, like Christ, make ourselves the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world” (Mt. 5.13-14). Indeed, every human being, whether kind and grateful or “unthankful and evil,” is a candidate for receiving the benevolent influence of Christ through our own “good works” (cf. Lk. 6.35-36).
Second, before criticizing, first do the right thing yourself (cf. Mt. 7.1-6; Rm. 2.21).
While the lawyer placed responsibility on the character of others (i.e., who is worthy to be my neighbor), Jesus placed responsibility on the character of the lawyer himself — “go and you do likewise.” The personal pronoun, you, is emphatic in the original text, indicating a personal charge. Can you be as good as the Samaritan? That is the challenge the Lord gave the man!
Who is my neighbor? You are their neighbor! Even if others do not behave neighborly toward you, you must behave neighborly toward them (cf. Rom. 12.14, 7-20; Mt. 5.44-48).
Third, compassion is worthless devoid of action.
Having pity on a man who is naked and hungry is meaningless, unless you provide him with clothing and food (cf. James 2.15-16). The Samaritan understood this principle well. Feeling for others is commendable; but fulfilling for others is Christian (cf. Luke 6.31).
Fourth, good deeds must become habitual.
Jesus employed the present tense in his instruction, which indicates sustained activity — literally, be going and be doing likewise! Don’t stop! It is not enough to be neighborly once, and then be done with it. Such deeds of compassion must become a perpetual habit, if we wish to “inherit eternal life” (Lk. 10.25; cf. Matt. 25.31-46; Rm. 12.13).
Fifth, flesh and blood matter not (cf. Jn. 6.63); rather, anyone — Jewish, Samaritan, or Gentile — who pursues righteous conduct (as defined by God’s “word”) “is accepted by him” (Acts 10.34ff).
Finally, it is not enough to say, ‘at least I haven’t hurt anyone,’ though many live by that motto.
Rather, this parable teaches us the following: the robbers engaged in the sin of commission (harming others for selfish gain); the priest and the Levite engaged in the sin of omission (failing to do what is right). Only the Samaritan acted virtuously, by both refraining from evil, and practicing what is right (cf. 1 Thess. 5.21-22; Jms. 4.17).
Opportunities to do good surround us everyday. Are we prepared to recognize them and act accordingly?
Jeremias, Joachim. The Parables of Jesus. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1954. McGarvey, J.W. and Philip Y. Pendleton. The Fourfold Gospel: A Harmony of the Four Gospels. Cincinnati, OH: The Standard Publishing Foundation, n.d. Plummer, Alfred. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to St. Luke: Third Edition. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900. Trench, R.C. Synonyms of the New Testament. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2000.