The Good Samaritan


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Luke 10:25-37

Remember, we are near the beginning of a long section of the Gospel of Luke, often referred to in biblical scholarship as Luke’s “great interpolation,” that mostly contains material that is not found in the other Gospels. Assuming as most gospel scholars do that Luke had the Gospel of Mark before him as he wrote his Gospel, at this point Luke departed from Mark’s order in a somewhat dramatic way and, for that reason, we have a lot of wonderful history and teaching we would not have otherwise. The justly famous parable of the “Good Samaritan” is part of the material unique to the Gospel of Luke. It is unquestionably one of the most familiar passages in Holy Scripture. It has entered the consciousness and the vocabulary of the entire world. Everyone knows what a Good Samaritan is. We even have “Good Samaritan Laws” to protect from lawsuit those who stop to help others in distress. My word processor spell-checker required me to capitalize Good Samaritan when I typed the phrase because there is but one Good Samaritan! During my vacation, I read a mystery in which the hero at one point was accosted by some rogues. He hoped that someone might come to his help but remarked, “If any of the Great British Public saw what was happening, they passed by on the other side of the road,” an obvious allusion to the parable of the Good Samaritan, an allusion the author expected his readers to catch.

We have also noted that the phenomenal enthusiasm for Jesus that characterized the earlier stages of his ministry had peaked by this point and hostility to Jesus, especially on the part of the religious leadership, had become more open. The parable is introduced by the appearance of a scribe, an expert in the law, who apparently came with the intention of catching the Lord in some misstatement, some controversial statement perhaps, that could become the basis of an accusation against him.

The Parables often require background for their proper interpretation and this parable is no exception. I want you to understand what you read, and there is more to understand than you might at first realize, more than meets the eye of the typical twenty-first western century reader, so I am going to give extensive comment on the text as we read it.

Text Comment

v.25     As we have often observed, the parables evoke in very precise ways the life and times of the Near East of Jesus’ day. It was typical for a student to stand to address a teacher. So the scribe’s standing was the expected demonstration of respect. He addressed Jesus as “Teacher;” Luke’s version of “Rabbi,” a second token of respect. But was the respect genuine or a ploy to put Jesus at ease?

v.26     Jesus knew very well that for the man standing before him the answer to his question lay in the practice of the Law of Moses and in the regulations of the rabbis by which they thought to practice that law. The Judaism of his day no longer had the expectation of a Redeemer who would die for the sins of the world; it had become a religion of self-salvation. [cf. Str.-B, IV, i, 175] So, as he often did, Jesus began by probing the man’s own way of thinking.

v.27     In both Matthew and Mark and in a different setting the Lord Jesus himself quotes these two commandments, the first from Deuteronomy 6:5 and the second from Leviticus 19:18, as the two greatest commandments, by which he meant the two commandments that sum up all the rest. So, in one sense Jesus did not disagree with the man’s answer.

v.28     It was commonplace in Jewish thought of the period that the way to gain eternal life was to keep the commandments. Statements to that effect can be found wherever one looks in the literature of the period. An older contemporary of Jesus, the famous rabbi Hillel, is quoted in the Mishnah as having said, “Who has gained for himself words of Torah has gained for himself the life of the world to come.” [Pirke Aboth 2:8] This man, therefore, had done nothing but repeat conventional pieties. But as with the Lord’s conversation with the rich young ruler, to which we will come in Luke 18, the Lord knew how to unmask the self-righteousness and hypocrisy inherent in this soteriology, that is, the understanding of salvation held by this man and most of his countrymen.

As with Simon the Pharisee in Luke 7, the man who looked down upon the sinful woman who came to his home to thank Jesus, the Lord drew out of the man the right answer. But did this man understand what he had just said? Did he understand what it means to love God and to love one’s neighbor? Did he really want to know the answer to his own question? In his conversation with the rich young ruler in Luke 18 who answered similarly, Jesus tested the man’s understanding of the commandments by telling him to sell all that he had and give it to the poor and then follow Jesus. On that occasion everyone listening to Jesus thought Jesus had asked too much of him. If that is what obedience to the law means, they asked, “Who then can be saved?” And Jesus’ reply was that “what is impossible with men is possible with God.” The Lord took the same viewpoint and used the same strategy with this scribe here in Luke 10.

Whether for the purposes of debate or as a statement of hypotheticals, Jesus agreed that a life of perfect obedience to God’s law would lead to salvation. The problem, of course, is that no one lives such a life. That is what this man did not understand and that is what Jesus was about to show him.

v.29     The typical Jew of the period did not doubt that the law of God could be kept well enough to earn salvation — the rabbis even spoke of people who kept the law from A to Z – and, so naturally, they talked at great length about precisely how to keep the law. That was this man’s interest. He wanted to know precisely what Jesus thought neighbor love required. The answer the man probably expected, assuming that Jesus thought as his contemporaries thought, was that his neighbor was his relative or his friend, certainly his fellow Jew. The man probably expected Jesus to admit that this man had indeed loved his neighbor and to praise him for doing so. The Jews of the time did not include Gentiles among their neighbors. A Jewish commentary on Ruth from the period reads,

“The gentiles, among whom and us there is no war, and
so those that are keepers of sheep among the Israelites, and the like, we are not to contrive their death; but if they be in any danger of death, we are not bound to deliver them; e.g. if any of them fall into the sea you shall not need to take them out….such a one is not your neighbor.” [Cited from Lightfoot, Horae Hebraicae, 107 in K.E. Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes, 40]

And in another Jewish writing (Sirach 12:1-7) we find the lines:

“If you do a good turn, know for whom you are doing it,
And your good deeds will not go to waste.

Give to the good man, and do not go to the help of a sinner.”

v.30     The seventeen mile descent from Jerusalem to Jericho has always been dangerous. The Roman general Pompey had to wipe out “strongholds of brigands” near Jericho and the crusaders, a thousand years later, had to build a fort at the half-way point to protect pilgrims traveling the same road. [Bailey, 41] There are 19th century accounts of pilgrims traveling the road with an armed guard and of some still being attacked, stripped, and robbed. [42] “Half dead” was one of the rabbis’ stages of death or dying and signified that the man was on the point of death. He was presumably unconscious and unable to call for help or even to identify himself to a passerby. [42] This is significant as we will see.

The fact that he was stripped is not an inconsequential detail. A person’s ethnic-religious community can be identified in the near east today as it could be in the near east of Jesus’ day either by his speech or his dress. In this case the community of the wounded man, silent and stripped, could not be identified by a passerby. They were certainly not all Jews who traveled that road, though many Jews did and the hearers of the parable would probably have assumed the man was a Jew. But no one could know for sure; without his clothing he was reduced to a mere human being in need. [Bailey, 42]

v.31     See the story unfold as the original hearers would have in their own minds. The priests of the Jews in those days belonged to the upper class of the nation. This priest would have been riding. In the near east of that time or, for that matter, of this, no one who has any status would take seventeen-mile hikes through the desert. They rode and this is the natural assumption of the parable. So today, when an American farmer says, “I’m going to town,” if the town is 17 miles away he doesn’t have to mention that he will take the car or truck; it is assumed. [Bailey, 43] The Samaritan also was riding, as we discover only after he is introduced, because there was no need to mention the fact. Of course he was riding. The point is not unimportant. If the priest were not riding, he would not have been able to do what the Samaritan did for this man and the point of the comparison would be lost. Not only did the priest have an animal upon which to put the wounded man, as a member of the upper class, he had the means to do everything the Samaritan did. But, for whatever reason, the priest did not regard the wounded man as his neighbor. Perhaps he was not a Jew. Who could tell? Perhaps he was dead or would soon be and so would defile the priest if he were to be touched. The ritual to remove such ceremonial uncleanness was time-consuming, expensive, and in some respects humiliating. These were reasons to think that the man was probably not his neighbor.

For this priest life was lived according to a codified system of do’s and don’ts, of lesser and greater obligations, and of qualified and unqualified commandments. The priest was not simply indifferent and cruel; he was weighing the matter in terms of rabbinic legislation which had largely forgotten the injunction of the OT that the Lord loved mercy more than sacrifice.

v.32     The nature of the road — its contours still visible in our day — and of travel in the desert in that time lead near eastern peasants today, when hearing the parable, to assume that the Levite knew that the priest had already passed the wounded man and passed by himself in large part because the priest had. He was of a lower class and may well have been walking. He may have had no animal with which to take the man to safety and to give him help would have required him to sit by the man, exposing himself to the same robbers, while waiting for help to appear. The Levite was not subject to as many regulations as the priest had been, but for fear of the robbers or because of the example of the priest he too passed by. If the professional didn’t stop, why should the poor layman take the risk?

v.33     The Lord’s audience would expect next a Jewish layman: first the priest, then the Levite, then a Jewish layman — the natural progression. Instead, to their shock, amazement and, no doubt, offense the third man on the road to come by the wounded man was a hated Samaritan. To the Jews the Samaritans were the dregs of the earth. Jews thought about Samaritans the way many Muslims think about their natural enemies today. The Samaritans were heretics, people whose religion was a mixture of Judaism and other things and heretics and schismatics are always regarded as worse than mere unbelievers by the orthodox. [Bailey, 48] Centuries of animosity lay behind the Lord’s choice of a Samaritan in a story he was telling to a Jewish audience. It is striking how bitter Jewish speech was toward the Samaritans in those days. We read in the Mishnah “He that eats the bread of the Samaritans is like to one that eats the flesh of swine.” [Shebiith 8:10] In the synagogue, if you can believe it, prayers were offered that the Samaritans might not be partakers of eternal life. One missionary to the Arab world admits that through twenty years of work in the Near East he never had the courage to tell an Arab audience a story whose hero was a noble Israeli. Or imagine telling Armenians a story about a noble Turk. [Bailey, 48] Or imagine telling a member of al-Qaeda a story with a noble American soldier or an Israeli soldier as the hero! Well, that is what Jesus did here. Think of your response if the story were told today but the priest were your minister, the Levite one of the church’s elders, and the Samaritan were a prominent local atheist and advocate of gay-marriage. [Fee and Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth, 133[

If traveling uphill toward Jerusalem he would have passed the priest and the Levite and would have known that they had done nothing for the man; if traveling downhill to Jericho he would still, in all likelihood, have known of the two men ahead of him and when he got to the man would have known they had passed him by. He was, of course, as likely a target of the robbers as this man had been, if not more so, given his animal and his means.

v.34     A loyal Jew was likely to resent the ministrations of a Samaritan because he was a hated enemy and unclean to boot. The Jews would have loved it if the story had ended with the wounded man telling the Samaritan to leave him alone, that he would wait for help from another Jew!

v.35     Jericho was a Jewish town. One commentator writes that “an American cultural equivalent would be a Plains Indian in 1875 walking into Dodge City with a scalped cowboy on his horse, checking into a room over the local saloon, and staying the night to take care of him.” That Indian would have been very fortunate to get out of town alive, no matter that he was caring for the cowboy he found scalped on the prairie. In the same way, it would have been altogether safer if the Samaritan had simply left the man on the stoop of the inn put a couple of coins next to him and gone on his way. This is love and courage together. [Bailey, 52-53] It’s the way the parable would have been heard by those who first heard.

v.37     The Lord had turned the tables on the scribe whose question prompted the parable in the first place. “This, my friend, is what it means to love one’s neighbor as oneself.” We can almost hear the audience saying, “Well, then, who can be saved?”

I have spent a great deal of our time filling in the detail of the parable so that you might understand what it was that the original audience would have heard and would have thought. There is, in fact, a great deal more that I might have said in explaining the parable to you. But very clearly, the parable has two great themes. The first is the great demand of God’s law, that it should require of us such love, such self-forgetfulness, such taking of risk, such sacrifice for our neighbor. It is the recognition of the true demand of God’s law that leads a man or woman to realize that he cannot gain eternal life by keeping the commandments of God: they ask too much and we do too little. This self-confident lawyer wasn’t ready for the good news; he needed the bad news first and that is what Jesus gives him to move him further down the path toward salvation. As the entire Bible is at pains to teach us, in the matter of salvation, what is impossible for man is possible for God. What we could not do, God did by sending his son, who did keep the law perfectly, who was the Good Samaritan to us in a far greater, a far more self-sacrificial way; who bound up our wounds and saw to our safety.

But it is surely striking — that being the first lesson of the parable; after all it was spoken in answer to the question, “What must I do to be saved?” — that the Lord concluded it by telling us “You go and so likewise,” not, as in Luke 18, “What is impossible for man is possible with God.” The law of God teaches us our need of a Savior to be sure, but it also teaches us how we are to live, and if we cannot manage to keep such demanding commandments perfectly, that is no excuse for not aspiring to love God and our neighbor in this radical way. The salvation of God is both the free gift of Christ’s righteousness to the unrighteous and the transformation of our lives into lives of loving obedience. The two lessons, of course, belong together and are always found together in the Word of God. What is true goodness? Well read the Law of God and you will find out. What does it require of us? True goodness and love, come wind, come weather! But we cannot reach such a high standard. That is alright; Christ has reached it for you. Believe in him; follow him. But what is it then to follow Christ? Well, it is to love God and your neighbor as he did. And having been loved by God and Christ as we have been, who does not want to love as he loved, to sacrifice for others as he sacrificed for us, and to be good to others as Jesus was good to us? The Bible in a nutshell: theology and ethics together; salvation by grace alone producing a life lived aspiring to be worthy of such a grace. Being wounded, dying, left for dead and then spending one’s days serving the one who, at great risk to himself, saved us, and serving him by doing in our own small way what he did for us. That is the whole message of the parable of the Good Samaritan and it is nothing less than a summary of the whole message of the Bible.

Now, take it to heart. See yourself in that scribe; your heart in his. Not so hard to do I think. His question was very much like Peter’s later who wanted, if you remember, to know just how many times he had to forgive his brother who sinned against him (Matt. 18:21). In asking that question in that way Peter gave himself away. His was not a heart dominated by a great love that had been shown him when he was helpless. His was a begrudging sense of obligation to others. He didn’t yet grasp that among those who have been saved by God’s mercy and Christ’s sacrifice there can no longer be any thought of parceling out our favors to others or that a time will come when we need do no more. We have been loved with an infinite love; though unworthy, we have been loved greatly at terrible risk and cost to the one who loved us. We have been loved without any of the calculation of the priest or the Levite and we must in turn love in that same way. That is, we have discovered, what true love is, that and nothing less. As one commentator puts it in speaking of the error in the scribe’s question: “Love does not begin by defining its objects; it discovers them.” [T.W. Manson, Sayings, 261]

You wives, suppose your husband had come up to you yesterday and said to you in complete sincerity,

“Now, honey, I need to know how much I have to spend on your birthday present for you to think that I have done enough and for you to be happy with it. I don’t want to spend more than I have to, so can you give me at least a ballpark figure?”

Would you not have thought, and perhaps would you not have said something like this:

“If that is your attitude, don’t bother with a present. If giving me a gift is simply some obligation to fulfill, a box to check, then I would just as soon do without. I don’t want a gift from a husband whose gift is not the embodiment of his love and whose love, if it is love at all, is so calculating of the price.”

And you would be right to think and to say such a thing. Duty may seek its limits; love never does. Love does not want to know when it can quit; it wants only the opportunity to express itself. So the love of true Christian faith: the love for God that is best expressed in the love of others, as many others as we can find and others, no matter who or what they are. Indeed, the less deserving in some ways the better. In that they are more like us and in loving them our love is more like Christ’s love for us.

On my vacation I read a volume of the wartime letters of J. Gresham Machen, the Princeton professor, the great NT scholar, the leader of the orthodox party in the controversy over the Gospel in the Presbyterian Church in the early years of the 20th century. These were letters he sent home from France during his service with the YMCA near the front lines during the First World War. In the letters there is mention of a Richard Hodges. Hodges had met Machen because he had become a member of First Presbyterian Church in Princeton, the same church where the Princeton professor worshipped. After they became friends Hodges would spend time with Machen and some seminary students in Machen’s rooms in Alexander Hall. Hodges was an older man and He would regale them with tales of his adolescence during the Civil War and of the evacuation of Richmond at the end, of which he had been an eyewitness as a teenager. Hodges, alas, was a drunk and suffered numerous relapses. He once sold two suits that Machen had given him to buy alcohol.

For some twenty years Machen did what he could for this poor man. He supported him financially to the tune of many thousands of dollars, more money in those days even than it sounds today — Hodges was always asking him for money for this and money for that –, he made efforts to get him into a home for recovering alcoholics and paid for his keep there. On one occasion he made a ten mile bike ride to visit him in the hospital. Imagine that scene: the man who would soon become a world class biblical scholar, a household name in America often featured on the front pages of America’s major newspapers, pedaling away to visit his friend, an old drunk who seemed not to be able to stay on the wagon. When he wore out his welcome in one rooming house, it fell to Machen from a distance to find him new accommodations and convince a landlord to accept him, which usually required the promise of his own payment of the rent. In some of his letters to his mother about Hodges Machen admits that the time Hodges was requiring of him was taking away from his seminary work. Machen’s mother referred to Hodges as her son’s protégé!

After another of Hodges’ benders, Machen wrote to his mother,

“A good many people might think Hodges not worth working for — there is deceitfulness in him as well as his recurrent weakness — but in the providence of God I have been given absolute responsibility (so far as anyone has it) for the welfare of a human soul, and I cannot put the matter out of my mind. Meanwhile my academic work has absolutely gone by the board.”

The Lord had put Richard Hodges in Machen’s way — in many ways a foolish man but a man who was in great need of the attention that Machen could provide. That sounds like the Good Samaritan and the wounded traveler doesn’t it? So does all the money spent, all the inconvenience, and all the expectation of others that he needn’t do so much for such a man.

Some Christians sprint to the finish line, others walk, still others limp or even stagger to the line as did Richard Hodges, a real Christian by all accounts including Machen’s, but never able thoroughly to put to death his addiction to drink. But he did not stagger alone. He had a shoulder to lean on for the last twenty years of his life, constant help, and caring affection that never ceased even when provoked again and again. [All the above from Barry Waugh, “Mr Machen’s Protégé,” WTJ vol. 71, no. 1 (Spring 2009) 21-52]

Do you have a protégé or two or three? Do you recognize them when you encounter them as the Good Samaritan did? Is their need your opportunity? To have and care for such a protégé is to do what is right, of course. It is to love your neighbor as yourself. But it is more than that. It is to confess and express your faith in Jesus Christ who was such a Good Samaritan to you when he might so easily have passed you by. It is to be a gospel man or a gospel woman. It is to be to others what Jesus Christ was to you and to be so because of what Jesus Christ did for you. That’s what Jesus was saying.To be a Good Samaritan is to be a Christian, pure and simple, to do the things real Christians do for the reasons they do them.