As we start this new year, numerous tensions divide our churches and the nation, and even turn us against one another. So perhaps a few words about what the parable of the Good Samaritan teaches us about loving our neighbor might be helpful. This post was adapted from my book, Surprised by the Parables: Growing in Grace through the Stories of Jesus (Lexham: Bellingham, WA: 2020), and was originally posted at Lexham Press.
“Good Samaritan Helps Family Stranded on Side of Road.” “Good Samaritan Funds Children’s Hospital.” “Woman Saved from Burning House by Good Samaritan.” How many times have you seen headlines like this? Stories about people who are selfless and sacrificial are wonderful and uplifting. They take us out of our doldrums and cynicism and remind us that there is still good in the world and people who will help strangers, even if it costs them dearly.
This is generally how we understand the parable of the Good Samaritan. A compassionate stranger comes to someone’s aid. However, there is much more to this parable.
Contrary to popular belief, a good Samaritan, or rather, a Samaritan, is not a person who helps someone in distress. In the biblical world, the idea that someone was a Samaritan was not nearly as pleasant or inspirational. Simply put, Samaritans were seen as traitors to their faith and were hated by the Jews.
The Samaritans were a mixed race, only partly Israelite. They were seen as having compromised the faith. They worshiped other gods and departed from the law (2 Kgs 17:24–41). They only recognized the first five books of the Old Testament, known as the Pentateuch. They also worshiped at a rival temple built on Mount Gerazim rather than Mount Zion.
So why did Jesus make someone who was so hated the hero of the story? We begin by asking why Jesus told the parable in the first place. The entire story begins not with the parable itself, but several verses earlier, in Luke 10:25, when a lawyer comes to Jesus and wants to “test” him. He asks Jesus, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus tells him to look at the law, and the man replies that the law instructs him to love God “‘with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself ’” (Luke 10:27). When Jesus instructs him to follow this teaching, the lawyer responds one more time: “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29).
The lawyer’s question implies that he thinks there is such a thing as a nonneighbor—in other words, someone to whom he does not need to extend mercy and compassion. Traditionally, “neighbor” would refer to a fellow Jew, so his viewpoint is not that unusual.
The Jews understood their relationships and responsibilities according to a series of concentric circles. If the Jew were at the center, the expanding circles would include first immediate relatives, then kinsmen and then all other Jews. Foundational to the circles was determining who was worthy of aid based on self-interest and ethnic belonging. Lines were drawn so that those inside received help while those outside did not. The Jews saw their “neighbors” as their fellow Jews, and excluded foreigners and Samaritans.
A first-century Jew would have understood and accepted the lawyer’s question. Jesus, however, does not accept that limited understanding. He instead challenges the lawyer to reconsider who is his neighbor. Jesus’ response indicates that his teaching is about caring for all who are created in God’s image, rather than classifying people and finding different obligations for each category of persons. As a result, Jesus will teach the lawyer about the deeper meaning of the law and what is lacking in his heart by answering his question, “Who is my neighbor?” with the parable of the good Samaritan.
In contrast to the priest’s and Levite’s refusal to help the man, the Samaritan, the one who is despised and seen as not honoring God’s law, is the one who helps. The ones considered the epitome of law keeping do not. Jesus’ parable turns the lawyer’s world upside down. Can he admit that the Samaritan is the one who is “good?”
Unfortunately, the lawyer does not seem to want to acknowledge that the hated Samaritan is the one who selflessly helps. Notice that in the end when Jesus asks who was the neighbor to the man, the lawyer cannot even bring himself to say “the Samaritan,” but only “the one who had mercy on him.”
The parable is much more than a story about doing good to strangers. Jesus exposes the lawyer’s self-righteousness and prejudice. In the same way, the parable can expose our own prejudices. Who is the Samaritan in your life? Who is the person that you want to dismiss, that you don’t want to admit can be a hero and do good? If you identify the person you have a hard time accepting, you have found your Samaritan and have understood Jesus’ parable.
- Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 500-501.
- Arland J. Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 94.
- Simon J. Kistemaker, The Parables: Understanding the Stories Jesus Told (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980), 141.
- Kistemaker, Parables, 141-42.