If you were to make a list of Jesus’ most beloved and well-known parables, the Good Samaritan would top the list. It’s a powerful and evocative story that reveals a fundamental truth.
Let’s take a look at what Jesus wanted to communicate with this story.
Examining the Good Samaritan
To grasp the meaning of Jesus’ story, we need to look at the context in which He told it. It all started with an expert of Mosaic law came to Jesus with a question.
“On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he asked, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’
‘What is written in the Law?’ He replied. ‘How do you read it?’
He answered, ‘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, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’
‘You have answered correctly,’ Jesus replied. ‘Do this and you will live.’
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’
In reply Jesus said: ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
‘Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?’
The expert in the law replied, ‘The one who had mercy on him.’
Jesus told him, ‘Go and do likewise’” (Luke 10:25-37, New International Version).
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What does it mean?
When it comes to examining parables, people often get lost in the weeds. They spend so much time trying to attach significance to every detail that they misunderstand the story. But the details are a vehicle to communicate a central point. So what’s the gist of this story?
The teacher of the law intended to trap Jesus, but Jesus turned the conversation back around. When eternal life comes down to loving God and loving your neighbor, the man wanted to justify himself. So he asked Jesus a question intended to quibble about identifying neighbors.
Jesus answers this question by telling a story about a man beaten, robbed, and left to die on the side of the road. Both a Jewish priest and a Levite (assistant to a priest) pass him by. This would have shocked the man listening to the story. Of all the people likely to show compassion to a fallen Jewish traveler, it would be one of these fellows. Both go out of their way to avoid the injured man.
Not a Samaritan?!
Jesus intentionally chooses the Samaritan to be the hero because he’s the most unlikely candidate. The Jews and Samaritans were mortal enemies. In fact, Samaritans were so hated that when traveling from Judea to Galilee, Jews went to great lengths to avoid Samaria entirely.
By making the Samaritan the good guy, Jesus cuts to the heart of the man’s question. Our neighborhood is as wide as the love of God. It’s not enough to hold religious titles or positions like the priest and the Levite. It’s not enough to feel a pang of remorse or sadness at someone’s ill fortune. Loving your neighbor means acting on behalf of others, regardless of who they are or where they’re from.
The expert in the law asked, “Who is my neighbor” with the intention of excusing himself. His question was more about defining who wasn’t his neighbor. Jesus’ response that even our enemies are our neighbors. The kingdom question is never “Who is my neighbor,” it’s always “How can I become a better neighbor?”