A new look at the parable of the Good Samaritan
Updated: Feb 26, 2021
Years ago I learnt that the Gospel of Luke should be read in the context of the chapter it was written in –that Luke had uniquely placed incidents in a thematic order so that to understand the verses that were being studied, then the whole chapter needed to be assessed. So let’s look at Luke 10 which contains the parable of the Good Samaritan.
The chapter opens with Jesus sending out 70 disciples and commanding them to heal the sick and preach that The Kingdom of God had come. They returned to joyfully tell Jesus that even the demons were subject to them in the name of Jesus. Jesus affirmed their power over the enemy, that nothing would hurt them but told them to rather rejoice that their names were written in heaven. Jesus gave a prayer of thanks to his Father for revealing these profound truths to simple people – not the wise and prudent of this world.
Into this lovely scene comes one of the wise of this world, a lawyer, who sets out to fault Jesus by asking a simple, but cleverly thought out question: ‘What does he have to do to obtain eternal life?’ It was a question that was meant to bring affirmation to himself, for who, more than he, had done everything in the Law of Moses in order to obtain the reward?
This was a question that Jesus could have answered artlessly saying that eternal life was a gift from God to all who believe in his Son, but to this argumentative character Jesus responded by asking him what was written in the Law? The lawyer’s answer is impressive in its astuteness, for he managed to sum up all the sacrifices and feasts, myriads of precepts and commandments, the rules for the construction of the Tabernacle and its workings, rules of behaviour and interpersonal interactions in just one sentence: ‘The Law said that a man had to love God with everything within them and his neighbour as himself’.
Jesus knows full well that the lawyer can’t claim to have done this and so turned the question on the lawyer: ‘That’s correct. Now go and do that and you will live’. The lawyer is about to lose face. Rather than slink away and leave his response wanting, he blurts out a red herring: ‘Just who is my neighbour?’
Jesus then related the parable of the Good Samaritan which at once gave a full response to the lawyer’s question and vividly showed man’s complete inability to save himself. It was about a traveller going from Jerusalem down to Jericho who was besieged by bandits and stripped of clothing, beaten, and left half dead beside the Roman road. First a priest and then a Levite passed by, avoiding the man. Finally, a Samaritan chanced upon the traveller. Although the Samaritans and Jews despised one another, the compassionate Samaritan helped the injured man. He treated his wounds, lifted him onto his animal, took him to an inn and cared for him there. When it was time for the Samaritan to go he gave the innkeeper money to pay for the traveller’s care.
Jesus asked who was the neighbour to the poor traveller and the lawyer answered that the neighbour was the one who showed compassion. (He couldn’t even say the word ‘Samaritan’, so despising of them was he). Jesus told him to go and do the same.
After that Martha brings her grievance to Jesus, that Mary isn’t helping in the meal preparation and Jesus gently chides her and tells her that Mary has chosen that which is more important.
So what is that common theme that I said ran through each chapter of Luke? I wonder if you have seen it? The theme is salvation – how we are saved. We saw the simple disciples trusting in Jesus and seeing all the power of Satan overcome. We saw the traveller, broken and helpless, unable to save himself. The custodians of the Law and the commandments, the Levite and the priest had to pass by as their teachings and practices couldn’t save anybody. It took a foreigner, somebody right outside the world they were familiar with, to assess the situation and provide a means of salvation for the beaten man, carrying him to safety and even paying the price for his full healing. Then we have the altercation that highlighted that doing good acts for God wasn’t what God required –God only required a humble heart that listened and trusted in Him.
Jesus was teaching that we just can’t save ourselves. We can’t expect priests or moralists to rescue our ruined selves in our mortal jeopardy. No-one can do the same as the Samaritan. Only Jesus could save us when we were helplessly and hopelessly broken by sin; only Jesus ‘could take our sicknesses and carry our diseases’ (Matt 8:17).
We, as the shattered and beaten man, contribute nothing to our salvation or healing – Jesus did it all. Jesus lifted us out of the mess we were in. Jesus saved us from our brokenness, our failures, our guilt, our shame. Jesus paid the price for our healing. All we contributed was our sore and sorry state, our sins and our sicknesses.
Jesus will forgive you of all your sins if you confess your sins to him. David committed adultery and had arranged a murder and he had a heart-felt repentance to God when he wrote: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out all my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin” (Ps 51:1-2).
I wonder what the lawyer made of Jesus’ enigmatic answer – go and do likewise as the Samaritan. I like to think that Jesus gave him an answer like that because He knew the man was a perceptive and brilliant analyst who would’ve pondered that question carefully. I like to think that the lawyer came to an understanding that he wasn’t able to save himself, that he gave up his pride in his ability to save himself and in turn realised that the only way to eternal life was through the saving work of the Good Samaritan.