The Parable of the Good Samaritan is unique to the Gospel of Luke and provides another telling example of why this Gospel has been called The Gospel of Mercy. A scholar of the law—that is, a scribe and teacher of the Torah, asks Jesus a question. In Luke, questions by such scholars are always portrayed negatively and this is no exception. There are immediate clues that his motives are not motivated by other than scholarly interests. That is putting Jesus to the test and that he would attempt to justify himself in further questions.
Jesus knows his motives, but this does not prevent him from engaging the man and trying to bring the conversation along into a fruitful dimension. It is not rare that we also can become involved in conversations that we suspect are not real questions, but gotchas. We should try to follow Jesus here and not write off the questioner, but deepen this into an actual conversation.
Jesus asks him a question for clarification. The scholar answered and quoted from Deuteronomy and Leviticus, with the first reference also used in the Shema prayer that was recited at least twice a day by the Israelites. Jesus tells them that he has answered correctly and that if he does this he will live.
The scholar probably started to wonder how this got turned around on him when he is called on to answer his own question and that he had to live out the answer he already knew. He asked the most important question, the same one the rich young official in Luke will later ask Jesus. In both cases, they are not really happy with the answer calling them to act on what they know.
The scholar then asked a follow-up question as he seemed to desire an answer that limited the scope of what he was called to do. This is such a human reaction that we have all experienced when we sense the immensity of what God is calling us to. When we forgot that we can do nothing on our own without his help and that we should be calling on that help instead.
Jesus could have drawn out this scholar on questions in the Old Testament revolving around how expansive the term neighbor could be at times. Instead, he places the central question into the context of a story to engage the scholar’s moral intuition directly.
Jesus often told parable with a surprise twist to make his point. He focuses first on a Levitical priest, and then on a member of the tribe of Levi as Israelites to be held in regard. Both men, for whatever reason, would pass by a fellow Israelite in need of immediate care. The twist is one of the despised Samaritans would the person who would actually live out what they were called to do themselves. The scholar would also likely have known that this story also closely resembles a story in 2nd Chronicles where leaders of Samaria helped a group of captives of Judah using many of the same descriptions Jesus used.
We are not given the direct reason the two men passed by. It is often assumed it revolved around the issue of ritual purity.
As Brant Pitre notes:
Jesus’ points seems much more focused on the theme not of ritual purity, but of mercy, compassion and love of neighbor. That’s what their debating. What does love of neighbor look like?
The scholar answered Jesus’ question correctly but he is unable to simply reply “The Samaritan”, but had to answer more abstractly.
And, as earlier, Jesus’ words challenge the man not just to know the right answers, but also to do the right things, identifying even with the Samaritan: Go and do (poieō) likewise. If he does, then he too will become a neighbor who gives love, even to his enemies.
There is much that can also be mined on several levels in seeing Jesus as the Good Samaritan and ourselves as the half-dead man lying on the road.
“The whole human race, you see, is that man who was lying on the road, left there by bandits half dead, who was ignored by the passing priest and Levite, while the passing Samaritan stopped by him to take care of him and help him…. In this Samaritan the Lord Jesus Christ wanted us to understand himself.”
John Bergsma in his commentary writes:
I am aware that the Christian tradition of seeing Jesus typified in the Good Samaritan is widely rejected by scholars, but I believe the tradition is correct. Jesus often told parables with multiple levels of meaning, and he was known to tell parables in which one of the characters was an image of himself (see Matt 21:33–41). I believe this is the case also with the Good Samaritan parable.
- Navarre, Saint Luke’s Gospel (2005)
- Catholic Productions, Commentaries by Brant Pitre
- The Word of the Lord: Reflections on the Sunday Mass Readings for Year C – John Bergsma
- Photo by Ben White on Unsplash