The Parable of the Good Samaritan is one of the better known parables of Jesus, with hospitals, organizations and even laws named after the hero of this story.
The parable has been interpreted in various ways, with a popular one saying the traveler represents man, the robbers represent the devil, the priest and the Levite represent the Law and its sacrifices, and the Good Samaritan represents Jesus. The wine stands for the blood of Christ, the oil stands for the anointing of the Holy Spirit, the inn is the Church, and the innkeeper its priests. The two coins signify the Sacraments. While this interpretation is immensely satisfying, explaining as it does every character and element in the story, is this what Jesus is really teaching in this parable and are there possibly other lessons that he wants to teach us through it? Let us look at the story again in the context of which it was told and see if we might get some answers. It has been an eventful day for the apostles. The twelve people Jesus has chosen to be his first evangelists have returned from an amazing mission where they have delivered a number of people from demonic oppression and are ecstatic about it. Even as Jesus affirms the authority he has given them over Satan, he tells that although they have every reason to be happy that the spirits have submitted to them, they should be happier that their names are written in heaven. Then he says: “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will” (Luke 10: 21), before telling his disciples. “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it” (Luke 10:23-24). Let us consider how the story starts: “Then a lawyer stands up to test Jesus” (v.25a). The lawyer in the context of this story is somebody well versed in Mosaic law. He has presumably heard some of the conversation between Jesus and his apostles. If he overheard the last exchange, which may have discomfited him because of the personal implications to himself, he wants to ascertain Jesus’ own understanding of the law by testing him. This doesn’t necessarily imply any negative connotations, but doesn’t preclude it either. As with many conversations that Jesus had with other Jewish leaders and legalists, they often sought to trap him, and the fact that he stood up, might indicate the latter. He wanted to draw attention to himself and to let the other listeners know that this was a loaded question. And that there might be more to follow. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (v.25b). It’s not the only time someone has asked Jesus this question. A rich young man also asked Jesus the same question (see Mark 10:17-22). Jesus responds by throwing the question back. “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” (v.26). In effect Jesus is saying, “You are the lawyer. You know the law. You tell me what it says.” He responds somewhat similarly to the rich young man, saying to him: “You know the commandments. You know what they say.” Do keep in mind that the law is still in force; Jesus has not yet fulfilled its demands (cf. Matthew 5:17-19). The lawyer answers correctly, integrating the commands given in Deuteronomy 6.5 and Leviticus 19:18, to reveal some understanding of what God deemed important. “You shall 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 your neighbor as yourself” (v.27). Jesus, himself, would quote the same commandments to another lawyer on another occasion (see Matthew 22:34-40). Jesus responds: “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live” (v.28). This isn’t quite what the lawyer was expecting. He was up on his feet, intending to have a long discourse with Jesus, but the dialog had already ended, and he was feeling like a student in front of a teacher, which wasn’t what he had intended at all. So he asks another question: “And who is my neighbor?” (v.29). And Jesus responds by telling a parable that indicted the Jewish leadership, including the lawyer who asked the question. It was a simple enough story about a man falling into the hands of robbers as he journeyed from Jerusalem to Jericho. This was on a road that was a stretch of 20 miles, often referred to as The Way of Blood, for the robberies that took place on it by bandits. The robbers stripped him, beat him up, and left him for dead.
A priest passed down the road, but when he saw the injured man, he crossed over to the other side. Then a Levite passed along too and he did the same. How were Levites different from the priests? Simply put, all priests were Levites, being selected from the tribe of Levi, but not all Levites were priests. The function of the priests was primarily concerned with offering sacrifices on the altar, blessing the people in the name of God, and given the responsibility for carrying the ark of the covenant. Those Levites who were not priests were assigned duties assisting the priests, preparing the cereal offerings, and caring for the courts and the chambers of the sanctuary. Later, the Levites were involved in interpreting the law and thus functioned as teachers. The lawyer asking the question was probably the latter. Then a Samaritan came on the road. Samaritans were people who lived in what had been the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Although they worshiped Yahweh as did the Jews, their religion was not mainstream Judaism and because of their imperfect adherence to the faith—they accepted only the Torah as canonical—and their partly pagan ancestry, the Samaritans were despised by ordinary Jews. This Samaritan doesn’t cross over to other side, but with great compassion attends to the man. He cleans his wounds and dresses them, applying oil and wine, before putting the man on his donkey and taking him to an inn. He gives the innkeeper two denarii (about two days wages) to provide food, board and care for the man, promising to cover anything extra on his way back. Having told the story, Jesus poses the question: “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” (v.36). The answer, of course, was obvious, and although it was one the lawyer almost certainly was loathe to give, he found himself forced to: He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” (v.37).
Go And Do Likewise
Every adult Indian has almost certainly come across an accident, and there is a good chance that it has been a bad one, leaving one or more of the victims seriously injured. Every such Indian has undoubtedly been cautioned about rendering assistance to the wounded, told, “Don’t get involved.” This is not advice given out of cruelty, but rather out of prudence, because getting involved often has bad repercussions to the person giving aid. There have been incidents where people who helped those injured in accidents were accused of having injured the victim themselves.
This can have horrific consequences, like one reported in neighboring China not too long ago. Toddler Wang Yue was run over by two vehicles. The entire incident was caught on a video, which showed eighteen people seeing the child but refusing to help. Videos taken of accidents in India and other countries might very well show the same thing, which is why many governments have a Good Samaritan Law, which penalizes people who fail to help in a situation of this type, while indemnifying them from lawsuits if their efforts are in vain. But it isn’t always the fear of consequences that stops us from rendering assistance to people. There are often times when we might be reluctant to offer assistance to people we look upon as being different from us, or perceiving as enemies. The Jews and Samaritans were traditional enemies and didn’t even speak to each other, which is what accounts for the Samaritan woman’s surprise when Jesus asked her for a drink of water as she went to draw water from the well he was sitting beside. The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) (John 4:9) But not being of the same race, color, creed, background, culture of any of the hundreds of differences that separate one person from another cannot stop us from helping somebody in need. Not even the fact that the person might be an enemy should prevent that, which is why Jesus chose this particular example of a Samaritan helping a Jew, forcing a revision of who we might consider to be our “neighbor”. It is, quite simply, anybody who is in need that you might be in a position to help, and if we have difficulty understanding this, all we need to do is put ourselves in the position of the dying man. If we were in a similar position would we not want somebody to help us? That is why the commandment, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself!” Right through Scripture we are constantly encouraged to “extend hospitality to strangers” (Romans 12:13); “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44); and “work for the good of all” (Galatians 6:10). The Samaritan did that without a second thought, but in truth it should have been the priest and the Levite to extend a hand first. Not only did they know the law, they taught it to others, but when they made a distinction between people because of their race and religion, they became hypocritical, failing to practice what they preach and revealing how shallow their faith really was.
It is not very different today, with a certain hard heartedness evident in many of our leaders of today, and unless we take a hard look at ourselves, examining with brutal honesty if we practice what we preach, we will continue to see the hemorrhaging of the Catholic Church as its flock leave it for the love and compassion they find in other churches. We practice religion, overlooking relationship, first with Jesus, then with each other. We can’t have the second without the first, because only through Christ can we learn the essence of love and compassion.
We started this article with a look at traditional representations of the characters in the parable and they work very well for the lessons they teach us, especially with the insight that at a given time and in a given situation we are all the characters in this story! We are, firstly, the injured person on the road, left helpless and dying by the robber of our souls, who is Satan. Jesus is the Good Samaritan, who stops to nurse us back to life, depositing us at the inn, which is the Church, and entrusting us into the care of the innkeeper, who is the pastor or priest whose duty it is to take care of the injured, weak and helpless nursing them to health and wholeness. Hopefully, the innkeeper does a good job because he is going to be called to account for what he did. The Good Samaritan that is Jesus says, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend’ (v.35). There is an implicit threat here too that is often missed. Where there is a reward for a job well done, there is also punishment for a job that’s not, and if the innkeeper doesn’t look after the wounded person enstrusted into his care, he will get just desserts. “When I come back,” says the Good Samaritan. Jesus is going to come back, and there will be an accounting that has to be given when that happens. The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats speaks about this in horrific detail as does the Parable of the Unfaithful Slave. In his conclusion to the latter parable Jesus says, “That slave who knew what his master wanted, but did not prepare himself or do what was wanted, will receive a severe beating. From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded” (Luke 12:47-48). Back to us in our role as the injured person. We don’t remain injured forever; we eventually recover and once we get on our feet again, we become the traveler on the road, encountering others who are injured and left for dying on a daily basis. Only if we truly understand that the person lying there dying was in the same position we were not too long ago we run the risk of being the first two characters who walk down the road: the priest, who knows and teaches his faith, but doesn’t practice it; or the Levite, who knows and teaches all the rules, but doesn’t follow them. Full of self-righteousness and an exaggerated sense of their own importance, the priest and Levites of Jesus’ time earned his rebuke and wrath when he walked upon this earth, and we will earn the same when he returns if we behave improperly. If, however, we understand what Jesus has done for us, we can only look upon others in a similar situation with compassion and then we will become like the Good Samaritan, not letting the threat of danger getting in our way of helping others, instead of taking the traditional approach of “not getting involved” The Samaritan in the story was aware of the dangers of the road that he traveled. It was not called The Way of Blood for nothing. He must have surely wondered if the robbers were still around, or if others were prowling about waiting for their victim, but he took the risk nonetheless. Christians are asked to take risks. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” Jesus declares in John 15:13. Or one’s neighbors. He didn’t let business (or busyness) get in his way either. He obviously had places to go to, people to meet, things to do, but he had his priorities right. The life of a man was infinitely more valuable than anything he might have had on his plate. And then, risk and business ignored, like the Samaritan we will apply balm to the wounds of the injured—bringing the healing of Jesus to soul, heart, mind, spirit and even body-—and bring them to the inn (Church) for the baptism of salvation. The understanding and special grace that some of us obtain might also inspire us to become innkeepers, shepherds of God’s flock, and hopefully remember years after we have taken up the job, the reasons why we took it up. Not for glory, or position, or power, or money, but for the love of God and for the service of his people.