Have you ever looked closely at Jesus’s story of the Good Samaritan?
All knowledge begins with asking basic questions, and through the magic of internet technology, I know what people out there are asking about the Sermon on the Mount. I see your searches, your questions. And as we’ll see, some of these questions can lead to profound truth.
It is my task today, internet, to answer your questions about the Good Samaritan. Here’s what you wanted to know:
What does the Bible say about the Good Samaritan?
The Good Samaritan is a story Jesus tells in the latter half of Luke 10.
When I want to make a quick check of the context of a given portion of the Bible, I often glance at the headings in my Bible. Or I pull up the Lexham Context Commentary, which tells me, in this case, that
at the close of the previous passage (10:1–24) Jesus indicated that foreign, despised cities such as Tyre and Sidon will be in a better place on the day of judgment than certain cities in Galilee. Now Jesus describes a despised Samaritan as being more law-abiding than a priest or Levite. However, in the immediate context, the parable of the good Samaritan is told to demonstrate the true meaning of love for one’s neighbor. True, godly love is not provincial.1
So this famous story seems to operate on two levels within this portion of Luke.
- The Good Samaritan story follows a passage in which Jesus communicates God’s judgment of his own chosen people—judgment for rejecting the Messiah he sent, and for refusing to repent from their sins. He contrasts his Jewish hearers unfavorably with nearby Gentiles.
- In its own context (in its “pericope”), the Good Samaritan story also answers a question posed to Jesus by a Jewish expert in Old Testament law. The expert first asks, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus replies by asking the man what God’s law says. The man replies with the great love commands: love God, love neighbor. The lawyer, “wishing to justify himself,” asks, “Who is my neighbor?” The story of the Good Samaritan is Jesus’s answer to this question.
The story is well-known, and I won’t retell it here. You can read it in the Logos web app in a number of translations. For our purposes, it is sufficient to point out where the flow of thought has come from (the two contexts I just mentioned)—and, now, where it goes: the parable ends, as few do, with an explicit call to “go and do likewise.” The parable of the Good Samaritan is certainly never less than an example for us.
But is it more?
What is the meaning behind the Good Samaritan?
Darrell Bock is one of the most respected evangelical commentators on the book of Luke. If you wish to boil down the moral of the story to a single line, you could do little better than Bock. Here is how he summarizes the parable of the Good Samaritan:
Jesus’ answer to the lawyer’s … question is, “Do not worry about spotting God’s people first, just be a neighbor to all, as this Samaritan was.”2
Bock suggests that “the real issue” in this parable “is not whom we should serve, but that we serve. … We are not to ask who our neighbor is; we are to be a neighbor.”3 Another insightful writer on the parable is Klyne Snodgrass, who says something similar:
This parable is intended to show that love does not allow limits on the definition of neighbor. … We cannot say in advance who the neighbor is; rather, nearness and need define “neighbor.”4
We humans like to lower the bar of divine expectation. Jesus won’t allow it. There is no such person as a “non-neighbor.”5
Another small note: as Snodgrass points out, early Christian interpreters commonly took the parable of the Good Samaritan as referring allegorically to Jesus. But as Snodgrass, Bock, and multiple other commentators point out, Jesus ends with a call for his hearers to follow the example of the Samaritan. There need be no allegorical level of meaning here.
What does it take to be a Good Samaritan?
Something wonderful happens when the Bible influences a culture, as it has Western culture: our concepts and our very language reflect biblical themes and images. One wonders what “grace” and “justice,” for example, would mean in the West today if Christ’s gospel had never had any impact on us.
But to this silver lining is attached a cloud the size of a man’s hand: biblical concepts can be transmogrified and muted. They can be leached of their substance by the passage of time. This is what has happened with one specific bit of meaning that “Samaritan” had for Jesus’ hearers but doesn’t for us.
For us, a “good Samaritan” is a helpful stranger, someone who notices trouble while passing by and stops to help. I just saw an instance of this use not a few days ago in New York Times letter to the editor just days ago:
When my 81-year-old father fell on the sidewalk, a good Samaritan called me and stayed with him until care arrived.
The writer was trying to demonstrate the essential goodness and kindness of New Yorkers.
The Samaritan of Jesus’s parable was indeed a helpful stranger. But he was something else, he was what one writer called the RCO, the Repugnant Cultural Other. Snodgrass observes that the Jews of Jesus’s day “believed Samaritans to be people of doubtful descent and inadequate theology.”6 The Samaritans were half-Jewish both racially and religiously. The woman Jesus met at the well in John 4 was a Samaritan, and she herself observed to Jesus with apparent surprise at his kindness to her, “The Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans.” And yet Jesus spoke to her—and chose a Samaritan to be the hero of his parable.
An excellent series of short films was put out several years ago called Modern Parables. They recontextualized a number of Jesus’s parables, setting them in modern America. In the video depicting the Good Samaritan, the man who was beaten and left for dead was an elderly man walking the streets of a city and suffering a violent mugging. The religious people passing by included a youth pastor and a wealthy church deacon. The man who stopped to help him was a swarthy Palestinian cab-driver who had been reading an Arabic newspaper before he noticed the elderly mugging victim.
I thought this was brilliant. At the time the short film was made, America was engaged in armed conflict with Muslim men looking rather like this cab driver. I’m a Christian who has always known that the line between good and evil doesn’t pass between states but through every human heart.7 But I remember the wave of fear that swept America after 9/11. People like that cab driver were the Repugnant Cultural Other. The bad guys in Star Wars (1978) looked like Nazis. I’ll wager that the number of bad guys who looked like (or just were) Muslims went way up in American movies after the Twin Towers fell. They became our Repugnant Cultural Other.
Jesus could have made his hero anyone and he could have made the same overall point. But he chose someone unexpected and memorable. And he chose as his antiheroes the very kind of person who was at that moment, in Jesus’s presence, trying to weasel out of having to be a neighbor.
What does it take to be a Good Samaritan? It takes a willingness to set aside your schedule—this is the hard part for me, I admit it, God help me—to help a stranger, especially across some kind of cultural line that might otherwise divide you. Rare is the mugging victim who will turn down assistance from someone across such a line. That line fades away in tragedy, crossed on the one hand by need and on the other by love.
What makes a Good Samaritan really good?
This is a profound question, internet. And I think we should build our answer on the thing I just said I struggle with—and the thing that Jesus’s hearers apparently struggled with. I struggle with getting off the busyness train, violating my all-important schedule. I don’t honestly—I don’t think—struggle to cross racial and ethnic and religious and cultural lines to show kindness. Maybe you do. God will judge us both. God can help us both. Divine love can reach us both—and flow through us to others.
A Good Samaritan is good because he remembers and lives by the second greatest commandment, love your neighbor as yourself. A Good Samaritan is good because she remembers and lives by Jesus’s massively expanded definition of “neighbor.”
Right now, my most important neighbors are probably the three children who live in my home and occasionally interrupt my article writing with petty fights (may I be frank?). Having to drop everything I’m doing to go tell this one that it doesn’t matter whether that one pronounced a given word incorrectly—that’s hard for me. It’s a spiritual struggle. I am preaching to myself as I type: Love your children as yourself. These are the neighbors God has given me most often.
The other problem I face, and I wonder if you face it, is implicitly accepting a minimalist definition of “neighbor” by living a life focused only on my wife, kids, and hobbies. I can’t meet all the world’s needs, and neither can you. But I was struck hard by the outward reaching, neighbor-seeking love of Rosaria Butterfield in her book The Gospel Comes with a House Key. I recommend this book to everyone who, like me, wishes to justify himself when confronted with the love command and, indeed, with the Good Samaritan.
How can I learn more about the Good Samaritan?
There are many, many books and commentaries discussing the parables of Jesus. Here are a few recommended resources for further study. They are ranked in loose order of difficulty, but all are careful and responsible treatments:
- Dan Doriani gives insightful instruction about the parables in this Logos Mobile Ed video course.
- Klyne Snodgrass has written the one modern book on the parables that can rightly be called “magisterial.” It is rigorous and insightful yet still readable. I highly recommend it and have relied on it for years. I have used the parables repeatedly in evangelistic preaching—precisely because Jesus did. Snodgrass has been my most important companion.
- Darrell Bock, Joel B. Green, and I. Howard Marshall have written the top three commentaries on the book of Luke. Bock is challenging but accessible. Green is a little more challenging but still accessible to non-specialists; Marshall writes in the New International Greek Testament Commentary and therefore assumes knowledge of Greek.
- David Crowther, Lexham Context Commentary: New Testament, Lexham Context Commentary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2020), Luke 10:25–42.
- Darrell L. Bock, Luke: 9:51–24:53, vol. 2, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1996), 1028.
- Bock, Luke: 9:51–24:53, 1018.
- Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018), 357.
- Duncan Derrett, quoted in Bock, Luke: 9:51–24:53, 1028.
- Snodgrass, Stories with Intent, 345.
- A line I borrow here from Solzhenitsyn.