Those of us who have been Christians and church attendees most of our lives often make the mistake of believing that we know and understand Jesus. In fairness, we only understand the shallows of his teachings. To understand Jesus fully is to understand God fully, and that is not possible.
Even when we believe we know the complete message of a parable; I suspect there are deeper meanings yet to be revealed. The Good Samaritan is a classic example. The message is that anyone in need is our neighbor.
Let’s look at the account in Luke in detail. I will be following much of the teachings of Kenneth E. Bailey in his book, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, 2008. Bailey’s parents were missionaries in the Middle East, So Kenneth was as much Eastern as American. In his retirement in the States, he wrote several books. The best is, I think, The Cross & the Prodigal.
On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” NIV
We should notice several things in this sentence. Luke did not make much of the expert. As we read through, we can tell that he is a Mosaic lawyer, someone who has spent years studying the Torah. By choosing the word, test, Luke wants us to realize that the lawyer knows the answer, he thinks, but is not sure Jesus knows. We should understand that asking about eternal life implies that the lawyer is likely a Pharisee—at least in his belief system—because that group had come to accept the notion of life after this earthly one, they were not clear on what that life might be. The Sadducees said this life is the only one we will have.
Notice how Jesus responded. “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?” NIV He does not attack the man for asking the wrong question. He does not point out that no one can earn an inheritance. It is a gift—in this case—from God. What he does instead is to treat the lawyer as an equal. “How do you read it?” Jesus, I’m sure, knew the man’s motives and saw that he was interested in knowing the answer, but also that he thought he already knew the answer. It was likely an effort to discredit Jesus, but perhaps not on behalf of a group. In any case, Jesus knew what the man was up to. So, “How do you read it?”
The lawyer does not seem surprised by the question, likely because that was a common technique of rabbis of the day. As a teacher, I used it in my classrooms often. The lawyer was probably smiling as he recited Deuteronomy 6:5; You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And Leviticus 19:18; You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your fellow as yourself: I am the Lord. JSB
Every Jew there that day could have cited those two verses. We don’t need to think the lawyer was anything special at this point. At the same time, the citations come from more complex scripture where God is instructing His chosen ones in the Teachings (what we call the Law).
It would be instructive to extend both quotes. Deuteronomy 6:1-9. And this is the Instruction—the laws and the rules—that the Lord your God has commanded [me] to impart to you, to be observed in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy, so that you, your children, and your children’s children may revere the Lord your God and follow, as long as you live, all His laws and commandments, that I enjoin upon you, to the end that you may long endure. Obey, O Israel, willingly and faithfully, that it may go well with you and that you may increase greatly [in] a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your fathers, spoke to you.
Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day Impress them upon your children. Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up. Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead, inscribe them on the doorposts of your gates. JSB
Leviticus 19:15-18. You shall not render an unfair decision; do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich, judge your kinsman fairly. Do not deal basely with your countrymen. Do not profit by the blood of your fellow; I am the Lord.
You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Reprove your kinsman but incur no guilt because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your fellow as yourself: I am the Lord. JSB
The lawyer knew all that but chose to give the shorthand answer as all of us would. The full text does give us more depth and meaning in the two instructions to love God and humans.
More to the point, Jesus knew all the text. He knew that all the lawyer had to do was think through all aspects of the Teachings and he would answer his question.
Instead, we see the lawyer ask a question which Jesus does not answer. Instead, Jesus asks a question. The man gave the expected answer, so all Jesus had to say was, “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” NIV
Notice: Jesus does not directly answer the original question. You will live is not the same as you will inherit eternal life. Jesus is not saying that we can earn the inheritance. As Bailey writes, But if costly acts of love are extended to others out of gratitude for the love of God, then the believer is sustained by the unwavering love of God toward him or her. When our relationship with God is one of parent/child, we can expect our Father to support and encourage as we continue to love Him. But we cannot expect God to solve all our problems as we mature in our faith.
We currently have kittens about four months old, and they still hang around their mother and she still allows them to nurse sometimes. At some point, the mother will shut off the free meals and force them to work for a living. That is like our relationship with God; He expects us to find our way in the world. The difference is that God never stops handing out love for free. It won’t pay the rent, but it helps the bitterness of this world taste sweeter.
In verse 29, Luke reads; But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” NIV No doubt he assumed his neighbors were Jews. There were only two other groups of people in the world, Gentiles and Samaritans, and everyone knew God did not love them.
There is an old axiom for lawyers in the courtroom; never ask a question if you don’t already know the answer. This lawyer thought he was safe with the question, but with Jesus, we can always expect the unexpected. God loves people we do not love. That makes everyone our neighbors.
Notice these key details. The man was robbed and beaten. Thieves of that time did not beat their victims unless they resisted. Stripping him was an unusual insult, and it increased the difficulties of the man receiving his needed help.
We should not dismiss the priest too quickly. First, he was going down the road, meaning towards Jericho. A high percentage of the 18,000 priests lived in or near that ancient city.
Second, the priest was most likely riding a donkey or horse because priests were nearly all wealthy. Such an animal would have made it easier to transport the man, as was done by the Samaritan. But the priest had a special problem. There was no way to tell if he was Jewish or Gentile; or even alive. Touching a dead man would have required the priest to return to Jerusalem and go through a week of purification. For that matter, touching a Gentile was as bad. The priest chose the safe way. To make the case even stronger for a priest, Leviticus 21:11 reads; He must not enter a place where there is a dead body. He must not make himself unclean, even for his father or mother. NIV
Third, he was not obliged to help Gentiles under the Law of Moses, nor was any other Jew. He was likely traveling with a servant or two, and they would have had to be purified as well.
As to the Levite, Bailey writes this. The Levites functioned in the temple as assistants to the priests. This particular Levite probably knew that a priest was ahead of him on the road and may have been an assistant to that same priest. Since the priest had set a precedent, the Levite could pass by with an easy conscience. Should a mere Levite upstage a priest? Did the Levite think he understood the law better than the Priest?
The listeners, including the lawyer, were comfortable with the story up to this point. They would have understood the priest’s and Levite’s actions. Most likely, they were now expecting a Jewish working man to come along and save the day. That was the usual way for such parables to go.
Many of us today assume that Jesus invented parables. Not even close. Rabbis had used parables for centuries. Jesus mostly used well-known parables. What he did, though, was to put in his unique twist, as he did with this story.
I expect the Twelve were waiting to see what he did this time to upset the powers that be, hoping it would not be too offensive. It was too offensive. Jesus picked a man worse for Judeans to accept than even a Roman soldier—a Smartian, the hated enemies of Judah. It is likely the crowd gasped and murmured.
Even so, the Samaritan bound his wounds, pouring on both wine and olive oil, the standard treatment for the day, and likely put on an extra robe. Placing the still unconscious man on the Samaritan’s donkey, he walked on to Jericho. [Imagine keeping the man on the tiny donkeys of the day; they only weighed 200-300 pounds.] There he spent the night caring for the injured one. When he left the next day, he gave the innkeeper enough money to care for the man for at least a week. And, perhaps because innkeepers were themselves untrustworthy, the Samaritan promised to return and make sure all was done as requested.
If you read back over the events of the parable, you notice that the Samaritan reversed the order of events, thus doing what the priest and Levite should have done. He carried the man to Jericho as the Levite should have done; he bound the man’s wounds as the priest should have done, and he—in effect—gave back the money the thieves took.
Just when you thought it was safe to make assumptions—the priest, Levite, and Samaritan all believed that only the first five books of the Testament—the Torah—were from God. Further, they rejected the Pharisee’s assertion that the Oral Tradition was also given to Moses. Therefore, the Samaritan should have, based on his religious instructions, gone on past the injured man. He should never have considered the possibility that the man was anyone other than a Jew—the enemy.
Jesus clearly stated to everyone that day that he agreed with the teachings of the Pharisees regarding the Oral Tradition—at least as it applies in this situation. Under the Oral Teachings, nothing in the Torah can allow a person’s life to remain in danger. Even the High Priest should scoop up the wounded man and care for him.
Back to the expert in the Law. Jesus asked; Which of these three seems to you to have been a neighbour to the bandits’ victim? Phillips The lawyer had no trouble answering; The one who showed him mercy. ESV
Being a good neighbor requires action. It is not enough to say my neighbors include Mexicans and Guatemalans; I need to act on that understanding. I need to respond to those who accuse them of being criminals and worse. I need to do what I can to reshape the rhetoric to be more in tune with the Teachings of Yeshua the Messiah. We do live in one world—God’s. The victim and the Samaritan were both neighbors.
I also had help from Brad H. Young’s book, The Parables, 1998.
Read my earlier comments on this theme here.
Be righteous and do good.