The Good Samaritan: Proactive Empathy

“A certain lawyer stood up and put Him to the test asking, ‘Master, what must I do to make sure of eternal life?’ He said unto him, ‘What has your reading taught you?’ And he said, ‘You will love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and intellect and your neighbor as yourself.’ And He said unto him, ‘That is the correct answer; do this and you will have life.’ But he, anxious to vindicate himself asked, ‘Who is my neighbor?’

Jesus answered and said, ‘A man was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho and was attacked by bandits. They took his clothes, assaulted him and almost killed him. A priest happened to come by, but when he saw him he passed by on the other side of the road. A Levite later came by, looked at him and also passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan who was traveling that way, saw him and had compassion on him. He went to him, dressed his wounds with oil and wine, put him on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. When he departed the next day, he gave the innkeeper some money and told him to look after him. He then promised to repay him on his return trip for any additional expenses.

Now which of these three do you think was a real neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?’ And he said, ‘The man who took pity on him.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Go and follow the same example.’” (Luke 10:25-37, paraphrased)

This story is fresh, simple, profound, powerful and timeless. It is not a parable from nature, like The Seed and Soil (Mt. 13:1-23), but from human nature. Jesus taught it in order to contrast selfishness with selflessness. 

v. 25
A lawyer was an educated Jew who was considered an expert exegete of the Torah. His business was to show the relation of these laws to life. He was asking for a law that would guarantee his life would be full and complete, both in this life and in the next. Because the Jews had come to believe that salvation was achieved through self-effort, he asked what actions would guarantee eternal life. The question itself is contradictory, for the separate ideas of “doing” and “inheriting” are mutually exclusive. The concept of “earning salvation” through good deeds has never been part of God’s plan. What God requires of us in order to achieve eternal life was as common a question in Jesus’ day as it is today. The rich young ruler makes the same assumption (Lk. 18:18). 

However, the lawyer has an ulterior motive. He stands up to quiz Jesus, asking his question in the hope of perplexing or contradicting Him. His motive is to damage Jesus’ reputation as a teacher. This attitude shows the lawyer is not ready to accept His answer, but expects a reply he can challenge.

v. 26
Jesus counters him in the form of a technical question. “How do you interpret God’s law succinctly?” Jesus allows him the chance to explain what the law actually requires. The lawyer is clueless that the unique purpose of the Mosaic Law is to show him his need of a Savior. As Paul later explains, a man is not justified by blind obedience to the law, but by faith in Jesus (Gal. 2:15-16). The law was only a “schoolmaster” to lead us to Christ (3:24).

v. 27
The lawyer quotes Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. One must love God with the entire heart, soul, strength and mind: emotionally, spiritually, physically and mentally. When Jesus later quotes these same verses, He shows how both commandments are inseparably linked. They are two sides of the same coin (Mt. 22:39). One’s love for God is measured by loving others as oneself. There is little danger that love for a neighbor will ever exceed self-love. We understand the love of God because He laid down His life for us. Subsequently we must be willing to lay down our lives for others (I Jn. 3:16). 

v. 28
Jesus informs the lawyer his answer is correct. However, this does not infer he has grasped the true meaning of the law. Jesus’ reply is intended to reveal his mistake of blindly following laws in the hope of attaining eternal life. Jesus’ response should have ended the matter. 

v. 29
Although the lawyer has no doubt read these verses many times, he does not comprehend the real meaning of loving a stranger as yourself (Lev. 19:34 & Deut. 6:5). His question concerns what persons in particular are to be considered fellow neighbors. Note that the lawyer did not ask what his obligations to his neighbor consists of. People attempt to justify themselves when they limit God’s laws regarding personal responsibilities.

The Jews did not believe the laws of Moses included helping Gentiles. Even today, the prevailing Oriental worldview precludes giving preferential treatment to people of other religions. Had Jesus simply informed him Jews and Gentiles are equal in God’s sight, the lawyer might have debated the point. Although he may have imagined only Jews could be neighbors, Jesus says otherwise.

The lawyer attempts to find a loophole and vindicate himself by insisting Jesus define the word “neighbor.” This parable is given to help define the term. His rhetorical question is immediately answered by a pragmatic illustration that exposes the shortcomings of the religious leaders.

v. 30
Jesus replies to the lawyer’s query in a different manner than he expects. He shows how inheriting eternal life is closely linked with a correct understanding of who your neighbor is. The story is comprised of events that transpire on a road. The characters are a traveler, some robbers, two religious leaders and a Samaritan. A crime is committed and the traveler is wounded. The story focuses on the one who ministers to the man’s needs. 

Jesus’ description of the scene is both geographically and historically accurate. Jericho is situated northeast of Jerusalem. The elevation range of the road mentioned is from 3,000 feet above sea level at Jerusalem to 1,000 below sea level at Jericho. This mountainous, twenty mile road descends sharply downward toward the Jordan River north of the Dead Sea.

Jericho was home to thousands of priests who traveled back and forth to perform temple duties. Thieves usually did not bother them because of their religious status. The victimized man in the story is the only character of which we know nothing regarding ethnicity. If he was not Jewish, Jesus would have said so. Not long before Jesus spoke this parable, Herod had dismissed over forty thousand temple workmen, many of which had become highwaymen. This rocky and rugged terrain was such an ideal haven for thieves, it became known as “The Bloody Way.” As late as the 1850’s, people continued to be robbed on this same road. The thieves beat their victim, strip him of his goods, and leave him almost dead. He is completely helpless, penniless and in dire need of a savior.   

v. 31
Jesus next introduces a temple priest. Their privileges included offering morning and evening sacrifices. Apparently, the priest does not understand his obligation to make personal sacrifices. He immediately passes by on the other side. In the pursuit of his religious duties, he completely misses the practical side of them. Jesus infers there is no excuse for such callousness.

v. 32
The second individual in Jesus’ story is a Levite. He is also a temple servant. He seems even less sympathetic to the traveler’s plight than the priest. His curiosity is aroused, but not his compassion. He looks at him briefly and walks away, having done nothing to alleviate his suffering. Simply being aware of someone’s pain is no help at all. 

Both the priest and the Levite are probably either going to or returning from performing their temple rituals. Both know that the laws of Moses demand they show compassion and empathy…even to animals (Ex. 23:4-5). Both fail to assist their own countryman. Both graphically depict the heartlessness of formal religion. Neither the priest nor the Levite wants to get involved. Excuses that cross their minds might have included:

<> The robbers may still be nearby and it is dangerous to linger here.
<> Helping this man will entail expenditures of time and money.
<> His is a hopeless case and there is no point in assisting him.
<> If I was lying there, this wounded Jew would never stop to help me.
<> If I help him and he dies, I might be accused of robbery and murder.
<> My religious status exempts me from such trivial matters.

v. 33
At this point, Jesus introduces the Samaritan hero. However, a brief overview of the racism that exists between Jews and Samaritans is necessary in order to understand Jesus’ intention.

Samaria was the capital city of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and also its political and religious center. The name “Samaria” became synonymous with the entire kingdom. Ahab and Jezebel’s close alliance with Phoenicia was instrumental in establishing pagan worship there. It was there Ahab built a temple to Baal and Jezebel killed many of Jehovah’s prophets
(I Kgs. 16:31-32 & I Kgs. 18:13). Elisha, Hosea, Isaiah, Amos, Isaiah, Ezekiel and Jeremiah all preached against its rampant idolatry.

After the Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom in 721 B.C., they took many of the inhabitants to Assyria. Samaria was consequently repopulated with exiles from many nations. Samaritans were descendants of the ten tribes of Israel who intermarried with the foreigners brought into the land during this era when Assyria ruled Palestine. They thus became a mixed race, contaminated by foreign wives and their false gods (II Kgs. 17:24-29).

Pure-blood Jews despised Samaritans as half-breeds. Because the Hebrew standards for racial and spiritual purity were compromised, the resentment deepened. When the Jews returned from their Babylonian captivity, the Samaritans offered to help rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. Their aid was flatly refused. This reproach resulted in the Samaritans attempt to halt the rebuilding process (Ezra 4:1-24). The Jews eventually excluded Samaritans from all participation in the worship of Jehovah. Samaritans seized Jewish lands, took them as slaves, and even killed Jews passing through Samaria. The chasm between these two groups was further enlarged when Ezra proclaimed that all Jewish men who married foreign wives during the Captivity must divorce them (Ezra 10:18-44).

Adding even more fuel to this racial fire, the Samaritans built their own temple on Mt. Gerizim in 409 B.C. They dedicated their temple to a heathen deity, rather than to Jehovah. For hundreds of years, they believed Mt. Gerizim, rather than Mt. Zion, was the proper place to worship
(Jn. 4:20). It is this ancient rivalry that prompts the Samaritan woman’s comment to Jesus at Jacob’s well: “Jews have no dealings with Samaritans” (4:9). Jesus’ disciples were amazed He would even speak with her (4:27). The animosity is best epitomized in the proverbial expression used to insult Jesus: “You are a demon-possessed Samaritan” (8:48). Because the tribal feud still raged, Jesus protects His disciples by cautioning them regarding traveling through Samaritan cities (Mt. 10:5).

To put the hostility that existed between Jews and Samaritans in perspective, consider the following:

<> Jews considered Samaritans “dogs” and publicly cursed them in the synagogues.
<> Jews believed that to allow a Samaritan to enter your home would bring a curse upon it.
<> Jews never accepted Samaritans as proselytes
<> Jews thought sharing a Samaritan’s food was akin to eating forbidden pork.
<> Jews prayed Samaritans would have no part in the resurrection.
<> Jews hoped never to encounter a Samaritan.
<> Jews were forbidden to drink from a Samaritan’s vessel (Jn. 4:9)
<> Jews preferred to suffer rather than accept a Samaritan’s help.

However, Jesus rebukes His disciples for their hostility toward Samaritans (Lk. 9:52-56). He heals a Samaritan leper and then praises him for his gratitude (Lk. 17:16-19). He asks for a drink from a Samaritan woman (Jn. 4:7). He ministers to Samaritans (Jn. 4:39-42). Just prior to His ascension, He challenges his disciples to witness in Samaria (Acts 1:8). When Philip went there to preach (8:5), Samaritans were healed (v. 7), saved (v. 14), and filled with the Holy Spirit (v. 17). Many churches were established in Samaria (9:31). The conversions of Samaritans brought great joy to the Jewish Christians (15:13). 

Keenly aware of the legendary antagonism of the Jews against them, Jesus makes a Samaritan the champion in his parable. Pity for the wounded man is immediately turned into sacrificial action. Seeing a fellow human being in need, nothing diverts him from his purpose.

The parable stands today as a rebuke to racism everywhere. Jesus does not command us merely to help our enemies, but to love them (Mt. 5:44). Three men are given the same opportunity to help the traveler, but only one does. The first two were religionists, who should have known better.

vv. 34-35
There is no logical reason for the Samaritan to help the wounded traveler. However, love and compassion are not based on human logic. Jesus does not simply say the Samaritan stopped to help, but provides specific details concerning his actions. Using the best remedies available, he dresses the wounds. Wine has antiseptic qualities and oil is a soothing balm. The priest and the Levite no doubt have some as well, but refuse to spend it on this wounded man. The Samaritan puts him on his donkey, content to walk while the suffering man rides. After arriving at the inn, he does not feel his responsibilities have ended. He tends him throughout the night and vouches for any further necessary expenses.   

The parable can be paraphrased in modern vernacular:

“A man is going down from Glendale to downtown Phoenix and some gang-bangers carjack him. They take his money, his clothes and go for a joyride in his Taurus. They leave him unconscious in the gutter. A TV evangelist is driving home from the studio, sees the man, hits the gas and speeds home to his mansion. Shortly after this, a Rabbi drives by, sees him, pulls over, looks at him, and drives on to his cousin’s bar mitzvah. Later a black man drives by. What he sees fills him with compassion. He wraps him in his designer sports coat, gives him some of his Starbucks coffee, lays him on the back seat of his Lincoln and rushes him to Good Samaritan Hospital. He tells the doctors at the ER to take good care of him and stays with him all night in his hospital room. In the morning, he pays his bill in cash and leaves his MasterCard number with the billing department. He tells them to charge to him whatever else the man may need.”

The response of the Samaritan was timely and generous. He helps the man, having made no agreement with him. Since the wounded man was stripped of all his possessions, the Samaritan knew he would not be repaid. When the victimized man recovered, there is little doubt he thought differently about Samaritans. These gracious acts of selflessness have dumbfounded the racially biased for two thousand years.

v. 36
In this passage, Jesus has only two questions. First, he asks the lawyer how he interprets God’s law (v. 26). He now asks which of the three men in His story is a true neighbor. How a person answers Jesus’ second question depends on how they answer His first one. Proper interpretation of God’s laws work in tandem with proactive compassion.

v. 37
The lawyer’s religious pride will not allow him to say the name “Samaritan.” He paraphrases it, referring to him as “the one that showed mercy.” To the lawyer’s original question concerning what he must do to inherit eternal life (v. 25), Jesus simply answers, “Do likewise.”

The Son of God thus forces the lawyer to answer his own question. Jesus replies to his query regarding eternal life by telling a story about sacrifice, empathy, and risk. His parabolic answer seeks to disarm the lawyer’s prejudice, for no Jew could conceive of a Samaritan who is “good.” But the roles cannot be reversed, for to have made a Samaritan the victim and a Jew the helper would have defeated His purpose. Had the Lord simply informed the lawyer that “even Samaritans are our neighbors,” He would have faced scorn and rebuke. The parable shows no one can be serious about heaven that does not minister to the hurting, regardless of race. The narrative brings the lawyer face to face with himself and he admits the truth. The question, “Who is my neighbor?” has become “Am I a good neighbor?”

The lessons of the parable are numerous:

<> The Lord knew that 2,000 years later, religious bigotry will still be prevalent.
<> No one can trust their own ethnicity as a means of salvation.
<> All along the road of life, we will have opportunities to help the wounded.
<> True Christianity is proven by the way we spend our oil and wine – our resources.
<> All three men in the story could have rendered assistance. Only one did.
<> God demands active spirituality, not empty religiosity (Jas. 2:15-17). 
<> Our “Good Samaritan,” Jesus Christ, ministers to all our needs.

How the lawyer reacted to Jesus’ parabolic teaching is unknown. As with all who read this parable, we are left at a crossroads. The inference is crystal clear: eternal life and compassion are inseparable concepts. The story illustrates Jesus’ promise; “The Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Lk. 19:10).


Points to Ponder

1.Summarize what the Samaritans refused to do regarding temple reconstruction (Neh. 4:1-8).
How did their attitude widen the rift between them and the Jews?

2. Why does Jesus make the Samaritan the hero of His parable, rather than the priest or the Levite?
What purpose does this serve?

3.What specific verses does the lawyer quote from Leviticus 19 and Deuteronomy 6?

4. What question does the ruler ask in Luke 18 that is similar to the lawyer’s question in Luke 10:25?

5. Who exercised compassion in Exodus 2:6? What are the long-range results of her actions?

6. Who is praised for his compassion in Psalm 111:4?

7. What are the specific reasons for Jesus’ acts of compassion in the following verses?

Matthew 9:36
Matthew 14:14
Matthew 15:32
Matthew 20:34

8. Read the question asked by the lawyer (Luke 10:29).
In what specific ways does Jesus’ parable answer his question?

9. Based on the extent of compassion shown by the Samaritan, what is expected of Believers in the 21st century?
What contemporary acts of compassion have you shown to others recently?

Maxim of the Moment

A problem is a chance for you to do your best. - Duke Ellington