On the Parable of the Good Samaritan (answering a question from Helen)

Background: Helen posted a reference to the story of the Good Samaritan on her blog, which inspired some comments. One of the commentors gave an explanation of the meaning of the parable that confused her; so she asked me about it. This is my response.

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

He answered, “‘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, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

Luke 10:25-37, New International Version


Here’s my answer to your question about the meaning of the parable of the Good Samaritan.

I like very much your friend’s interpretation in which Jesus is the Samaritan and we are the wounded man. I had never thought of applying the metaphor in that way, but obviously it is a perfect application. I think this is one reason Jesus liked parables so much: a good parable reveals some fundamental principle about human nature and God’s law, and then once you see the principle there are a thousand different ways to apply it.

But you were asking whether Jesus was telling the lawyer how to find eternal life. Here I think you have to understand the situation. There are actually three people involved here: Jesus, the lawyer, and the audience, which included both his disciples and people who were just curious, and which also includes us. What Jesus was saying to the lawyer is something rather different from what he was saying to the audience and therefore to us.

There are several things you need to know to understand the conversation between Jesus and the lawyer.

— Pharisees and lawyers were very proud of their understanding of the law, and thought the most important thing about religion was following the law properly. Priests and Levites (who were, basically, the Sadducees) thought the temple sacrifices were the most important part of the law, and were therefore fanatical about ritual purity. But priests and Levites and rabbis and lawyers all agreed that Samaritans (who were the descendants of Jews who had married non-Jewish women) were disgusting scum that no decent person would have anything to do with. Basically Jesus could take it for granted that the lawyer felt about Samaritans the way your average American university English professor feels about white male Republicans.

— This particular lawyer is very conceited and is not interested in learning anything from Jesus. He asks his questions because he wants to make himself look good. Luke tells us this: the first question, the lawyer asked “in order to test Jesus,” and the second question, he asked “wanting to justify himself.” Now whenever somebody asked Jesus a dishonest question in order to make himself look smart and to make Jesus look stupid, Jesus ALWAYS made the person look bad, to the point where eventually, as John puts it, “After that nobody dared to ask him any more questions.” So Jesus isn’t teaching the lawyer ANYTHING, because the lawyer’s the kind of person who can’t be taught – he’s making the lawyer look stupid so that at least the audience will learn something (namely, not to be like the conceited lawyer).

— The word “neighbor” is a reflexive term: if you are my neighbor, then that makes me your neighbor. It isn’t possible for me to be your neighbor and you not be mine. So the question, “Who is my neighbor?” is logically the same as “To whom am I a neighbor?” – but “logically the same” doesn’t mean “rhetorically the same.” There’s a very important reason that Jesus turns the lawyer’s question around backwards and then makes the lawyer answer the backwards version, as we’ll see.

— If your answer to the command, “Love your neighbor as yourself” is, “Who is my neighbor?” then what you are really asking is, “Who is NOT my neighbor?” – that is, “Whom am I allowed to NOT love?” If you loved everybody, you wouldn’t need to ask the question. So the moment the lawyer asks, “Who is my neighbor?” he is implicitly saying, “I don’t want to have to love everybody.” This is what gives Jesus the chance to make the lawyer look bad and to punish him for his presumption in trying to test Jesus.

— The lawyers and Pharisees spent LOTS of time arguing over questions like, “If a man owns two houses on opposite sides of the street, and he wants to go from one house to the other on the Sabbath, he obviously can’t walk across the street because he’s not supposed to leave his house on the Sabbath. But what if he sticks a board out of the window of one house across to a window of the other house and walks across the board instead of walking across the street? Is he keeping the Sabbath now, or breaking it?” (That’s a real example from the Talmud, which I got by basically opening the Talmud to the section dealing with keeping the Sabbath and just taking a page at random.) This is the kind of argument the lawyer wants to have with Jesus, so that he can show off how good he is at that kind of argument.

So here’s what’s going on in that conversation.

First, the lawyer decides to test Jesus. This is because he is conceited and he is going to see whether Jesus really knows what He’s talking about. In his mind, he expects to ask the question, and then Jesus will answer, and then either he will show Jesus how Jesus’ answer is wrong, or else he will tell Jesus, “Good job, that’s right.”

But Jesus knows this and he does something the lawyer doesn’t expect – he tosses the question back to the lawyer: “How do YOU interpret the law?” And the lawyer can’t resist showing off his knowledge; so he answers – and then Jesus says, “Good job, that’s right – do this and you will live.” Notice something important here, by the way: while it’s true that a person who kept those two commandments perfectly would have eternal life, that doesn’t do us any good because none of us keep those commandments perfectly. This isn’t JESUS’ answer to the question, “How do I get eternal life?” It’s the LAWYER’s answer to the question, “How do I get eternal life?” Jesus never answers the lawyer’s question because the lawyer isn’t asking the question honestly. Nicodemus asked an honest question and got an honest (though confusing) answer. This lawyer asks a dishonest question and gets no answer at all except his own answer, which is true as far as it goes — but which is useless to the lawyer (and to us) because he does not in fact keep the law (and nor do we). And what is going to happen next, is that Jesus is going to make it clear that the lawyer does NOT love his neighbor as himself and that his chances of eternal life aren’t looking very good.

At any rate, Jesus has just tossed the question back at the lawyer and then sort of patted the lawyer on the head and said, “Good boy.” This is very annoying to the lawyer because now everybody has watched him pass Jesus’ test instead of the other way around, which makes it look like Jesus is smarter than him. Besides, this answer is too easy; I think the lawyer thinks Jesus is a real amateur if He thinks he can settle the argument that easily. So he asks a follow-up question, exactly the sort of follow-up question that you would find in the Talmud: “And who is my neighbor?”

What the lawyer doesn’t realize is that he just lost, because nobody would ask that question unless he didn’t want to love everybody – the real point of that question is, “Who is NOT my neighbor; whom do I NOT have to love?” So now Jesus is going to tell a parable with the following three main points, the first two of which come from the story itself, and the third of which comes out of the the fact that Jesus told it in this particular way to this particular lawyer:

1. In order to keep the commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you have to love everybody in the world. (That’s the main point of the parable.)

2. Love is more important than religious rituals. (That’s a secondary point of the parable, but one that everybody standing around listening would have understood.)

3. The lawyer himself is not a very godly person – which Jesus phrases in the most insulting way imaginable, basically saying, “If you manage to work your way up to being as good as a Samaritan it will be an improvement over what you are right now.”

The first one would be obvious from the story if Jesus had just said, “Two people passed him by ignoring him, but the third stopped and helped him.” The second and third points come from the people Jesus picked to be the passers-by and the helper.

Jesus first picks a priest – that is, a Sadducee who is worried about not touching a dead body lest he be unclean, and also, one of the people the lawyer doesn’t like. The second person is a Levite – that is, another Sadducee. Now everybody knows the storytelling convention that the third person will be different, and what the lawyer (I’m sure) expects is that the third person will be a Pharisee, like himself, and this third person will be a good guy. That’s what the story has obviously set up: two bad guys, both Sadducees, followed by a good guy, a Pharisee. And the third guy is a good guy – but to the shock of everybody there, he’s a SAMARITAN!!! The good guy turns out to be one of those disgusting people that everybody despises. You can’t help but realize that Jesus is saying, “This Samaritan is better than those Sadducees,” which is shocking. And where does that leave the Pharisees? Jesus hasn’t even mentioned them yet; where do they fit in?

Well, Jesus finishes the story, and then he asks the lawyer a question – but it is not the question the lawyer expects. You see, the lawyer asked, “Who is my neighbor?” as though the important question was, “Who deserves my love?” The lawyer is asking the question from his point of view: “I deal with lots of people, and what they have in common is that they have some sort of relationship with me; so which ones deserve my love?” The constant is the lawyer; the variable is the people to be loved, or not, as the case may be. But Jesus switches the perspective: he asks, “Who was a neighbor to the man who needed help?” In Jesus’ story there are three people, and what they have in common is that they see a man who has no conceivable personal relationship to them but needs to be helped. The constant is the man who needs help, and the question is, “Who is going to be kind enough to help him even though he isn’t his neighbor in any ordinary sense?” This is not the question the lawyer asked; it is not the question the lawyer wants to hear at all. It is quite obvious, after all, that the Samaritan would never have asked, “Is this man my neighbor?” Therefore the lawyer has already condemned himself out of his own mouth – everybody standing there knows that the lawyer would have passed by the other side, and that the answer to the question, “Who would be kind enough to help this man?” is, “Well, whoever it is, it will NOT be this lawyer.” The lawyer wanted to have a conversation about other people. But suddenly the conversation is about HIM – and by the time he realizes it, he has already lost. Also it is now obvious why Jesus didn’t bother to put the Pharisees into the story explicitly: we know where Jesus would put Pharisees like this lawyer into the story, because we know from the lawyer’s own question that he, and any Pharisees who were like him, would say, “That dude’s not MY neighbor” and pass by on the other side.

Well, there’s only one possible answer to Jesus’ question, and so the lawyer has no choice but to give it. But you’ll notice he can’t bear to say, “The Samaritan,” and so he rephrases it: “The one who helped him.” And then Jesus twists the knife: “You go and do likewise.” Which clearly implies, “…because up until now you haven’t managed to be as good as a Samaritan.” I think we can safely say that after this conversation, that particular conceited lawyer never again dared to ask Jesus any more questions.

Meanwhile for us the obvious lesson is that we should love everybody, that every human being on earth is our neighbor for purposes of God’s law. That’s the main point of the story of the Good Samaritan, and, as your friend very perceptively pointed out, Jesus showed us on the cross that He Himself is the Best Samaritan, as it were. Also, obviously we can see that the priest and the Levite should have risked ritual uncleanness in order to show love; so definitely Jesus is saying that love is more important than ritual. That’s clearly a secondary point of the story of the Good Samaritan. And because we know that none of us actually manage to keep the law, and therefore we know that the lawyer’s path to heaven is closed to us, we know the true answer to the lawyer’s question even though the lawyer himself never got the answer: that the real path to eternal life is through the sacrifice that Jesus, the Best Samaritan, made on the cross for us, the travelers that sin left for dead at the side of the road.

So we can say that those are some of the point of the story of the Good Samaritan. But there’s one other minor lesson I think we should bear in mind, which is the point of the story of how Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan: we should take care that when we go the Bible, we are not looking for technical excuses to keep from having to love people, or for a chance to show off how smart we are. If we go to the Bible looking for a chance to make ourselves feel smart or holy, or if we look for chances to show off how much better we know the Bible than other people do, or if we look for technical excuses for why it should be okay for us to NOT love some person or other, then we are acting like the lawyer in this story. And when we start acting like the lawyer acted…well, then God tends to treat us the way Jesus treated the lawyer. “骄傲在败坏以先 ; 狂心在跌倒之前” (箴言16:18). “Love everybody” is the main lesson of the story of the Good Samaritan. But the story of the story of the Good Samaritan is, “Don’t be like the conceited lawyer, using the Bible to show off instead of learning from the Bible to love people.”

That’s longer than I meant to write; sorry. I hope it’s helpful anyway. Love you much.


P.S. I hope it’s clear that Jesus uses the Sadducees and the Pharisees and the Samaritans in his story for rhetorical effect to embarrass and convict the lawyer, and that His point was not, “All Sadducees and Pharisees are evil and all Samaritans are good” – which wasn’t true, after all. There were Sadduccees and Pharisees (like Nicodemus) who genuinely wanted to serve God, and there were Samaritans who were selfish and evil. Jesus was using the lawyer’s prejudices about Pharisees and Sadducees and Samaritans to sting the lawyer; it doesn’t follow that Jesus felt about Pharisees and Sadducees and Samaritans the way the lawyer did. Jesus was telling the story to the lawyer, not to Himself.


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