January 15, 2021

A “Good” Samaritan?

The Good Samaritan, van Gogh (after Delacroix)

The Good Samaritan (detail), van Gogh (after Delacroix)

What if I were to stand here this morning, after reading what may be Jesus’ most well known parable, and say, “Jesus does not really want us to be ‘good Samaritans’?” What if I were to tell you that is not exactly the point of his famous story? What if I were to say that he is not merely telling us to be kind to others in need, to show mercy and compassion to those who are hurting, to be gracious and generous and helpful toward the poor and suffering?

I think we all know those things already, don’t we? We talk about “common human decency” that recognizes when another is suffering and in need of attention. I think Jesus may have had more in mind than simply reinforcing common human decency, especially when the subject is, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Furthermore, I think the man to whom Jesus told this parable was a good, moral man who understood the need to have compassion on folks in need. He was an expert in the Jewish law. He knew that God’s law is filled with commands and instructions and exhortations to help the hurting. He also knew that kindness was to be extended not only to his fellow Israelites, but to the aliens and strangers, the foreigners who lived among them as well. Even in this encounter, when Jesus asked what he thought God wanted from him, he gave a good answer and Jesus commended him for it. He said one should love God with all one’s heart and love your neighbor as oneself. He knew that loving God must be lived out in our love for others.

The people of Israel were, by and large, a generous and caring people. They valued life and took care of the needy. They placed a high value on giving alms and other kinds of charitable giving. And I’m sure this man, a religious leader, went right along with the program. Works of charity and mercy were a given in the life of the devout in Israel. This man didn’t need a lesson in that.

Moreover, the text indicates that this teacher was “testing” Jesus and engaged in an effort to “justify himself.” I don’t think simply telling him to help the needy — like he already knew he should do — is much of an answer to that.

No, there is something else going on in this parable. It is not simply about being do-gooders to our neighbors, which is the meaning we usually assign to the term “Good Samaritan.”

gogh43So let’s start by discussing that term. Over the years, “Good Samaritan” has become an established part of our vocabulary. In our minds, “Samaritans” are good folks. We even name hospitals and other charitable organizations after them. “Samaritans” are the ones who devote themselves to helping others.

But before we go any further, we need to realize something. Jesus’ first listeners — Jewish people in the first century — would never have heard the term “Good Samaritan.” In fact, if they had heard those two words spoken together — “good” and “Samaritan” — it might have made their jaws drop and their skin crawl. You see, in the eyes of Jewish people that phrase was a complete oxymoron. There was no such thing as a good Samaritan! Samaritans were evil. Samaritans were bad people. Samaritans were to be avoided. Samaritans were to be shunned. You didn’t let your kids hang out with Samaritan kids. You didn’t go to places where Samaritans hang out. The last person you would ever expect to be honored as a hero by a Jewish teacher would be a Samaritan, because everyone knew they were the bad guys. “Good” and “Samaritan” simply didn’t go together.

Think about the animosity between the Israelis and Palestinians today, and you will have some idea of the relationship. The Jews and Samaritans hated each other and avoided having anything to do with each other. For a Jew to call a Samaritan “good” would be like would be like telling a member of the John Birch Society a story about “the  good Communist.” It would be like telling an African-American a story about “the good Ku Klux Klan member.” It would be like standing at Ground Zero in New York City and telling a story about “the good al-Qaeda terrorist.”

In my part of the world, here is a way of understanding this: It would be like telling an IU grad a story about the good Purdue Boilermaker, or a Purdue alumnus talking about a good Indiana Hoosier! It might even be like telling an Indianapolis Colts’ fan a story about a good New England Patriot!

The parable of the so-called “good Samaritan” is not just a nice moral tale about helping people in need. It was shocking to those who first heard it. They were used to hearing stories about religious Jews like priests and Levites being the good guys. They liked those. They could handle those. In Jesus’ story, however, those Jewish religious leaders are the scoundrels and the Samaritan — the hated enemy — is the hero!

What I am saying is that Jesus is telling this devout, Jewish spiritual leader that if he wants to know how to inherit eternal life, he should learn it from a Samaritan. He is telling this man that if he wants an example of someone who knows truly what it means to respond to God’s call to love one’s neighbor, he should learn it from a Samaritan. That would have been tough for this man to take.

I got into trouble once when I preached a sermon that used Mother Teresa as my main example of loving service to others. A man in the church was rabidly anti-Catholic, and he thought it shameful for me to point good Bible-believing Protestants like we were to a heretic like Mother Teresa to make my point.

Another time I mentioned a prominent Jewish author, and used the story from a children’s book he wrote as the main theme of my sermon. I received a letter from a woman in the congregation admonishing me that this man was certainly not a Christian and we shouldn’t be promoting his ideas in our congregation.

These people would not have liked to hear Jesus preach about a Samaritan who was good, a Samaritan who showed he had more of a heart for God and others than the Law-keeping Jews of his day. This parable undermined the entire worldview of its first listeners. It called into question their assumptions that “we” are the good folks, people like the Samaritans are the bad folks, and that “they” have little or nothing to offer us by way of example or instruction.

The second observation I want to make is about the end of this parable. Did you notice how Jesus changed the man’s question through telling this story?

In the first part of the text, the man asked Jesus what he could do to inherit eternal life. Jesus then had him supply his own answer, and the man answered well. But then the man asked another question: “Who is my neighbor?” He wanted to know where the boundaries of his duties were. Where do I draw the circle so that I know who is inside my area of responsibility? Who should I include in my definition of “neighbor”? Who is my neighbor? Who are the people I should love and serve?

Now notice how Jesus ends the story: “Which of these three, do you think, WAS A NEIGHBOR to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” Jesus changed the question! In the teacher’s eye, the “neighbor” was the needy one, and it was his job as a good Jewish religious person to love him. But in Jesus’ story, the “neighbor” is the Samaritan, who acted like a neighbor by giving help to the needy. The “neighbor” is not the one in need, the one who is served and helped and healed. The “neighbor” is the one who does the serving! The “neighbor” is the one who acts, the one who loves, the one who shows compassion. The “neighbor” in the story is not the Jewish man by the side of the road who needs help. The “neighbor” is the Samaritan who helped him.

As long as we think of our “neighbors” primarily in terms of God’s law and God’s commands to love them, that makes us the givers and makes them the takers. They are the needy ones, and we give them the help they need. But Jesus defined the “neighbor” as the one who helps us when we are in need.

Jesus’ parable totally subverts this man’s pride and self-justification and it addresses a temptation that everyone who is religious must face. When we think of others as our neighbors, and we frame it in terms of the Law, that means we are the ones to love and serve them. We are the givers, they are the takers. We are always on the top, they are on the bottom. We are the ones in control; we do the helping. They have no control; they are dependent on us for their well being. We define our “neighbors” as the ones we are responsible to serve.

We kind of like that, don’t we? We like to see ourselves as the givers and others as the receivers. That makes us feel good, doesn’t it? We are the ones who love God and therefore we are to love our neighbors and serve them. But… what if I’m the one who needs to be served? What if I’m the needy one? What if I need a neighbor to help me? And then… what if that neighbor who comes to serve me is a Samaritan? That is not so comfortable, is it?

It may be that Jesus tells this parable as an example of the Gospel. Interpreters from the earliest days of the Church had a suspicion that the Samaritan in the story might actually be Jesus himself. The man by the side of the road represents all of us, deeply wounded by sin and the world’s brokenness. The priest and the Levite represent the failure of Israel and the Law to provide a complete remedy for our need. Then a savior comes along who extends mercy and grace to us, making great sacrifices so that we can be healed and restored. But, surprisingly, this helper, this one who proves himself to be a good neighbor, is like a Samaritan, an outcast. He is rejected by his own people, treated like an outsider. As the Gospel of John says, “He came to his own, and his own received him not.”

So maybe in the end, Jesus is pointing to himself, and saying to each one of us, as he did to that man that day, Are you willing to stop thinking about God and others in terms of the Law? Are you willing to step down from your proud position of thinking that this eternal life project is all up to you? Are you willing to stop thinking that you are the good one and that others are the bad ones and that you have all the answers for them? Are you willing to give up thinking that you have to be the giver all the time and it is always your job to serve others? Are you willing to admit that you need neighbors to serve you? Can you see yourself as the man by the side of the road, desperately in need of healing and restoration?

And are you willing to accept salvation from a “Samaritan” like Jesus?


  1. Many good points brought up in this thoughtful post. And they all can be valid and plausible.

    But however we take this parable, whatever Jesus was trying to get us to see, one thing is for sure.

    We are exposed. The desire in all of us to not go out of our way to help someone…especially someone that we are inclined not to think much about (from the start) is glaringly obvious. Or should be.

  2. Rick Ro. says

    Preach it, Brother! This is good stuff, CM. Thought-provoking and convicting, but without laying on too much guilt/shame.

  3. We are already naked and wounded – we simply lack the wit to see it. Seems to me there was a church like that I read about once…oh yeah, at the back of the book.

    Great post, CM.

  4. Christiane says

    Chaplain Mike,
    your interpretation still makes sense in the context of Jean Vanier’s statement, this:

    ” Love as the Samaritan loved the man he found
    beaten up by robbers,
    somewhere on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho.” (Jean Vanier, ‘The Body Broken’)

    in a way, when we think of Christ as the ‘outcast’ Samaritan, and ourselves as the wounded,
    Jean Vanier’s statement has even greater meaning for Christian people

    . . . that parable has been interpreted many, many ways . . . but I have to agree with Steve Martin, that no matter how we take it, we are exposed . . .

  5. Thank you CM.

    Lawyer; “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

    Robert Capon; “Jesus came to raise the dead. He did not come to reward the rewardable, improve the improvable, or correct the correctible; he came simply to be the resurrection and the life of those who will take their stand on a death he can use instead of on a life he cannot.”

  6. Our pastor had an interesting take on this Gospel yesterday, by sharing the idea that we, as the Body of Christ, are the beaten, bruised, and near-dead one lying on the side of the road, after Satan and his crew have had a go at ruining our lives. Christ Himself is the One who picks us up, binds our wounds, and pays out of his own pocket to save us, telling the innkeeper [as the Father] “I will pay more for anything else he needs to heal”…..paying this debt, of course, on the Cross.

    It was a take I had never heard before, and thought it was lovely and thought-provoking…..although, we still need to be the neighbor to those in need around us, as an imitation of the Lord.

    • Rick Ro. says

      Wow, that IS a lovely take on this passage, and very much in line with Chaplain Mike’s article. Thanks, Pattie.

      • Our daughter was baptized into the Roman Catholic Church after Mass yesterday. (Wife is Catholic, I am not.) The deacon giving the homily discussed this exact interpretation of this parable, only with a very interesting RCC twist:

        As mentioned above:
        We are the victim;
        Christ is the Samaritan; //Significant because Christ was also hated by the Jews.
        The Priest is Israel – the religious establishment as it then existed.
        The Levite is the Law.

        The deacon added these interesting ideas:
        The inn is the [Roman Catholic] Church.
        The innkeeper is a [Roman Catholic] Priest.
        and the two pieces of silver the Samaritan left for the care of the victim are Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition, respectively.

        It turned the parable into a fairly strong message about the importance of being in a church, and particularly the Roman Catholic Church. I’m not quite sure how I feel about that – there may be some real eisegesis happening there, but I had certainly never heard that parable exegeted that way before.

        • Despite what the Booklords say, it’s all eisegesis. Look at the way Christ and the Apostles treated the OT.

          “…the allegorical method of Biblical interpretation that method by which the sense meaning one thing literally, meant another thing morally or mystically or analogically. It is obvious that this is the most valuable, perhaps the only valuable, method with which to treat the text if the Bible. It depends, for its value, though, on an illumination of greatness; these meanings must be self-evident once they are pointed out , for they can never be ‘proved’. Like prayer, their real aim is the interior conviction.” Charles Williams – The Descent Of The Dove

        • Christiane says

          what you described works very well with the ENDING of the parable: ” ‘Look after him,’ he said, and

          . . . WHEN I RETURN . . . ”

          (from St. Luke’s Gospel 10:35)

  7. I give thanks to God that a particularly odious and objectionable Samaritan didn’t think about his shortcomings and failings, but preached Christ to me when I was ready to listen.

    Most everybody would have hung him from the nearest stout tree limb. I am convinced God gave him a life sentence to save his soul.

  8. I was visiting an Anglican Church while out of town yesterday, and the priest preached from the lectionary text from Luke. I was stunned to see how much of your post reflected the sermon I heard yesterday. Apparently God knows I am slow to hear.

  9. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    Just like in The Prodigal Son, Jesus takes a conventional morality-tale example and turns the ending one-eighty. Guy really liked taking the listener’s expectations in a completely unexpected direction.

  10. “We like to see ourselves as the givers and others as the receivers. That makes us feel good, doesn’t it?”

    Yes it does. Thanks for this post. It will give me something to chew on today.

  11. Since reading Capon’s triple volume commentary on the parables last year, I have been ruminating on the nature of parable as a form of teaching and revelation. Many people choke a little on Capon’s interpretations, mostly citing errors in (or disagreements with) his exegetical method.

    Yet, I suspect (along with Fr. Capon) that part of the beauty of the parabolic method is the capacity for multi-layered interpretation. Augustine played around with this quite a bit, apparently. And it seems that the Apostles even felt free to riff out variations on metaphorical themes. Jesus teaching seems to have been dominated by this form. I can only imagine he was fully aware of it’s capacity for ‘flexible hearing.” At the same time, he also seemed to have a pretty clear sense of what he meant by it — but he did not usually spell that out.

    Most important, his sense of what he meant seems to have been completely at odds with the ‘common’ interpretation. And even moreso — that seems to have been the largely the point of using this modality of teaching.

    The fear among the “inflexible interpretation” crowd, of course, is that it is hard to draw the line when playing with the meaning of the story. How do we know how far is too far? When does a variation cease to be a variation and become an entirely different tune?

    I don’t know. But Jesus didn’t seem to be overly concerned. “He who has ears, let him hear.”

    • I like that, Dave, and I think it fits with the Hebraic sense of playfulness when it comes to stories, parables, sayings, etc. There are points of course, but their purpose is as much to make one think as to tell one what should be thought.

      • Capon uses the word “play” quite intentionally. He believes that much of Jesus speaking (and acting) in parables is a kind of “holy horsing around.” And then he goes on to horse around with the parables of Jesus for 3 volumes. Here is a quote:

        “… in high seriousness and with equally high glee, we should play with Scripture. The (treasure) of the kingdom is not something to be kept in the attic and dragged out only on Sundays for loan exhibitions in museums; nor is it something that people should stare at only when wearing solemn faces and three-piece suits. We may be the (masters) of the treasure of God, but we were meant first of all to spend huge amounts of time in the attic just poring over it and trying all of it for size. And we were meant, above all, to invite the world up into the attic to play dress-up with us. We are supposed to be kids, you see: ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and prudent, and revealed them to babes.’ You can’t get more encouragement than that for holy horsing around.” (p. 173)

        I think some people just can’t bend their minds (or hearts) around the idea of playing with scripture. And truth to tell, at some level, it even gives me pause — nevertheless, I think Capon is on to something pretty big.

        I grabbed the quote from http://stbenedictstable.ca/2010/03/playing-with-parables/

  12. Call me wrecked… I need the “Good Samaratin”

  13. Nailed it! Much better than the David Henson article, methinks.

    You could preach that sermon, or you could sing this one: http://thegiftoffaith.blogspot.com/2013/07/singing-wondrous-story.html

  14. CM, thanks ever so much for restoring the cultural context to our understanding of this parable. It’s like a breath of fresh air for me.

    There is yet another cultural aspect of the story though, and that is the nakedness of the victim. Without clothing his class or ethnicity is unknown, and, as such, he is everyman. By portraying his nakedness, Jesus took all social prejudice to task in this parable.

    • Great point, and one I hadn’t really thought about. Now and then, we tend to value those of “worth” as more important than others, judging stupidly by human and worldly standards. So, is the naked and beaten guy a (current examples) businessman or day-laborer? A doctor or a prostitute? The mayor or the town drunk? And if we knew, would it change our response [because we know it would never change how our Lord would react!]

  15. Christiane says

    Chaplain Mike,

    your take on the parable in this post even adds beautiful new meaning for one of my favorite Advent meditations by Christine Sine, this:

  16. Twisted argument! I really enjoyed the end. Sometimes, we need to be prepared at becoming the needy one. And when it happens, we will need the humbleness to say : ‘I need some help.’

  17. david carlson says

    The Augustine/Origen allegorical interpretation is making the rounds these days in the circles of the truly reformed

    I suspect it is because it seems many of the TR these days just cant stand all the justice passages, and do their best to talk their way out of them.

    I find that hilarious as Calvin minced no words when slamming that viewpoint.

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