The parable of the Good Samaritan is perhaps Jesus’ most popular parable (right alongside the parable of the Prodigal Son). Unfortunately, despite its popularity, the provocative meaning of this parable is often diminished into a one-dimensional moral lesson of "just be nice." All joking aside, if you cannot figure out how to “be nice” to people, I’m not sure how to help you, and you shouldn’t need a religious experience to reach that point. However, the parable of the Good Samaritan is something so radical, boundary-breaking, and counter intuitive that its message must be reclaimed.
The first thing worth noting about this parable is that it only appears in the Gospel of Luke, in chapter 10. This is significant because each Gospel is written to a different audience, by different authors, and highlights different elements of Jesus’ teachings in order to communicate the Good News about Jesus most effectively to a respective audience.
Luke’s Gospel was written specifically for Gentiles, or more simply, it was written for anyone that wasn’t Jewish. What this means in short is that this collection of Jesus’ portraits and teachings are for everyone in order to communicate that this God revealed in Jesus has come to reconcile with all people of all kinds, not just the Jews.
The second thing worth noting is that the word “Samaritan” was actually a racial slur in first century Palestine. Its origins come from the Babylonian exile, when Israelites were taken captive into Babylon starting around 600 BC . Some Israelites had interfaith marriages with foreigners during this exile, this was looked down upon by Israel and seen as a compromise (Deuteronomy 7:1-5). In brief, the result of these marriage were Samaritans that developed as a people group. They were seen as traitors, half-breed heretics, or perhaps even “mud-bloods” if you’re a Harry Potter fan. In sum, Samaritans were very much hated by Jews.
So what Jesus is doing here is incredibly subversive: He is making a person who was commonly understood as the “bad guy” of His time into a hero. Importantly, this sketch of Jesus describes Jesus as talking to a lawyer (in verse 25), which means the man who drew this story out of Jesus was most likely Jewish. To state the obvious, this would have been offensive to Jews to make a Samaritan into a hero.
Next, in verse 30, Jesus seems to have chosen the phrase “half dead” very much on purpose for the sake of this story. During Jesus’ time, the dominant consciousness amongst Jews was that touching a dead body made one unclean or defiled (Numbers 5:2). So the priest and Levite that passed by this unfortunate fellow did so “on the other side of the road” in order to steer as clear as possible.
But the Samaritan does not operate within these confines.
The heart of Jesus’ story is that there is a love that is greater than the law; indeed, it is a love that fulfills the law.
At the front end of this parable, Jesus is asked by the lawyer what must be done to inherit eternal life. Jesus responds to the man by asking “What is in the law? Have you read it?”
The lawyer replies “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus says “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”
The parable stems from the man’s second question “Who is my neighbor?” The subtle question beneath this question is “Is there a boundary for those to whom I should show compassion to?”
Jesus’ point in telling this parable is to answer “No.”
The half-dead man who would have been considered “untouchable” by the dominant consciousness of society at the time was saved by the traitorous and heretical half-bred Samaritan. The crux of the law is love for God and love for neighbor. This is why the Samaritan had no qualms about helping the man, because self-sacrifical love supersedes the law. As St. Paul once wrote, “Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” (Romans 13:10)
This also has implications for you and I. The Samaritan, as much as he may have been considered an outcast and despicable human being by his contemporaries, was an agent of the Kingdom of God by showing compassion to a person in need. This means when the question is asked, “What does a person need in order to belong to the Kingdom that Jesus is building and expanding?” The answer is simply: Nothing. Jesus spoke of the Samaritan in a context in which he clearly would have been understood as outside the boundaries of respect, but in God’s eyes, he is still very much able to be instrument through which God will bring about restoration in the world.
This also means very explicitly that the love of God which is definitively expressed in Jesus is not limited by race, social class, or any other category we can come with. One may say “I have done this or that, I have failed in this way, I have hurt this person, I carry such great moral deficit that I do not believe God could accept me.”
The message of Jesus is that He actually already has. That’s the definition of grace. You cannot merit the acceptance of God, so you are free to drop the religious bookkeeping and follow Jesus here and now.
In John 12:32, Jesus states, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to Myself.”
God’s heart really is for everyone, regardless of their moral status.
Likewise, in Revelation 5:9, a hymn that is sung to Jesus reads:
“You were slain, and Your blood has ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.”
This love of God is pursuing all people. It is a long-suffering love, it is a love that understands the pains and trauma of this world, it is a love that persistently and faithfully erodes stone hearts, and most importantly of all, it is a love that has put on flesh and blood, and has entered into solidarity with humanity through the person and work of Jesus Christ. It is indiscriminate, unadulterated, and altogether beautiful.
When we seek to emulate this love, this is how God’s new creation is birthed into this broken world, and people will see the face of Jesus as it is done, albeit imperfectly.
Thus, Jesus concludes the parable:
“You go, and do likewise.”