THE GOOD SAMARITAN: Luke 10: 25 – 37
Last week we looked at the Prodigal Son, told by Luke alone, and this was one of the great narrative parables of Jesus. We now look at another of the great narrative parables of Jesus, the Good Samaritan. This parable is also peculiar to Luke who has an evident interest in the place of women, of the sick, the outcasts and the foreigners in the gospel narrative. Luke did have his own sources of information and is thought to have drawn particularly from the story of Mary the mother of Jesus. In this respect he is often represented as painting a portrait of her. But Luke also did his own researches and points this out in the introduction to the Acts of the Apostles. As a companion of Paul, Luke was with him as he journeyed to Jerusalem where he was arrested. Luke then had the opportunity to conduct his own inquiries as Paul lay in prison in Caesarea. Luke was evidently with Paul on his journey to Rome.
The parable starts with a lawyer’s question to Jesus about inheriting eternal life. I would assume that this is a religious lawyer rather than one taken up with conveyancing or family law. But his question is intriguing for he asks about eternal life and what he must do in order to inherit it. Now the point about inheritance is that it is the portion of a person’s property which passes to others on his or her death. Normally it would pass to the family and unless the deceased is determined to exact some kind of revenge from the grave, we would expect this to be so. If so how then is inheritance to be earned? We would not expect it to be earned so much as received. In this sense there seems to be a strange premise to the lawyer’s question.
The lawyer however was also trying it on with Jesus. He was pressing Jesus not only to give a full and authoritative summary of the law – and Jesus did this in the spirit of the Rabbi Hillel who had been challenged to summarise the law while standing on one leg. And so the law was summarised in the command to love: first God and then the neighbour. This commandment is limitless and has no boundaries but the lawyer evidently wanted to put limits on his obligations. So: not so much ‘define love’ as ‘define neighbour’. Where does the obligation end? How far does it go? If you want to find justification before God in your own life and works, and do so independently of Jesus and His death on the cross – then how to do it? Indeed, can it be done for this is a whole lifetime’s commitment, rain and shire, whether wealthy or poor, in personal health or sickness – and with absolutely no room for excuses or exceptions.
And then Jesus told this parable, of a man going from Jerusalem to Jericho. This is a difficult journey, from a height of some 2400 feet above sea level to 1200 feet below it. The land is wilderness – rocky, parched and in high summer, extremely hot. The road is tortuous with many bends and potential hiding places for brigands. And the unfortunate traveller falls to brigandage and he is robbed, beaten, stripped and left half dead. Then pass the 3 travellers. The priest was likely to be on some religious journey so that if he came into contact with a dead body he would be ritually unclean and unable to perform his duties. He could not risk either touching a body already dead or taking care of him in case the injured traveller died of wounds. Besides, his obligation would be to fellow Jews and if the man was unconscious then he would not be able to identify himself as a Jew. So the priest did not even look at the injured man.
The Levite could well have been an assistant to the priest, but if the priest had passed by without attending to the injured traveller then he had not only set the Levite a precedent but, worse, could have been upstaged if the Levite had attended to the man while the priest had not. So he also passed by.
The Samaritan was different – Jews had no dealings with Samaritans who were regarded as essentially apostate and unclean. On the other hand, the Samaritan was not going to be ritually undermined in the same way as the priest and Levite so the dangers of contact with a dead body were definitely less. But more than this the Samaritan took ownership of the matter. He accepted responsibility for the man, not only tending to him as he lay there but transporting him to the next inn and undertaking to pay for his care. Even this had its dangers for in an area of Jewish settlement he could be accused of attacking the man himself and his pleas for further care of the man may be rejected or abused. And yet he persisted.
Jesus said that love for neighbour is to care for the person who we meet personally, who we can help personally and regardless of personal emergencies or situation or inconvenience. And to earn that inheritance then it is a lifetime’s commitment, again without room for any kind of extenuating circumstances.
- The lawyer was trying to probe Jesus and to find limits to his own obligations. He was trying to place limits on love for God and love for neighbour. Do we also try to set boundaries to our obligations to love?
- The lawyer was trying to earn his inheritance of eternal life. Do we sometimes do the same?
- Who are the despised and rejected of today who we should be on the lookout for?
• Picture from Northstar Church.