How on earth do you preach on the Parable of the Good Samaritan? It’s so
well known. We’ve reduced it just to a set of cheesy morals. That’s why I’ve
avoided hymns this morning like, ‘When I needed
Over the years, Christians have tried to freshen up their
approach to this parable, so that familiarity doesn’t breed contempt. In the 1970s,
the Riding Lights Theatre Company
published a book of sketches called ‘Time
To Act’, which included ‘The
Parable of the Good Punk Rocker’. In the Seventies, when respectable,
mainstream society hated punks, it made sense to rewrite the parable. After all,
as I once heard a preacher
say, it’s no more a nice Sunday School story than going into Israel today and telling
the story of the good Palestinian.
We need to avoid just reducing it to, ‘Be nice to everybody’,
and we have to do more than simply update it by putting in the latest bogeyman
as the hero – the Parable of the Good Al Qaeda Terrorist, for example.
But how to do it? My suggestion is this: rather than
bringing it up to date, let’s try going back two thousand years. I’m going to
try retelling the story with some of the background
in the hope that we can recapture something of its original meaning. I think
we’ll see that this is more than about being nice to each other, even the
people who don’t like us.
There are three sports my Dad and I both love – cricket, rugby and football. But
there is one on which we disagree – one he participated in at school and in his
National Service. Boxing. I understand the thought of sports where you might
risk being hurt, but I can’t get my head around a sport where the intention is
to hurt. Dad doesn’t see it like that.
But at the beginning of our reading, the lawyer is up for an
intellectual boxing match with Jesus, or at least some sparring. The lawyer ‘stood
up’ – that’s a sign of respect for Jesus as a teacher, or of acknowledging him
as an equal. He even calls him, ‘Teacher.’ However, it’s all just a show,
because he stands up to ‘test’ Jesus. Social courtesy is coupled with a
deceptive and corrupt heart. When the lawyer asks, ‘What must I do to inherit
eternal life?’ (verse 25) you have to wonder about the sincerity of the
So what does Jesus do? Well, he takes on the question. You might
wonder why, given that he is not prone to wasting his time on those who are not
serious. But he does so, in order to make a point against his opponents. He responds
to the sparring.
Jesus could take the question of inheriting one of two ways.
He could think about the inheritance of the land, which Israel knew was a gift
from God, and therefore you couldn’t do
anything to inherit it. Inheriting the land was seen as a metaphor for eternal
life. So if you took this approach there would be no question of doing anything
to get it. But he knows the lawyer is talking about inheriting eternal life in
the tradition of the rabbis, who saw it as a matter of keeping the Torah, the
Jewish Law. He doesn’t just say, ‘You’ve got it wrong, eternal life is all
about the undeserved grace of God, it’s a free gift’ (which it is), he meets
the guy on his own terms, on his own territory. It’s ‘wrong’ territory, the
idea that you can work your way to eternal life. But that is what the lawyer
thinks, so Jesus responds to that.
However – he responds, not with an answer, but a question. Jesus
probes those who come to him. He doesn’t always serve up an answer, well cooked
and neatly presented on a plate. He throws the question back at the man, and in
his own terms: ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ (verse 26)
‘What do you read there?’ could be a way of asking the lawyer, ‘How do you
recite this in worship?’ And so he responds with what amounts to a Jewish
creed: ‘You shall 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 your neighbour as
yourself.’ (verse 27)
Perhaps it was popular to put the two commandments about
loving God and loving your neighbour together; Jesus had certainly done it. But
whether it was popular, or the lawyer was echoing Jesus, or it was a sincere
comment, Jesus seems to praise him: ‘You have given the right answer; do this,
and you will live.’ (verse 28) It’s the kind of affirmation that raises
questions: lawyer, you have the right beliefs, but do you put them into
practice? Faith without works is dead, Jesus’ brother James would later say.
Lawyer, you have told yourself what to do; now will you do it?
But Jesus has done more than that in saying, ‘Do this and
you shall live.’ He is saying, ‘Do this and you will really be living now. Don’t
just see eternal life as something in the future after death; don’t just buy
your ticket to heaven, as if you could. Loving God and loving neighbour is
truly coming alive.’ But not only that, Jesus implies it’s something not to do
once, but to keep on doing. If the lawyer wanted a simple answer that was easy
to fulfil, he didn’t get it. So we move to the second round of the bout.
The lawyer wanted to see himself as fully righteous, so he asks, ‘And who is my
neighbour?’ (verse 29) He hopes Jesus will answer, ‘Your relative and your
friend.’ The rabbis thought your neighbour was your fellow Jew, maybe converts
to the faith, but certainly not Gentiles. There was a rabbinical saying ‘that
heretics, informers, and renegades ‘should be pushed (into the ditch) and not
It’s at this point that Jesus responds with his story. How else
can he respond? As someone has put it, ‘The question is unanswerable, and ought
not to be asked. For love does not begin by defining its objects: it discovers
The lawyer gets a parable, not a list of neighbours.
The man is walking a descending seventeen-mile route from Jerusalem
to Jericho. The road has been notorious even in succeeding centuries. The crusaders
built a fort halfway along to protect pilgrims. In the nineteenth century, some
only walked it with an armed guard.
The robbers leave the man – presumably a Jew – beaten,
stripped and half-dead. ‘Beaten’ suggests he struggled; ‘half dead’ means he
was on the point of death. Stripped and unconscious, no-one who happens upon
him can now identify what national, social or religious background he comes
First on the scene, is an aristocrat, a priest, who would
have been riding a beast. But his duty is to do good to a devout man, not a
sinner, a humble man, not a godless one (Sirach 12:1-7). He cannot be sure if
the naked, unconscious man at death’s door is good and devout. If he is
actually dead, contact with a dead body will defile the priest, so he will not
be able to collect, distribute and eat the tithes of food. He and his household
will suffer. What humiliation if he cannot feed his family! Even within four
cubits of a dead body he will be defiled, so he passes by on the other side
(verse 31). He is trying to be a good priest, keeping his status in the community
that supports him.
Next comes the Levite, a man of lower social class. Given that
the road was a straight Roman road and the nature of the man’s injuries, we can
assume he arrives quite soon after the priest, and has seen the priest steer
away. Fewer rules bound the Levite: the four-cubit exclusion zone would only
apply to him when he was on duty. If he’s travelling from Jerusalem, he’s off
duty. However, he also passes by on the other side (verse 32). Is it fear of
the robbers that makes him do so? Or is it that he dares not contradict the
example of the priest, a higher-ranking man than him? He gets closer than the priest
does – he comes ‘to the place’. He could have offered some first aid. But rules
and hierarchy mean he leaves the man to die.
Who will come next? A pious Jew hearing that first a priest
and then a Levite came will expect one from ‘the delegation of Israel’, nonprofessionals
who helped at the Temple. But to the lawyer’s shock, it’s that old enemy, a
Samaritan. And a Samaritan travelling in Judea is hardly likely to be coming
across a ‘neighbour’ in the usual limited sense. Yet he is ‘moved with pity’
(verse 33). That translates a Greek word that means he felt compassion in his
bowels. This is gut-level compassion.
He takes a risk. He too could be ritually unclean by contact
with a dead body – and so would his animal and his wares. Likewise, his animal
and his wares make him a prime target for the robbers. None of this stops him. He
sets to work. ‘He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and
wine on them.’ (verse 34a) Why mention the binding of wounds before the
application of the oil and wine, which would have happened first to soften and
clean the wounds? Perhaps because the binding of wounds was characteristically
a picture of how God saves his people in the Old Testament (Jeremiah 30:17;
Hosea 6:1-10). And the oil and wine aren’t simply part of a first century St
John’s Ambulance kit, they are also elements used in the sacrificial worship at
the Temple. This is true worship, what Paul called ‘a living sacrifice’ (Romans
He also risks rejection. If the man awoke and recognised him
as a Samaritan, then he is receiving oil and wine from a man from whom he is
forbidden to receive them. The man may have to pay tithes on them – and he can’t
even pay an hotel bill. He might dismiss the Samaritan with a curse. He would
be foolish, but he might.
More risks come. The Samaritan puts the man on his animal
(which the priest could have done), and leads him (as a servant would lead a
master who has mounted a beast) to an inn. Staying overnight to tend him is
fraught with danger. Presumably, the inn is at Jericho – there are no records
of inns in the middle of the desert. It looks like this is the man’s hometown. His
relatives could seek revenge on the attackers. But if they could not track down
the assailants, then anyone remotely related might be a victim. They might pick
on the hated Samaritan. He has risked his life again.
Finally, he pays the bill to the innkeeper. Innkeepers had a
terrible reputation, and inns were often associated with prostitution. The injured
man will be able to leave (and perhaps be glad to, if it is a place of ill
repute). However, the Samaritan has no chance of reimbursement if he has
overpaid. A Jewish innkeeper might do that for another Jew, but not for a
With such an amazing figure as the Samaritan, no wonder the
church of the early centuries thought he stood for the incarnate Christ. Everything
about him is Christlike. But in the parable, Jesus is bringing the lawyer to an
awkward conclusion. You asked who your neighbour is: that’s the wrong question,
says Jesus. The right question, the question motivated by love of God, is, ‘To
whom can I become a neighbour?’
And at that point, the lawyer knows he is never going to inherit
eternal life on these terms. It isn’t just a one-off. Remember, Jesus was
telling him to keep on doing this in order to be fully alive now and in the
future. Who can meet this standard? Mother Teresa? A few others? What hope is
there for the lawyer? What hope is there for us?
It’s a knockout punch for the pretentious lawyer. Hope comes
in that ancient identification of the Samaritan with Jesus. As salvation came
in a costly expression of love to the wounded man, so it also comes that way to
us, through the Cross. We do not earn it. What is impossible for us is possible
But when we find God’s love through the sacrificial death of
Christ, he calls us to love him and look for neighbours to love, too. ‘Go and
do likewise,’ said Jesus (verse 37). So must we.
What follows is based on Kenneth Bailey, Through
Peasant Eyes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), pp33-56.
 Ibid, p40, citing Joachim Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, p202.
 Ibid, p41, citing T W Manson, The Sayings Of Jesus, p261.