The parable of the Good Samaritan isn’t a story about benevolence or social justice. It was not delivered as a heartwarming tale of gracious self-sacrifice, but as a stinging rebuke to pharisaical self-righteousness.
In response to a hairsplitting question from an unctuous law scribe (Luke 10:29), the Lord told a story that highlighted the vain piety of the religious elite, and gets to the heart of how God wants us to love our neighbors. We already saw how other characters in the story—religious leaders without excuse—cruelly overlooked the man’s plight. Today, we will consider how help finally came from his unlikeliest ally.
Jews and Samaritans
The Samaritan comes as an unexpected twist in Jesus’ story. Like the man who was beaten and robbed, the Samaritan was on a journey alone. Sometime after the priest and Levite had passed by, the Samaritan arrived on the scene. Unlike those two professional clergymen, the Samaritan “felt compassion” when he saw the bloodied body of the poor traveler (Luke 10:33).
The robbery victim was a Jewish man. That would be perfectly clear to Jesus’ listeners, because the setting of the story is in Israel, on a desert road heading out of Jerusalem. Gentiles rarely traveled there, much less Samaritans. In the minds of Jesus’ original audience, a Samaritan would be the least likely source of help for a Jewish traveler in distress on the Jericho road. For one thing, Samaritans avoided that road. A Samaritan would travel there only if there was a dire emergency forcing him to do so. But more than that, Jews despised Samaritans and vice versa.
An acrimonious mutual hostility had divided the two peoples for centuries. Jewish travelers going to Galilee took the road from Jerusalem to Jericho precisely because they wanted to avoid Samaria. People on that road were not headed straight north in the direction of Galilee, but east, to Perea, on the other side of the Jordan River. It was an indirect route to Galilee, longer and more arduous—but it bypassed Samaria.
Jewish people considered the Samaritans ethnically and religiously unclean—and the Samaritans likewise resented and despised their Jewish cousins. The Samaritans were descendants of Israelites who had intermarried with pagans after the Assyrians forced most of the population of Israel’s Northern Kingdom into exile in 722 BC (2 Kings 17:6). When the Assyrians conquered Israel’s Northern Kingdom, they carried away much of the population into captivity, and they purposely populated the land with expatriate pagans from other Gentile lands.
The king of Assyria brought men from Babylon and from Cuthah and from Avva and from Hamath and Sephar-vaim, and settled them in the cities of Samaria in place of the sons of Israel. So they possessed Samaria and lived in its cities. At the beginning of their living there, they did not fear the Lord. (2 Kings 17:24–25)
Some Israelite stragglers remained or returned to the land after most of their brethren were forced into exile, and these scattered Israelites mixed with and married the pagan settlers. They kept some traditions that were rooted in Old Testament doctrine, but they also blended enough pagan beliefs into the mix that Samaritan worship ultimately became something fundamentally different from either Judaism or paganism. It was a mongrel religion—the Old Testament equivalent of today’s quasi-Christian cults. Of course, faithful Jews saw Samaritanism as corrupt, unclean, and treasonous to the God of Scripture.
During the time of Ezra, Jews from the Southern Kingdom began to return from the Babylonian captivity. As they began to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, the Samaritans offered help. Unable to hide their righteous contempt for Samaritan syncretism, the Jews refused. So the Samaritans tried to sabotage the project (Ezra 4:1–5). Then a few years later, at the instigation of Sanballat, they also tried to halt the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s wall (Nehemiah 4:2). From that era and for centuries afterward, Jews and Samaritans had remained the bitterest of enemies.
Jewish people regarded the Samaritans as apostate people who had sold their spiritual birthright. After all, the Samaritans had actively participated in the defilement of the land; they had polluted the bloodline; and they were guilty of idolatry. As far as the Jews were concerned, the Samaritans’ very existence was evil fruit that stemmed from the “sins of Jeroboam” (1 Kings 14:16; 2 Kings 17:22). Like Jeroboam, the Samaritans ultimately built a temple of their own, with counterfeit priests and unlawful sacrifices. By the Jews’ reckoning, they were worse than rank pagans because of the subtlety with which they had polluted their religion.
Samaritans’ hatred for the Jews was at least equal to that. About 130 years before the time of Christ, John Hercanus, a Jewish king in the Hasmonean (Maccabean) dynasty, defeated the Samaritan nation. The Jews demolished the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim. And although that temple was never rebuilt, the Samaritans insisted that Gerizim was the only legitimate place of worship (John 4:20). Today there are fewer than a thousand Samaritans, but they still worship on Gerizim.
In Jesus’ time, animosity between Jews and Samaritans was especially fierce. The depth of the Jews’ contempt for their wayward cousins is seen not only in how they avoided traveling through Samaria, but perhaps even more in how they spoke about the Samaritans. At one point some exasperated Jewish leaders, losing a public debate with Jesus but trying desperately to discredit Him, spat out the worst insult they could imagine: “Do we not say rightly that You are a Samaritan and have a demon?” (John 8:48).
So here is a Samaritan man, whom the typical Jewish religious leader would assume is the blood enemy of the injured traveler. If the priest and Levite turned their backs, what will this Samaritan do when he sees a helpless Jew out in the middle of nowhere? Kill him and rob his corpse?
Not at all: “When he saw him, he felt compassion” (Luke 10:33).
What was Jesus trying to say? It was a preliminary answer to the original question. And it was a tough reply with a subtle rebuke aimed at the lawyer who raised the question in the first place. Elite status as religious leaders did nothing to make the priest and Levite fit for the kingdom. “Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God” does not consist in birthrights and bloodlines, or rituals and rote confessions of faith (cf. James 1:27). Pure religion is something else entirely.
How the Samaritan Loved
The Samaritan now takes center stage in the story, and here comes the main point: notice how this man loves. “He saw him,” (Luke 10:33). Nothing remarkable there. The priest and the Levite got that far, but they showed no love. This man, a heretic and outcast, was moved by compassion. Something in his heart went out to the man—a sense of sadness, grief, tenderhearted empathy. He saw and embraced the urgent need to rescue and recover the man. He bore the injured man’s burden as if it were his own.
So he “came to him” (Luke 10:34). That’s the polar opposite of what the priest and Levite did. He “bandaged up his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them.” Remember that everything of value had been taken from the injured man. So whatever the Samaritan used for bandages came out of his own bag or from his own clothes. The wine was antiseptic and the oil was a balm and an anodyne. This would both sanitize and seal wounds in a way that would help prevent infection. The oil would also moisturize, soothe, and soften the tissue. (Olive oil was the chief emollient used in the medicine of that time, and it was effective for bringing quick relief from the stinging pain of abrasions and bleeding wounds.)
Where did the oil and wine come from? Travelers on a long journey would carry oil for cooking and wine for drinking (water along the way wasn’t safe). The Samaritan was using his own provisions. The expression used tells us that he was not stingy with the wine and oil. He wasn’t using an eyedropper or dabbing at the injured places. He washed the man’s wounds thoroughly. Jesus is purposely stressing the lavishness of the Samaritan’s generosity.
Then Jesus says, “he put him on his own beast”—probably a donkey or a mule (Luke 10:34). It’s the Samaritan’s “own animal.” So the Samaritan walks, with the injured man riding. What Jesus aims to underscore here is that this is not minimal care; the Samaritan was making an extraordinary sacrifice for someone he didn’t even know.
He “brought him to an inn and took care of him” (Luke 10:34). He didn’t leave him alone there; the Samaritan stayed with the wounded traveler. He acquired a room, got the man settled, and then stayed with him to help nurse him back to health. He continued to treat his wounds, providing food, sleep, comfort, water, and whatever care the injured man needed. He stayed with him through the night, because verse 35 says, “On the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper and said, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I return I will repay you’” (emphasis added).
Two denarii constituted two full days’ wages—and from what we know of the rates at the time, that was enough for two months’ room and board in a wayside inn like that. Again, this was remarkable charity, especially considering the men were strangers to one another and would have been deemed by most as enemies. Yet the Samaritan gave up his own clothes, his supplies, his time, a night’s sleep, and a significant sum of cash. He even promised to pay more if necessary. Someone might scold him for naively exposing himself to the possibility of being taken advantage of. But he was more concerned about the needs of his neighbor. So he left an open account on behalf of the wounded man.
The Samaritan had never met the other man. He didn’t know how the traveler got in the condition he found him in, and in Jesus’ telling of the story, he didn’t even stop to investigate or subject the man to any kind of cross-examination. His heart was so full of love that when someone came across his path with a desperate need he was able to meet, he did everything he could possibly do. There was never a question or hesitation.
In other words, the Samaritan never stopped to ask what the lawyer had asked: “And who is my neighbor?” The far more important question is, “Whose neighbor am I?” And the answer is anyone in need.
(Adapted from Parables.)