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A while back, Ian Paul wrote a blog post on the parable of the Good Samaritan. I highly recommend that you read his post, but I wanted to explore some other dimensions of the parable that he doesn’t discuss.
The parable of the Good Samaritan is encountered only once in the Synoptic Gospels, in Luke 10. There it is introduced with a question about inheriting eternal life and then a question about how to understand the Law.
And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “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.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”
But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbour to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”
This parable has clearly captured the Christian imagination. It is a parable about love for neighbour, the paradigm for not just thinking of our neighbour as whomever we feel a natural attachment to or a natural love for, but as anyone who might come across our path.
Many people have talked about this parable as a parable of universal love—that we should love everyone. That’s not quite what the parable says. The parable says that we should love the person on our path, whoever they might be, and that’s a slightly different thing. It is a parable of an ethic of neighbourliness, and that ethic of neighbourliness focuses upon the proximity of that person to you on your path. If you expand that into a universal ethic, often you miss something of the force of the ethical duties that accompany proximity—that as we find people along our path we are supposed to show mercy to them.
But there’s also something further going on here. There is a surprise within the parable, an inversion of the neighbour. The Samaritan isn’t the neighbour we are supposed to love, but the neighbour we’re supposed to be.
You might expect the Good Samaritan to be the one that we are supposed to love—and that’s the way that many people tell the story: “The Samaritans were hated people, and so Christ is saying that we should love even those outsiders that we’re inclined to hate.” But that’s not actually what the parable says. Rather, the parable seems to suggest that we are supposed to be like the Good Samaritan.
The Good Samaritan is not just someone who acts upon an existing neighbour relationship. He’s someone who forms a new neighbour-bond. He creates a bond where there was not a bond previously. It’s neighbour-making, not just neighbour-finding or recognizing an existing neighbour. The one who is a neighbour is the one who makes a neighbour.
The question raised is “Who is my neighbour?” and Jesus turns that question on its head. The question is not “Is the Samaritan my neighbour?” The question becomes “Am I like the Samaritan in being a neighbour to the one in need?”
All of this is important for understanding the ethical message of this passage. But when we read this passage, there are some things that call for our attention—not least, the fact that there seems to be a superfluity of information. Why does Jesus give all this detail if it is irrelevant? If Jesus is telling the story merely as an example of how to show love for neighbour, he could have told it without all these extraneous details. Why mention a road from Jerusalem to Jericho? Why that particular road? Why those particular places? Why mention that it was a Samaritan? What role does that play in the story? Why mention the Levite and the priest?
All of those things are accounted for within many readings of this parable, but there seems to be more going on here. Why mention the specific details of oil and wine? Why mention the money given to the innkeeper? Why mention the innkeeper at all? Why not just say that the Samaritan himself took the man who had been caught among thieves and took care of him. The innkeeper seems to be an interruption—an unnecessary detail—in the story that distracts us from what should be the centre of attention.
There seems to be more going on here, and I suggest that as we pay attention to these details and the framing of this narrative more generally, certain aspects of meaning will open up.
First, let’s recognize some of the structural details in Luke that help us understand what’s going on here. This is not the only account of a question about how to inherit eternal life. We find one in chapter 18, a question raised by a rich person, which Jesus answers by listing certain elements of the Law and then saying what else the rich man must do now.
Reading these two accounts together, we can see that they function as bookends, corresponding to each other, within a chiasm. A chiasm is a structure with bookends at beginning and end, bookends within that, bookends within that, all the way into the central part.
The central section of Luke is a travelogue, far longer than we find in either of the other Synoptic Gospels, Matthew and Mark. They give 6% and 8% of their narrative to it respectively, while 35% of Luke’s text is devoted to this story of the journey to Jerusalem and the teaching and other events that take place along the way.
The other thing you’ll notice if you read through Luke’s Gospel is that there are common elements that are repeated on at least one occasion. There are two references to the ox or donkey that needs assistance (13:15; 4:5). There are two references to sweeping out the house (11:25; 15:8). These may seem like odd and unnecessary details, but they are repeated twice, and so we should pay attention to them.
So, too, you have two occasions of a good Samaritan. We have another good Samaritan in the story of the leper who returns after being healed to give thanks to Christ. As we saw earlier, there are also two occasions where there is a question about what one must do to inherit eternal life, and reading those accounts alongside each other can help us. There are also two occasions when we encounter the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, and they tend to fit with the broad pattern of the bookending.
Think about it: Jesus is heading towards Jerusalem at this time, and on the way—near the beginning—he tells this parable of the Good Samaritan who goes from Jerusalem to Jericho. At the other end, we have Jesus coming toward Jericho on the way to Jerusalem, so that he’s traveling the same road he speaks of in this parable. As he nears Jericho, he meets a man by the side of the road, calling for mercy, and Jesus takes compassion on him. The fact that Jesus is going in the opposite direction is fittingly chiastic—it may also suggest that Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem will somehow complete the interrupted journey undertaken by the man of the parable.
So there’s a symmetry there that helps us recognize, first, the structure within the Gospel of Luke but also, second, a possible connection between these two characters. The Good Samaritan, who has mercy upon the man by the side of the road, is parallel in some sense with Christ who, walking the same road, has compassion upon the blind man by the wayside who is calling out for mercy.
It is also worth noticing that in the previous chapter Jesus has not been welcomed by the Samaritans because they saw that he had set his face toward Jerusalem. As I mentioned above, on two occasions we have good Samaritans. There is the one in the parable, but there is also the good Samaritan who was a leper and who returns to give thanks. The fact that that character is a Samaritan is highlighted.
So the Samaritans are part of the story Luke is telling. They aren’t just a generic outside group that is particularly unloved. Rather, they are part of the story of Luke, and Luke wants us to recognize their importance.
In the book of Acts, too, he gives attention to the Samaritans that are converted. In chapter 8, they receive the Spirit as much as the Jerusalem church and the people of Judea received the Spirit. So there is particular significance given to the fact that the Samaritans receive the Spirit. The gospel goes to Jerusalem, Samaria, and then to various parts of the wider world. Samaria has attention given to it as a part of the story that exceeds merely the generic category of “outsiders.”
What is so significant about Samaria? Samaria represents the fallen northern kingdom of Israel, to an extent. The Samaritan is not just a generic outsider but the closest outsider, kin of the Jews and yet connected with false worship. They’re unfaithful. There is a sort of breach in the family. They have been corrupted by intermarriage with other groups of people.
So there’s a brotherly rivalry there, a tension between brothers, between two parts of a divided kingdom that has not truly been reconciled. There’s a sense of impurity near at hand. The Jews needed to guard themselves over against the false worship of the Samaritans.
This gives us a helpful staging point for exploring another aspect of the background of this parable and that is found in 2 Chronicles 28. In that story, the king of Judah has proved unfaithful. He is an idolater and has brought Judah into false worship, and he is handed over into the power of the king of Syria and also the king of Israel. In the context of this great defeat, something very significant happens.
In 2 Chronicles 28:5ff., we read:
Therefore the Lord his God gave him into the hand of the king of Syria, who defeated him and took captive a great number of his people and brought them to Damascus. He was also given into the hand of the king of Israel, who struck him with great force. For Pekah the son of Remaliah killed 120,000 from Judah in one day, all of them men of valor, because they had forsaken the Lord, the God of their fathers. And Zichri, a mighty man of Ephraim, killed Maaseiah the king’s son and Azrikam the commander of the palace and Elkanah the next in authority to the king.
The men of Israel took captive 200,000 of their relatives, women, sons, and daughters. They also took much spoil from them and brought the spoil to Samaria. But a prophet of the Lord was there, whose name was Oded, and he went out to meet the army that came to Samaria and said to them, “Behold, because the Lord, the God of your fathers, was angry with Judah, he gave them into your hand, but you have killed them in a rage that has reached up to heaven. And now you intend to subjugate the people of Judah and Jerusalem, male and female, as your slaves. Have you not sins of your own against the Lord your God? Now hear me, and send back the captives from your relatives whom you have taken, for the fierce wrath of the Lord is upon you.”
Certain chiefs also of the men of Ephraim, Azariah the son of Johanan, Berechiah the son of Meshillemoth, Jehizkiah the son of Shallum, and Amasa the son of Hadlai, stood up against those who were coming from the war and said to them, “You shall not bring the captives in here, for you propose to bring upon us guilt against the Lord in addition to our present sins and guilt. For our guilt is already great, and there is fierce wrath against Israel.” So the armed men left the captives and the spoil before the princes and all the assembly. And the men who have been mentioned by name rose and took the captives, and with the spoil they clothed all who were naked among them. They clothed them, gave them sandals, provided them with food and drink, and anointed them, and carrying all the feeble among them on donkeys, they brought them to their kinsfolk at Jericho, the city of palm trees. Then they returned to Samaria.
There are a lot of things in that passage that should spark our attention. There are people being caught among thieves, as it were. This great army is sent from Judah and is caught by the Syrians and the people of Israel and is defeated. They are taken captive.
Then you have Good Samaritans. There is an intervention by Oded, the prophet of YHWH, that leads to these good Samaritans clothing these men of Judah, giving them sandals, providing them food and drink, anointing them, carrying the feeble among them on donkeys, just as the Good Samaritan in Jesus’ parable carried the man caught among thieves on his beast. They bring them back to Jericho, the city of palm trees, and then they return to Samaria. These places are significant within the story. They are not accidental details.
So, too, with the details in the parable about looking after the man caught among thieves, the details of the oil and wine, the food and drink, the donkeys and the clothes. All of these things are important, and they seem to be important because they are also present in the text that provides a background for that parable, the story in 2 Chronicles 28.
How can this help us to understand what’s taking place in the parable? As I’ve noted, the Good Samaritan is not just a generic outsider, not just a member of some hated group. He’s a member of a group that represents in part the northern kingdom that had fallen into idolatry and had become admixed with other unfaithful peoples through intermarriage and was now committed to false worship. There is going to be a union in this story of the Good Samaritan, and we see a hint of that in the Old Testament, as God works in this broken nation and gives them an understanding of their brotherhood.
As we go through the story of the later kings—in both Kings and Chronicles—so many of the stories play out in the shadow of this great breach in the kingdom. But then, in this one short story toward the end of the final book of the history of Israel and Judah, we find this episode where the two are brought together, where for a brief period of time they realize that they are brothers and exist within the same family and where, through their act of mercy, they understand for a moment what it means to be a united people. This is a glimpse of what it means for Israel to be restored, for the northern kingdom to show mercy and compassion to the southern kingdom, and for there to be blessing and a healthy neighbourliness between these two parts of a broken heritage.
Looking then at the parable of the Good Samaritan, you see something of God restoring Israel and Judah, restoring this broken kingdom through the work of Christ. In that act of mercy, in that act of neighbour-making, there is a new people being formed, just as there was a new unity formed between the Samaritans and the Judeans in the act of mercy in 2 Chronicles 28.
The inclusion of the Samaritans within the blessing of the New Covenant, then, is an important part of the restoration of Israel as one true new nation. So the attention given to the coming of the Spirit upon the Samaritans in Acts 8 is not accidental, nor is the presence of Samaritans in the story of Luke. Luke is setting us up for the place of the Samaritans within the larger picture of the coming of the kingdom. The church is formed with Judeans and Samaritans being brought together. There is a restoration of the people of God, this divided kingdom. And Luke is helping us to see that, in part, through the parable of the Good Samaritan.
Again, the question that is raised at the end of the parable is not “Who is my neighbour?” but “Who was a neighbour?” The question is heightened by the further question “With whom do I identify in the story? With the man caught among thieves? He’s a Judean. Or do I identify with the Good Samaritan?” The question is “How am I going to be part of the restoration of the people of God, this restoration that takes place in the relationship between the good Samaritan and the Judean—these two groups that had formerly been at enmity being brought together?”
Now there are also many other things taking place here. Some have observed that the parable of the Good Samaritan is, in part, a commentary upon Hosea 6:6: “For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.” The pouring on of oil and wine is a sacrificial action; that is how you might act toward a sacrifice.
Now the priest and the Levite are characters associated with the cultic worship of Israel, people who would be serving in the temple. Some have suggested that they are trying to keep ceremonially pure by not encountering a body that might prove to be a corpse. But the important thing in the parable, as Jesus indicates, is that true sacrifice is found in this act of mercy and compassion performed by the Good Samaritan, and in this act of compassion a sacrificial pattern is being played out. He is treating the man to whom he is showing mercy as if he were a sacrifice.
But there are other surprising things in this parable. Perhaps the most surprising is the attention given to the character of the innkeeper. If you were telling the story, you would probably not give a lot of attention to the innkeeper.
It’s like the older brother in the parable of the lost son: he tends to get missed out because we focus on the welcome that the father gives the son who has returned from exile in the far country, but the parable ends on a strange note, with the attention focused on the older brother who does not welcome his returning brother.
Similarly, this parable ends, not with attention given to the character of the Good Samaritan or even to the man caught among thieves but to a different character: “The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’”
The character of this innkeeper seems odd. Many have speculated about the identity of this figure, but most would just omit him from the story and tell the story as if he were not part of it at all. When we tell the story of the Good Samaritan, how many of us give any degree of thought to who this innkeeper might be?
Many of us just see the inn and the innkeeper as an extension of the charity and compassion of the Good Samaritan. It is, after all, the parable of the Good Samaritan, just as the parable of the Lost Son is the parable of the lost son, not of the older brother. As a result, we focus on the title figure to the exclusion of others.
But when we read Christ’s parables, there are often lots of different details within them that distract us from one simple moral. We’re inclined to read these stories as moral fables, focusing upon isolated details or upon one single moral thrust. But that is not how they work. Generally, they give us something more than a simple moral thrust. They have a number of different figures and they are placed in a symbolic matrix that helps us make sense of many of the different characters in concert with each other.
We’ve already considered that God is restoring Israel by bringing together Samaritans and Jews. He’s restoring this breach, and the question the parable poses is where you are going to fit into that project. Are you going to be one of the people who shows compassion to your neighbour? Are you going to be one of the people being brought together in this reunification of the kingdom in acts of love and true keeping of the Law, where you’re not just trying to distinguish between the one who is your neighbour and those who are not but rather loving all of those whom you encounter? That is what true restoration of the people of God and the true keeping of the Law involve.
There is that question raised, that moral thrust, but again there is more going on. I think what more is taking place is that the innkeeper suggests a further character.
The innkeeper might have been viewed with distrust, much as the Samaritan would have been. The innkeeper might trick people out of money, which makes us wonder why the Samaritan is showing such trust in the innkeeper. The Good Samaritan makes the innkeeper a participant in his act of showing mercy. He gives him money and he entrusts the innkeeper with this injured man. The innkeeper could just take the money and leave the man on the street, but it’s expected that the innkeeper—even though he might be a figure that’s not trusted—shows mercy to the one he expected to.
There may be something significant about his bringing the man to the inn and the innkeeper. Maybe the innkeeper is being compared to the priest, so that the inn is like the true temple, a place of provision for the person in need. Some of that may be taking place in this parable.
Augustine has suggested some connection between the innkeeper and the church, and maybe between the coins and the sacraments. That is not a crazy interpretation. Elsewhere in the Gospel of Luke, we have Jesus as a king who goes away and gives money to his people and tells them to do business until he returns. Here, we have a similar theme. There is money given to someone who is told to act faithfully until the giver returns, at which time there will be repayment and blessing for faithfulness.
Maybe this should help us to see that the character of the innkeeper connects with the character of the Good Samaritan, so that the Good Samaritan and the innkeeper are one unit, much as Christ is connected with his church. Christ gives these responsibilities and these gifts to the church in order that it might continue and might carry on this act of mercy: “Go and do likewise” is “Go and take up that role of the innkeeper. Go and take up the money, the resources, the gifts, the talents that have been given to you and continue this act of mercy.”
That may be part of what is taking place here. One way or another, the character of the innkeeper should be part of our interpretation. The story does not end in verse 34; it ends at the end of verse 35—and verse 35 helps us to see that there is a continuation of the Good Samaritan’s act.
And so these extra details—the details of the donkey and of the oil and wine poured on like a sacrificial gesture, the detail of the innkeeper, the details of Jerusalem and Jericho, the fact that the story is focused on a Samaritan—are all important to the story. They are not extraneous. They help us understand that there is more taking place here than we might originally have thought.