Good Samaritan

05/07/95 and 09/16/07


Luke 10:25-37

25 And, behold, a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted him, saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?

26 He said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou?

27 And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.

28 And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live.

29 But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbour?

30 And Jesus answering said, A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.

31 And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.

32 And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side.

33 But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him,

34 And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.

35 And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee.

36 Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves?

37 And he said, He that showed mercy on him. Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise.


The Lawyer asked Jesus, "What must I do to inherit everlasting life?" Jesus said, "Do what is written in the law. Do you know the law?" The lawyer then repeated the summary of the Law: Love God and love neighbor. Jesus said, That is great. That is absolutely right. Do that and you will have life in the kingdom of God. But the lawyer wanted to look like he knew what he was talking about, so he would not let well enough alone. So he asked, in Greek, τίς ἐστιv́ μου πλησίονwho is my neighbor? Πλησίον literally means “one who is near,” which is basically what our English word “neighbor” means. So what the lawyer is asking is: “This one who is near to me, that I should love, who is it?”

Then Jesus told the lawyer, and all those gathered around him, the parable of the Good Samaritan.

A man was going from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he was set upon by a gang of robbers who beat him to a bloody pulp and stripped him of all his belongings and all his clothing and left him for dead.


First, we need to say something about the man. Those listening to Jesus might have said this was a rash and reckless man. The Jericho-Jerusalem road was infested with outlaws. For safety, people traveled the road in convoys or caravans. So many people would have said, the man has no one but himself to blame for what happened.

When I lived in Atlanta, they had, on one occasion, a dental convention downtown. Dentists from all over the country were visiting the city. One dentist had too much to drink, and went wandering around the roughest section of the town in the middle of the night. He was robbed and killed. The response of most people in Atlanta was, I am sorry he got killed, but he should have known better than to be where he was at that time of night. That would have been the response of Jesus’ audience to the man in the parable. He should not have being on the Jericho road alone.


Let us continue the parable. Soon after the robbery, a priest came by. The priest had been up to Jerusalem to worship in the temple. Perhaps he was carrying a scroll of scripture under his arm. Perhaps his mind was full of beautiful thoughts about God. Then he saw a sight that was definitely not beautiful: a man, his head caked with blood, some of his teeth knocked out, completely naked, his body bruised and bloody. The man made a feeble plea for help. The priest turned up his nose and looked away. The priest thought, I do not know this man. He is not a priest like me. He is not my neighbor. He is not of my social class. So the priest, "passed by on the other side."

Over thirty years ago, I lived in North Charleston SC, and one morning I was out jogging, and, as I jumped over a pothole, I tripped and sprained my ankle. It was a bad sprain. It hurt so much that for a while all I could do was lay there on the sidewalk. It was early morning, maybe 7 o'clock. People were driving by on their way to work, and they all looked at me. I had on an old pair of cut-off jeans and a raggedy football jersey. I had not shaved or combed my hair, so I suppose that I did not look like much. So, guess what? Not one person stopped to see if I was having a heart attack or a stroke or if I needed help, which I did at the time. Eventually the pain eased up, and I was able to get up and limp home, but I have not thought well of N. Charleston ever since And I can imagine how the man in the ditch felt when the priest "passed by on the other side."

The priest is a particularly uncomfortable figure for me. He was the religious professional, the minister, the clergyman. He knew what he was supposed to do. He had the proper religious knowledge, but somehow that knowledge did not seep down to his heart. The priest represents all those people who know the gospel but do not live the gospel, and if they do not live it, then they are no better off for knowing it.


Then came the Levite. The OT Levite was like the NT elder or deacon. He was the leading layman in the church. Like the priest, and the lawyer, he knew that he was supposed to love God and love his neighbor as himself, but as he looked upon this unlovely and unfortunate victim by the road, he thought, This man is not my neighbor. I do not owe him anything. He is probably no good anyway. So the Levite also "passed by on the other side."

Now this parable is not necessarily saying that a particular class of people is bad. It does not mean that all elders and deacons and preachers are hypocrites. Actually I think that Jesus told the parable this way for shock value. The priest and the Levite, were the most respected figures of the Jewish religious establishment. Both of them asked the question: Who is my neighbor? Both of them had in their minds a little list of answers to that question. My neighbor is my family. My neighbor is my friends, and the man in the ditch is not on the list, so they shrugged and "passed by on the other side."


Then "a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was." That a Samaritan would be on the Jericho road was unusual. The Samaritans were the hated enemies of the Jews, and the two nations had little or nothing to do with each other. If a Samaritan listed neighbors, certainly no Jews would be on the list. The Samaritan had not one reason why he should help this wounded Jew. He had every reason to kick the man in the head and spit on him while he was down. But surprise! When the Samaritan saw the man, "He had compassion on him, and went to him, and bound up his wounds." The Samaritan helped the man up upon his donkey and took him to an inn and paid for a room and medical treatment and clothes. The Samaritan did far more for the man in the ditch than even the man's best friends could have been expected to do.


Then Jesus said to the lawyer, "Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbor unto him that fell among the thieves?" The lawyer gave the obvious answer, "He that showed mercy on him." Jesus said, "Go, and do thou likewise."

But notice that the question that Jesus asked the lawyer at the conclusion of the parable is not the question that the lawyer asked at the beginning of the parable. The lawyer's question was, "Who is my neighbor?" That is the wrong question because that question implies that some people are neighbors and some are not. In the parable, both the priest and the Levite asked the lawyer's question, and they concluded that the man in the ditch was not their neighbor. They were wrong because that is the wrong question. The Samaritan did not ask, "Who is my neighbor?" The Samaritan asked, "Whose neighbor am I?"

The lawyer asked for a definition of the word "neighbor." He wanted Jesus to list the kind of person he ought to regard as neighbor. If Jesus had said, Your neighbor is the person who lives nearby you--which is, as I have already mentioned, the definition we ordinarily give of neighbor--then the lawyer could have said, All right then, I do not have to love anyone who is not from my town, and I certainly do not have to love anyone who is not a Jew like you and me. Or, perhaps the lawyer thought that Jesus would define neighbor in terms of church membership. If you want to know who your neighbor is, check the church membership rolls. Or, perhaps the lawyer thought that Jesus would define neighbor in terms of relationship to God. Any of God's elect is your neighbor. The problem with that is that only God knows who his elect are.

But Jesus refused to play that game. He refused to define who our neighbor is. He said that is the wrong end of the question. You ought to turn it around. It is not who your neighbor is that you ought to be thinking about. It is what kind of neighbor you are that you ought to be thinking about.


In other words, Jesus is asking, do we have the kind of love that seeks to do good to those people that we come in contact with, whomever they may be. Thomas Aquinas once said that "To love someone is nothing else than to wish that person good," which is fine as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough. The priest and the Levite might have wished the injured man well. The priest might have said, "Bless you my child" even as he passed by him on the other side--which did not help very much. To love someone is more than wishing him well. It is acting upon that wish.

The Samaritan was the one person in the parable who did not have the proper religious knowledge. The lawyer, to whom Jesus was speaking, the priest and the Levite in the parable, were all people who knew their Bible. To put it in a modern context, they were church people who knew the gospel and professed to believe in Jesus Christ. The Samaritan was the heretic, the one whose theology was suspect, but Jesus says that he is the only one who really knows the gospel, because he lives it. He actually does something.

Whose neighbor then am I? I am neighbor to that person who has a need that I can do something about. Notice what I did not say. I did not say that I am neighbor to all humankind--because the parable does not say that. The good Samaritan did not say, "I love everybody." He just helped one man in the ditch. This parable is not about universal brotherhood. It is about doing something good for the people that we actually come in contact with.

Strange as it may seem some people prefer just the opposite. Some people find it easier to love humankind in general than to love one person in particular. Some people have enthusiastic schemes for the service of all humankind, yet they are incapable of living in the same room with the same person for two days. They love humankind. They detest individual human beings. Thus, they can never understand the commandment: Love thy neighbor—because it is just exactly their neighbor whom they cannot love. They can love people of faraway and long ago. They cannot love people that they actually know.

But the parable of the good Samaritan shows us a practical love. Jesus says that there is little practical use in talking about how much we love people we do not know and have never met. We do not have the power to help them, and so we cannot truly be neighbor to them. So we ought to help the people that we can help.

Years ago, my father died suddenly of a heart attack. I was in such shock and grief that I do not remember much about the funeral, but one little incident does stand out in my mind. One of our neighbors stopped by to speak to me after the funeral. His name was Masters. I never knew his first name. He was a lot older than I was so I always just called him Mr. Masters. Mr. Masters took me by the hand, and said, "A few years ago, when it was time to plant in the spring. My tractor broke down, and I could not get it fixed, and everyone else was plowing, and I could not even hire anyone to plow my field for me. Your father brought his tractor up to my place and plowed my field for me, and would not even take any money for it. I have never forgotten that. Your father was a real neighbor." Now, Mr. Masters also died several years ago, but I appreciated very much what he had to say about my father, and as you can see, I have not forgotten it either. He was right. My father was a real neighbor to him, because he acted like a neighbor. He helped where he could, and that is all that any of us can do.

In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus demands that our actions be based upon a certain principle. The principal is love. It is love that says I am neighbor to the man in the ditch, to the man whose tractor has broken down, to the child that has lost a toy, to the woman who has lost a husband.

Love makes us responsible. The priest and the Levite could not say that they had no duty to the man who had been robbed. Love taught otherwise. It did not matter whether he was of their kind, of their class or nation or race. What he was was not the point. The point was what they were. The point was their love, the condition of their heart, their relationship with God.

Love demanded that they get involved. They had the opportunity to get involved. They had the power and ability to get involved. They had no excuse to pass by on the other side. Nor do we. When the lawyer understood the parable, that the good Samaritan was the good neighbor, Jesus said, "Go, and do thou likewise." He was not talking only to the lawyer. He was talking to you and me. He was saying to you and me, "Go and do thou likewise." Amen.


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