Why the Samaritan?

Vincent van Gogh, 1890. Kröller-Müller Museum....

The Good Samaritan
Vincent van Gogh, 1890
Photo credit: wikiphoto

Luke 10:25-37 – The Parable of the Good Samaritan

25 There was a scholar of the law who stood up to test him and said, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” 27 He said in reply, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” 28 He replied to him, “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.” 29 But because he wished to justify himself, he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man fell victim to robbers as he went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. They stripped and beat him and went off leaving him half-dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down that road, but when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. 32 Likewise a Levite came to the place, and when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. 33 But a Samaritan traveler who came upon him was moved with compassion at the sight. 34 He approached the victim, poured oil and wine over his wounds and bandaged them. Then he lifted him up on his own animal, took him to an inn and cared for him. 35 The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper with the instruction, ‘Take care of him. If you spend more than what I have given you, I shall repay you on my way back.’ 36 Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?” 37 He answered, “The one who treated him with mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Introduction

Here are the verses which immediately precede our gospel from Luke 10:

21 At that very moment he rejoiced (in) the holy Spirit and said, “I give you praise, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike.  Yes, Father, such has been your gracious will. 22 All things have been handed over to me by my Father. No one knows who the Son is except the Father, and who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him.” 23 Turning to the disciples in private he said, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see. 24 For I say to you, many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.”

Jesus has thanked the Father for hiding “these things” from “the wise and the learned” (v.:21), and now a “scholar of the law,” whom we would think is wise and learned, comes to test Jesus. In the end Jesus tells a parable is which other wise and learned men, religious leaders of Israel, the parable, both the religious leaders and the Samaritan “see” the man in the ditch (vv. 31-32). Will they “see” what Jesus desire to reveal to them or will it be hidden from them?

And there are verse which follow our pericope. This text should be not studied in isolation from what follows — the story of Mary and Martha (vv. 38-42) — our gospel for the Sunday following the reading of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. An interesting contrast is presented with these two texts. The lawyer asks, “What must I do? (v. 25) and he is told twice to “do this” (poieo v.28, v.37; the present tense in Greek would mean “continuously do”). This emphasis on “doing” could easily become the busyness of Martha. This busyness is in contrast to the continual listening of Mary (v.39). In both stories there are unexpected actions — a Samaritan who cares and helps a Jewish man; and a woman who sits as a disciple and listens and learns. The Samaritan is told to “go and do likewise,” while Mary is praised for not going and doing. The Samaritan shows us about loving our neighbor. Mary shows us about loving our Lord. Both are vital in living our lives Christianly and together give a complete picture of Christian discipleship in terms of love of neighbor (active service) and love of Jesus (prayer).

Commentary

A Question About Eternal Life There was a scholar of the law who stood up to test him and said, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” The scholar asks a good question, even is there some sense of opposition in the asking of the question (ekpeirazō – put to the test).  Jesus, instead asking his own question, accepts the scholar’s answer: “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.”

The scholar’s question “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” is one that raises questions in the simple phrasing of the question – especially give that Jesus accepts his answer.  As Brian Stoffregen thinks the question of inheritance is “really stupid. I would like to think that there is something I could do to inherit some of Bill Gates’ fortune… An inheritance is usually determined by the giver, not the receiver.”  Some commentaries, operating out of their theology of salvation, claim the scholar was thinking of some form of salvation by works and had no understanding of divine grace.  They do not see Jesus as accepting the question, but only the answer to Jesus’ own question. I would suggest they have pre-interpreted the text – clearly Jesus commands “doing” love not simply being in a state of love. Catholic understanding is not the “either-or”, i.e., do this and not that, but rather “both-and.”  From the 4th century onwards Catholic theology and teaching have declared “works salvation” as outside orthodoxy, i.e., a person can do things and thus earn salvation. The Church teaches that salvation is from grace alone – the grace which enables us to respond in faith and in action to the gift of God. Yes, orthodox Catholic are about “doing,” but never in the sense that we have “earned” something that then places a claim upon God, but rather compelled by the love of God, how could we but do otherwise?

What is written in the law? How do you read it?”  Jesus responds to the lawyer’s question with these two questions of his own. It is generally easy to agree on “What is written;” the problem is usually in the second part, “How do you read it?” or “how do you interpret it?”  This is not only personally important to the scholar but also to his place in Jewish society. The particular Greek word for read (anaginosko) suggests that reading was always done aloud and generally publicly. Jesus does this in the synagogue at Nazareth (4:16). Jesus’ second question may go further and imply, “How do you interpret the law to others?”

The scholar answers with the twice-daily repeated shema from Dt 6:5 — except that he adds “mind” or “understanding” to the Hebrew text — and he includes a command from Lv 19:18 about loving one’s neighbor as one’s self. They combine to illustrate the way to everlasting life given in the scholar’s answer (v. 27). This combination was evidently original with Jesus (Mark 12:29–31) and perhaps known to the lawyer, who used it when Jesus turned the question back to him. There are additional notes on these OT passages at the end of the commentary.

But because he wished to justify himselfTo “justify himself” the scholar raises the disputed question about the identity of the neighbor. When the scholar refers to the Leviticus text, the neighbor is one’s fellow Israelite (see note on Luke 10:29 for detailed information about “neighbor” in OT usage). Jesus’ response is the parable of the Good Samaritan. As a parable, the story of the Good Samaritan is intended to challenge a wrong but accepted pattern of thought so that values of the kingdom can break into a sealed system.

“With Jesus, the device of parabolic utterance is used not to explain things to people’s satisfaction but to call attention to the unsatisfactoriness of all their previous explanations and understandings.” (Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of the Kingdom, p. 6)

The unsatisfactoriness of the parable lies with those one would expect to fulfill the two great commandments. Since the man was ‘half-dead’ the priest would probably not have been able to be certain whether he was dead or not without touching him. But if he touched him and the man was in fact dead, then he would have incurred the ceremonial defilement that the Law forbade (Lev. 21:1ff.). He could be sure of retaining his ceremonial purity only by leaving the man alone. Ceremonial purity that won the day. Not only did he not help, he went to the other side of the road. He deliberately avoided any possibility of contact. Other factors may have weighed with him, such as the possibility that the robbers might return, the nature of his business, and so on. We do not know. We do know that the priest left the man where he was in his suffering and his need. Much the same happened when a Levite came by. He also was a religious personage and might be expected to be interested in helping a man in need. But he also was a man interested in ceremonial purity. He also thought it better not to get involved. And he also passed by on the other side.

The two operated out of the paradigm current in the scholars mind. It is probably best captured by William Danker’s expansion on the question: “I am willing to love my neighbor as myself, but don’t get me involved with the wrong neighbor.” It is another way of saying “who do I have to help (and who can I ignore)?”

Green (The Gospel of Luke¸426) interprets the question this way:

Whereas Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Plain had eliminated the lines that might be drawn between one’s “friends” and one’s “enemies,” this legal expert hopes to reintroduce this distinction. He does so by inquiring “Who is my neighbor?” –  not so much to determine to whom he must show love, but so as to calculate the identity of those to whom he need not show love. By the end of the story, Jesus has transformed the focus of the original question: in fact, Jesus’ apparent attempt to answer the lawyer’s question turns out to be a negation of that question’s premise. Neighbor love knows no boundaries.

Joachim Jeremias takes a similar approach in his presentation of this dialogue:

Lawyer: “What is the limit of my responsibility?”

Jesus’ answer: “Think of the sufferer, put yourself in his place, consider, who needs help from me? Then you will see that love’s demand knows no limit.”

Jesus shockingly moves directly to the one limitation that would have been clear and deeply ingrained in the psyche of an observant Jew. This it does by showing a Samaritan, a member of the people despised and ridiculed by Jews, performing a loving service avoided by Jewish religious leaders. This would have been shocking and, for many Jews, unbelievable and unacceptable.

A failing of the scholar is that he is only concerned about himself. This is in contrast to the Samaritan in the parable who expresses his concern for the other person, even crossing established borders and limits to “acceptable behavior.”

A Samaritan was the last person who might have been expected to help – actions which reveal more than simple help, but a great deal of compassion. He attended to the beaten man. Wine would have been used for cleaning the wounds (the alcohol in it would have had an antiseptic effect). Oil, i.e. olive oil, would have eased the pain. The two appear to have been widely used by both Jews and Greeks. Perhaps a touch of irony is included as oil and wine were commonly used in Temple sacrifice. The wounded man was too weak to walk, so the Samaritan set him on his own beast (which meant that he himself had to walk), and so brought him to an inn. There he took care of him. The Samaritan did not regard his duty as done when he had brought the man to shelter. He continued to look after him.

He gave the innkeeper two denarii on account, and instructed him to look after the man. Jerimas reports that such an amount would have covered room and board for two weeks. Moreover, whatever additional costs the innkeeper might incur, the Samaritan undertook to refund on his way back. The Samaritan did more than the minimum. He saw a man in need and did all he could as compassion commanded.

This story gives a vivid example of the fulfillment of the love commandment. The lawyer’s question implies that someone is not my neighbor. Jesus’ story replies that there is no one who is not my neighbor. “Neighbor” is not a matter of blood bonds or nationality or religious communion; it is determined by the attitude a person has toward others. The priest and the Levite were well-versed in the demands of God’s law and, like the scholar, would surely have been able to interpret it for others. But they missed its deepest purpose, while the Samaritan, by practicing love, showed that he understood the law.

“Go and do likewise”  Probably the most common understanding of this text is that we are to act like the Samaritan in the text, rather than the priest or the Levite. He “sees” and “has compassion” (splagchnizomai) on the needy man in the ditch. He “cares” (epimelo – v. 34) for the man in the ditch. He also asks the innkeeper to “care” (epimelo – v. 35). The Samaritan doesn’t provide all of the direct aid to the needy man. He is also described by the lawyer as the one “doing mercy” (poieo to eleos).

The verbs used with the Samaritan are worth emulating: to have compassion others; to come (near) to others; to care for others; to do mercy to others. It is not enough just to know what the Law says, one must also do it. To put it another way, it is not enough just to talk about “what one believes,” but “what difference does it make in my life that I believe.”

In addition, the description of the robbers’ work on the dead man indicate that there would be no identifying marks about his status, his occupation, his race. How would the scholar (or the Samaritan) know if this half-dead man was a neighbor or not? He is a person who needs a neighbor. Who will respond? Who will come near? (The basic meaning of “neighbor” is Greek is “to be near”)

But why a Samaritan? (see the notes on Luke 10:33 for the historical and religious differences between the Jews and Samaritans).

Brian Stoffregen has interesting insights into this answer: If Jesus were just trying to communicate that we should do acts of mercy to the needy, he could have talked about the first man and the second man who passed by and the third one who stopped and cared for the half-dead man in the ditch. Knowing that they were a priest, Levite, and Samaritan is not necessary.

If Jesus were also making a gibe against clerics, we would expect the third man to be a layman — an ordinary Jew — in contrast to the professional clergy. It is likely that Jewish hearers would have anticipated the hero to be an ordinary Jew. (see note on Luke 10:29)

If Jesus were illustrating the need to love our enemies, then the man in the ditch would have been a Samaritan who is cared for by a loving Israelite.

One answer to the question: “Why a Samaritan?” is that we Christians might be able to learn about showing mercy from people who don’t profess Christ. I know that I saw much more love expressed towards each by the clients at an inpatient alcoholic/drug rehab hospital than I usually find in churches. Can we learn about “acting Christianity” from AA or the Hell’s Angels?

Green (The Gospel of Luke, 431) comments:

“The parable of the compassionate Samaritan thus undermines the determination of status in the community of God’s people on the basis of ascription [Green had noted earlier that priests and Levites are born into those positions], substituting in its place a concern with performance, the granting of status on the basis of one’s actions.”

This approach highlights some of the Luke’s themes: Since the man in the ditch had been stripped of anything that might identify him by social class, or perhaps even nationality; he is helped simply because he is a person in need. There should be no distinctions about whom we are to help. In addition, the help involved the use of one’s resources. For Luke, wealth is not necessarily evil, it depends upon how it is used.

The Man in the Ditch

Scott (Jesus, Symbol-Maker for the Kingdom, 29) summarizes the parable as follows: “The parable can be summarized as follows: to enter the kingdom one must get into the ditch and be served by one’s mortal enemy.” He expands a little later: “Grace comes to those who cannot resist, who have no other alternative than to accept it. To enter the parable’s World, to get into the ditch, is to be so low that grace is the only alternative. The point may be so simple as this: only he who needs grace can receive grace” (31).

Funk (Parables and Presence, 33) adds to this image.

A Jew who was excessively proud of his blood line and a chauvinist about his tradition would not permit a Samaritan to touch him, much less minister to him. In going from Galilee to Judea, he would cross and recross the Jordan to avoid going through Samaria. The parable therefore forces upon its hearers the question: who among you will permit himself or herself to be served by a Samaritan? In a general way it can be replied that that only those who have nothing to lose by so doing can afford to do so. But note that the victim in the ditch is given only a passive role in the story. Permission to be served by the Samaritan is thus inability to resist. Put differently, all who are truly victims, truly disinherited, have no choice but to give themselves up to mercy. The despised half-breed has become the instrument of grace: as listeners, the Jews choke on the irony.

He concludes his comments on this parable quite succinctly (34) :

… the parable of the Good Samaritan may be reduced to two propositions:

1. In the Kingdom of God mercy comes only to those who have no right to expect it and who cannot resist it when it comes.

2. Mercy always comes from the quarter from which one does not and cannot expect it.

An enterprising theologian might attempt to reduce these two sentences to one: In the kingdom mercy is always a surprise.

Notes

Luke 10:25 scholar of the law: an expert in the Mosaic law, and probably a member of the group elsewhere identified as the scribes (Luke 5:21). Luke uses a more technical term for “lawyer” (nomikos, related to the word for “law” = nomos) rather than “scribe,” who were also considered experts in the Law (Torah). Six of the nine times this word nomikos is used in the NT they are in Luke. The only time it is used previous to our text, we are told: “but the Pharisees and scholars of the law, who were not baptized by him, rejected the plan of God for themselves.” (7:30). The image of “scholars of law” (NAB preferred translation) or “lawyers” does not improve through the gospel (11:45, 46, 52; 14:3). The reader should already be a bit suspect when a scholar of the law approaches.

Luke 10:25 test: ekpeirazō, literally, “put to the test.”  This is not a neutral expression but rather connotes at least some degree of opposition.  Some scholars do not assign the lawyer an adversarial role, suggesting that the text indicates otherwise. The scholars calls Jesus “teacher,” respectfully. Jesus engages him as an equal as indicated by responding to the lawyer’s first question with a question. Jesus agrees with the answer. Jesus responds to the second question with a story followed by a question, and again the lawyer and Jesus are in agreement.

Luke 10: 25 inherit eternal life: The same question reoccurs in Luke 18:18.  Interestingly, Luke this combination of words does not occur in the Torah (the Law). In other words, it is an odd phrasing of the question from someone whose expertise is the Torah. The “inheritance” promised  (kitēronomia) promised the people is the land (Gen 28:4; Dt 1:8, 2:12, 4:1; cf. Acts 7:5).  Ps 15 (LXX) speaks of the Lord as one’s inheritance.  Other verses speak of eternal life (Dan 12:2) and others.  In the NT, the idea of an eternal inheritance is found only in Hebrews 9:15 (although suggested in 1 Peter 1:4).  “Eternal life” in mentioned frequently in the NT.

Luke 10:27 and with all your mind: With only minor variations, Luke has quoted Dt 6:5 but has added “and with all your mind”  your neighbor as yourself: This is an exact citation from Lev 19:18.

Unlike Mark 12:29–31; Matt. 22:37–40, where Deut. 6:5 and Lev. 19:18 are separately listed as the prōtē (“first”) and the deutera (“second”) of the greatest commandments, the two are merged into one in Luke in Jesus’ dialogue with the scholar of the law. The contexts of both passages are also alluded to in Luke’s account. First, these two passages appear in a dialogue concerning the inheritance of eternal life: ti poiēsas zōēn aiōnion klēronomēsō (“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”). An allusion to the wider context of Deut. 6 can be detected in that the observance of these commandments is required for the inheritance of the land:

Do what is right and good in the sight of the LORD, that you may, according to his word, prosper, and may enter in and possess [klēronomēsēs; inherit] the good land which the LORD promised on oath to your fathers” (Deut. 6:18).  In addition, the reference to zōēn aiōnion (“eternal life”) may also be an allusion to Deut. 6:24: “…the LORD commanded us to observe …that we may always have as prosperous and happy a life [zōmen].”  The attainment of salvation is understood in light of the ancient promises to Israel.

Luke 10:28 do this: poieo; the present tense in Greek would mean “continuously do”. This is parallel to the business of Martha in the following pericope. There poieo is not used of her work, but more “religious” words for “service” or “ministry” (diakonia/diakoneo) are used in v. 40.

An allusion to the wider context of Lev. 19:18 can also be identified in the verse that follows Luke’s citation of the OT texts: touto poiei kai zēsē (“do this, and you will live”). This verse brings to mind Deut. 6:24, but its affinity with Lev. 18:5 is to be noted with the use of poieō (“do”) and zaō (“live”): “You shall keep all my commandments, and all my judgments, and do [poiēsete] them; and if a person does [poiēsas] so, he shall live [zēsetai] by them.”

Luke 10:29 who is my neighbor: Lev 19:18 makes “sons of your own people,” i.e., fellow Israelites, as neighbors. Later Lev 19:33-34 extends this understanding to ger – the stranger or sojourner in the land.  The Septuagint (LXX) translated ger as “proselyte” giving a more narrow understanding of the term to those drawn to Judaism.  In the understanding of the Pharisees the limitations on interactions with non-Jews was extensive (see m. Abodah Zarah 1:1, 2:1-2, 4:9-10)

The focus is on the definition of one’s “neighbor.” To appreciate the power of this parable, the listing of priest, Levite, and Samaritan may be significant. Scholar have shown that forms of the trilogy “priests, Levites, and people” are common in postexilic texts (1 Chron. 28:21; 2 Chron. 34:30; 35:2–3, 8, 18; Ezra 2:70; 7:7, 13; 8:15; 9:1; 10:5, 18–22, 25–43; Neh. 7:73; 8:13; 9:38; 10:28; 11:3, 20; cf. 1QS II, 11, 19–21), and this is what first-century Jews would have expected. The appearance of the Samaritan instead of a lay Judean is therefore striking, and this directly challenges the Jewish interpretation of the “neighbor” of Lev. 19:18.Two specific OT passages may have further contributed to this parable. First, the story of the compassionate Samaritans in 2 Chron. 28:8–15 provides a conceptual parallel to Jesus’ parable. Second, Hos. 6:6 may also have played a part, where one finds the discussion of mercy (or love) in the context of the cultic practices of Israel.

Luke 10:30 Jesus replied: hypolambanō – used for the understanding of a point and then furthering that understanding in the following response.  A man: from the context of the on going conversation, the “man” of the story is himself a Judean. robbers: lēstēs is used by Josephus for organized bands of highwaymen who made traveling perilous. (Jewish Wars 2:228-230).  he went down from Jerusalem to Jericho: Given Jericho was 3,500 feet lower in altitude, “down” is geographically correct. Augustine, allegorizing the parable, saying that the descent was from the heavenly city (Jerusalem) to the one that signified mortality (Jericho). The 17 mile journey was desolate and rocky and filled with places for an ambush. half-dead: the term in unclear in Greek usage. It may mean the man appeared unconscious and corpse-like or so badly injured that his life was in peril.

Luke 10:31-32 Priest . . . Levite: those religious representatives of Judaism who would have been expected to be models of “neighbor” to the victim pass him by. The priests and Levites were not among the wealthy or aristocracy, but where part of the religious leadership.  They were also subject to purity regulations which limited their contact with others – Jews as well as Samaritans. It is likely the story, while contrasting Jews and Samaritans at one level, is more pointedly contrasting those who were established and recognized as part of the people and those who were not (ger – see note on Luke 10:29).

Luke 10:33 Samaritan: Luke has already noted hostility to Jesus’ ministry (9:53). Who are the Samaritans? Samaritan Version. The Samaritans have insisted that they are direct descendants of the N Israelite tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, who survived the destruction of the N kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians in 722 b.c.e. The inscription of Sargon II records the deportation of a relatively small proportion of the Israelites (27,290, according to the annals [ANET, 284–85]), so it is quite possible that a sizable population remained that could identify themselves as Israelites, the term that the Samaritans prefer for themselves. Samaritan theology of history would place the basic schism with the South at the time Eli moved the sanctuary from Shechem to Shiloh, establishing both an illegitimate priesthood and place of worship. From the time of Moses until that move was the Era of Divine Favor. With that move began the Era of Disfavor, which would exist until the coming of the Taheb or savior.  Old Testament Version. Jewish accounts, characterized by 2 Kings 17 and Josephus (Ant 9.277–91) claim that the Samaritans are descendants of colonists brought into the region of Samaria by the Assyrians from other lands they had conquered, including Cuthah, and thus the Jewish designation of Samaritans as Cutheans (Ant 9.290). The Jews have argued that the veneer of Israelite religion displayed by the Samaritans is the result of instruction by an Israelite priest repatriated from Assyria after the colonists had been attacked by lions sent by God (2 Kings 17:25–26).

moved with compassion: splagchnizomai; this term is most commonly used by Luke to express the divine compassion revealed in Jesus.

Luke 10:36 Which of these…was neighbor: Jesus reverses the question from one of legal obligation (who deserves my love) to one of gift-giving (to whom can I show my love as neighbor).

Sources

  • R. Alan Culpepper, Luke in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995) 00. 226-30
  • Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, vol. 3 of Sacra Pagina, ed. Daniel J. Harrington (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991) pp. 171-76
  • Jerome Kodell, “Luke” in The Collegeville Bible Commentary, eds. Diane Bergant and Robert J. Karris (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1989) p.957
  • Leon Morris,. Luke: An introduction and commentary. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries Vol. 3: (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988) pp.205–9.
  • Joel Green, The Gospel of Luke, vol 3 of The New International Commentary on the New Testament ed. Gorden Fee (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1997)
  • Arland Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 2000) pp. 93-103
  • Joachim Jeremias, Parables of Jesus 2nd Edition (Princeton, NJ: Prentiss Hall, 1992)
  • Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of the Kingdom (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1985), p.6
  • Robert Walker Funk, Parables and Presence: Forms of the New Testament Tradition (Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Pr; 1982) pp.33-4
  • Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995)
  • G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI;  Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic;  Apollos, 2007) 319–322
  • Brian Stoffregen, “Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes” at www.crossmarks.com
  • Scripture quotes from New American Bible by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC.
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One thought on “Why the Samaritan?

  1. Pingback: The choices we make | friarmusings

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