It’s one of the most famous stories Jesus ever told. A beautiful stranger helps a man left for dead when his own people disdain and forsake him. Those who ignore his sufferings are Levites and Priests – the holiest of the holy. The stranger is a Samaritan – from that race of hated half-breeds to the north. Nonetheless he shows incredible compassion. And Jesus ends with that famous imperative: “Go and do thou likewise.”
And so it is generally assumed that this is a simple morality tale. We conclude that Jesus wants us to copy this good ethical practice. Or He wants to break down racial divides and show that love is the heart of it all. Or… what is the point of this parable?
First notice the question that prompts the story. The lawyer asks “Who is my neighbour?” (v29). When Jesus finishes the story He asks the crowd who was neighbour to the one left for dead? (v36). Therefore the key interpretive question is this: With whom is Jesus asking us to identify? The priest? The Levite? The Samaritan?
None of the above. Not first of all. First and foremost. we are asked to see ourselves as the man left for dead. And from his perspective we are to assess who is a good neighbour. This is the first clue – we are meant to put ourselves in the shoes of the fallen man.
Why do I say “fallen”? Well the man’s fallenness is triply-underlined in v30. He “goes down” from Jerusalem (which in Biblical imagery is an earthly counterpart to the heavenly Zion). He is heading towards the outskirts of the land (Jericho) which is due east of this mountain sanctuary (notice the echoes of Eden). This would involve a physical descent of about a thousand metres in the space of just 23 miles. If that wasn’t bad enough, the man “falls” among robbers. He is stripped, plagued (literally that’s the word in v30), abandoned and half-dead. Here is the man’s predicament. And Jesus wants us to see it as our predicament. So what hope do we have?
The priest? No, no hope there. The Levite? No chance. What about a “certain Samaritan”? (Notice how the “certain” mirrors the “certain man” of v30)? This Samaritan is the answer to the fallen man.
And this man is nothing like the religious. In fact he would equally have been shunned by the priest and Levite!
Yet this Samaritan “had compassion” (v33). In the New Testament this verb, which could be translated “he was moved in his bowels with pity”, is used only of Jesus. (Matt. 9:36; 14:14; 15:32; 18:27; 20:34; Mk. 1:41; 6:34; 8:2; 9:22; Lk. 7:13; 10:33; 15:20) In every narrative passage Jesus is the subject of the verb and the three parables in which it is used are the merciful King of Matthew 18 (v27), this story, and the father with the two sons (Luke 15:20).
Well this Good Samaritan comes across the man left for dead and, for emphasis, we are twice told about him “coming” to the man (v33 and 34). The Outsider identifies with the spurned and wretched.
Now remember whose shoes we are in as Jesus tells this story. We are meant to imagine ourselves as this brutalised, fallen man. Now read from v33:
“As he journeyed, [he] came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him, 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. 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.” (Luke 10:33-35)
So, there you are in your half-dead wretchedness. Religion has been no help to you, but this beautiful stranger does everything. He comes near, takes pity, heals, carries, cares and pays for it all. A penny was a day’s wage (Matthew 20:2). The inn keeper is given two pence. We therefore assume that when he “comes again” it will be the third day. Then he will bring to completion the work he has begun.
Are we in the picture? Have we put ourselves in the shoes of the fallen man? Have we appreciated the love of the good Samaritan?
Well then, now:
“Go and do thou likewise” (v37)
Don’t first conjure up the character of the good Samaritan. First be the fallen man. First experience the compassion of this loving Outsider. Then go and do likewise.
This is not a simple morality tale. The centre is not our resolve to be good Samaritans. The Centre is Christ Himself. If we miss Him in any part of Scripture we turn gospel into law and blessings into curses.