The story of the Good Samaritan is probably one of the most well-known stories in the bible and in many ways has become a cliché for being helpful, but that is not at all what the story is meant to convey. This parable has a much deeper meaning that we need to unpack, it challenges us to change our way of thinking and to change how we view the world and ourselves.
As a reminder, the story Jesus told to the lawyer went like this: A man was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho and he was mugged and left for dead. When a Priest came along, he avoided him, and when a Levite came along, he also avoided him. The next person to come along was a Samaritan, who took it upon himself to care for the man until he was healed.
To fully understand the meaning of this story I think it is important that we understand who all the characters are. First, we have the lawyer or in some translations a religious scholar, he would have been very familiar with Hebrew Scripture and law. Second, we have Jesus who needs no introduction. Third we have the priest, who is a devout follower of Judaism and a person responsible for making sacrifices on behalf of the Jewish community. The fourth, is a Levite, who would have been an assistant to the priests at the temple, they were the caretakers of the Torah and other important furnishings of the temple. The fifth character is the Samaritan, the Samaritan is a follow of Samaritanism which believes that their form of Judaism is the correct form that was maintained by the Jews who remained in Israel during the Babylonian Captivity, their primary objection to Judaism is that the location of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem is not the correct location for the temple. They believe the temple should be placed at Mount Gerizim, which is about 40 miles north of Jerusalem. This seemingly minor difference was enough to keep the Samaritans and the Jews completely separated from one another. Jews saw Samaritans as being unfaithful to the Law of Moses and the feeling was mutual.
Now that we know who the players are, lets take a deeper look at what is going on in Luke’s Gospel. The Lawyer is a faithful Jew, who already knows the answer to his own question, he is simply doing his job and trying to see if Jesus is corrupting the teaches of Moses and was probably only included by Luke as a means to give the story of the Good Samaritan some context, Jesus is regularly questioned by people in positions of power, it is simply a part of being a teacher. The Priest and the Levite in the story are both faithful Jews and we should not assume that they ignored the man on the road because they are bad or uncaring people. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho is a long and dangerous one, perhaps the Priest and the Levite thought it was unsafe to approach a stranger in the middle of nowhere. Perhaps they thought it might be a trick to rob them. Or perhaps because they were faithful Jews, they were afraid that if they touched someone who appeared to be dead, they would become unclean, which is a violation of the law of Moses. Both the Priest and the Levite are on the path that they believe God has set them on, they have chosen to live their lives by a certain set of rules and their avoidance of the apparent dead body might be nothing more than their attempt to remain on that path. Now the Samaritan, who believes God has called him to live his life on a different path is moved to assist the man and he does so. What Luke is doing here is showing us that the path to eternal life, the path of Jesus, is filled with choices and that the correct choice, the choice God desires, is the way of love and compassion for others. The Samaritan followed many of the same laws as the priest and the Levite, one of which is Love your neighbor as yourself, but the difference between the three of them is that the Samaritan had a wider view of who his neighbor was, for the Samaritan the stranger was his neighbor.
We cannot limit our definition of neighbor as we strive to follow the path God has laid before us. The story of the good Samaritan is not meant to reinforce the idea that we need to be nice people, it is meant to show us that we need to change our thinking. I draw your attention back to who asked Jesus the question. The lawyer does not need Jesus to tell him what the rules are, he already knows he is supposed to be a good person. What Luke is doing is showing that God, through Jesus, is calling us to change course, to follow a slightly different path. The path that the Priest and the Levite are following adheres to a strict set of rules and those rules require the exclusion of many people. The Samaritan follows a similar set of rules but seeing the need of the injured man he abandoned those rules in favor of showing compassion. Through that act the Samaritan stepped off the path that was primarily based on human understanding and onto the path that requires an intimate and loving relationship with God. Through the Samaritan God’s healing love and compassion was able to reach the man who was injured. Now this would have been shocking to the lawyer who is questioning Jesus, because his question is attempting to find out how to define who deserves his love. He knows that the law says to love your neighbor, but he wants a clear answer as to who that neighbor is, even though he already fully knows that Jewish law defines it as other Jews. Jesus, however, did not answer the question he was asked, instead he reorients their conversation away from the idea that one’s love should be limited to a certain group of people and instead shows that love seeks out neighbors who need compassion even when established boundaries or prejudices conspire against it. The parable of the good Samaritan should not be thought of as a simple, let’s be helpful story. It is a scriptural GPS, rerouting us in the only direction God desires, the way of love and compassion for everyone, no matter who they are or where they come from. If we consistently follow the path set for us by God, if we use the phrase “Love your neighbor as yourself” as our compass in all things, and when I say all things, I mean all things. We should never make a decision without checking it against our scriptural GPS to see if what we want to do is off course, and if it is, then we need to change directions.