Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

121. The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37)*

The Gospels mention two occasions when Jesus found himself in discussion with a scribe or lawyer about the first great commandment. So inevitably the question arises whether perhaps they are different versions of the same incident.

Whenever there are two versions of an incident with marked similarities and yet with differences, can it be assumed that they are the same (with differences that can be reconciled), or should the divergences lead to the conclusion that the occasions are distinct?

Most modern commentators assume that John's and Mark's accounts of the cleansings of the temple are the same (which they certainly are not). And the Companion Bible, normally very dependable, treats the gospel accounts of malefactors crucified with our Lord as not the same,-not very convincingly thus making five crucifixions and not three.

All such instances need to be treated on their merits, and not according to a pre-conceived idea.

Here, in Luke 10, a certain lawyer "tempted" Jesus, asking: "What shall I do to inherit eternal life?" When challenged to answer his own question he himself quoted: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God" (Dt. 6 :5), adding on to it: "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself (Lev.19 :18). When encouraged, he pressed his enquiry further: "Who is my neighbour?" This happened, if the Lucan context is to be taken account of, when Jesus was neither in Galilee nor Jerusalem.

The differences from Mark 12: 28-34 are very marked. That encounter took place in the temple court in Jerusalem. The enquiry was different: "Which is the great commandment?" The quotation of Deuteronomy 6 was made by Jesus himself, and led to a much more encouraging outcome.

So it seems highly probable that the two occasions are not to be equated with each other.

A worthy question

It is unlikely that there was any element of hostility about the lawyer's question. The word "tempted" does not have to be read in that sense. Such problems usually came from adversaries who were hoping to score points against Jesus, but this occasion hardly lends itself to that kind of interpretation. That the crux of both encounters should involve: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God," is not surprising, for this commandment was recited by devout Jews morning and evening, and would often be invoked in arguments about religious priorities.

In this case Jesus was addressed with respect, being accorded the honourable title of "Teacher", This from a man who was university-trained! And he "stood up" to ask his question. So he had surely been sitting before Jesus as a learner, a disciple.

The question itself could hardly have been more fundamental: "What shall I do to inherit eternal life? As phrased, its implications were all wrong, for a man inherits that which he has a right to, and no human being has a right to eternal life. Again, the emphasis on "What shall I do ...?" assumed that a man can earn eternal life, if only he shows enough diligence in a life of godly activity; in other words, justification by works. More than this, the form of the Greek verb suggests some special act of sacrifice or self-discipline over and above the lawyer's normal way of life.

For answer, Jesus sent him back to the Law in which he was a specialist. "How readest thou?" The question went behind the Scripture he was about to quote in order to probe also his understanding of it.

The man's summary of what is needful can only be described as brilliant. To be sure, it was comparatively easy for a college-trained scribe to go to: "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" (from Dt. 6:5). But by what superb flash of insight did he couple with this: "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself" (from Lev. 19:18)?

Text variations

It is worth while to divert from the gospel record briefly to note the remarkable variations with which this first commandment appears. The Hebrew text of Deuteronomy 6 has: "heart, soul, and might." The LXX version turns these into "mind, soul, and power"—an interesting illustration of the much-neglected truth that in the Bible "heart" often stands for "mind, intelligence, thought," and only rarely for the feelings, emotions or instincts (which are probably better represented by the word "soul"). Matthew 22 :37 has "heart, soul, mind," but Luke 10 :27 (the text under discussion) and Mark 12 :30 both have "heart, soul, strength, mind" (or mind, strength). Here the extra word may be added as a paraphrase of the two verses succeeding the commandment in the Hebrew text: "And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: and thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them, when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up." This would illuminate the phrase used by the second lawyer:"with all the understanding" (Mk. 12:33). Alternatively the word "strength" is taken to mean both "strength of body" and "strength of mind'.

Rather remarkably, in all other New Testament occurrences this word ischus means God's strength or that which He imparts to men!

There are also strange variations in the prepositions (especially in Lk.10 :27) which are difficult to include in the present discussion. The problem of verbal inspiration comes in very pointedly in passages of this sort.

Clearly Jesus was well pleased with the admirable answer suggested by his questioner: "Thou hast answered right. Keep on doing this, and thou shalt live"-meaning, of course, gain everlasting life (Lev.l8:5), for the enquiry was about that. It is easy to imagine that as Jesus said: "Do this," he pointed to the man's phylactery which certainly had the first of these two commandments written on it.

The question had been so easily disposed of that the lawyer probably felt that he had to excuse himself for putting such a straightforward problem. So he added a 'supplementary': "But who is my neighbour whom I am to love?" How wide a scope was such a general commandment to be given? Apparently, and somewhat strangely, he found little difficulty in the commandment about the love of God. But since "a man and his neighbour" is normal Jewish idiom for "anyone" (e.g. Jer.7 :5), it is not unlikely that contemporary rabbis had made ingenious attempts to evade the evident force of the words. For example, the Talmud has this: "If a Jew see a Gentile fallen into the sea, let him by no means lift him out thence. It is written: Thou shalt not rise up against the blood of thy neighbour. But this man is not thy neighbour."

In a parable quite beyond compare in its appeal to both intellect and emotions Jesus showed how far from this nationalistic exclusiveness the true meaning of the commandment really is. Any man, and especially the man in trouble and to whom you can bring direct personal aid, is your neighbour, regardless of race or religion or status or character. This is the main but by no means the only lesson Jesus sought to inculcate. It is specially important to remember that the question he was answering now was not: "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" but: "Who is my neighbour?"

A telling story

In the story a man went on the rough and often steep downhill road—twenty-one miles of it-from Jerusalem to Jericho, a descent of nearly 4000 feet. It is fairly probable that Jesus told this parable just before or just after he had walked that road, for the very next paragraph in Luke's gospel finds Jesus in the home of his friends at Bethany. The road was known in ancient times as the Ascent of Adummim-the Red Climb-because, according to Conder, a section of it is on red marl. But over the years it became a favourite haunt of brigands and robbers, so its name took on a more sinister meaning: the Ascent of Blood. A hundred years before the time of Jesus, Pompey had led a Roman legion against the brigand strongholds there. And in later times a Roman outpost was maintained on that road.

The lone traveller, going down to Jericho, was set upon by robbers and suffered grievously. Apparently he had nothing of value, so they even stripped him of his garments, and, still exasperated at the lack of plunder, they beat the man severely and then went off, leaving him helpless and sure to die.

By and by, down that road there came a priest, just off duty in the temple and going home to Jericho, which (Farrar says) was a priestly city. The common version reads that he came there "by chance." The Greek expression is unique in the New Testament and is rare in other Greek texts. There is a distinct possibility that it should carry exactly the opposite meaning: "according to the Lord's appointment." This would chime in not only with the idea of a priest just concluding service in the temple, but also with the New Testament's complete avoidance of any phrase which might imply chance or unforeseen coincidence.

From some distance away this priest saw the poor sufferer's plight. So he kept well away, and hastened on his road. He knew, of course, the commandment in the Law that there must be prompt readiness to care for the straying ox or sheep or ass of a fellow-Israelite (Dt. 22 :l-4). Then how much more ought he not to be immediately ready to give all possible help to a fellow-traveller (cp. ls.58 :7).

In his own mind this callous attitude would be fully justified without any difficulty. He had nothing wherewith to tend the man's wounds. It was hopeless to think that he miqht hoist the man on his back and carry him to safety. Besides, the man might die, and he suffer defilement, thus entailing all kinds of ceremonial inconvenience. Strongest reason of all, there were violent men in that vicinity. If he did not move as fast as his legs could carry him, his fate could be the same. "Whoso . . . seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?" comments the apostle John (1 Jn.3 :17). Yet this priest was an instructor in the law of God!

He was followed by a Levite who did at least come near enough to look at the poor man's plight, but then he too went away without raising a finger to help. It has been suggested that here the Lord was deliberately introducing an instance of the power of an evil example, the Levite having already seen the priest's avoidance of moral duty. But this will hardly do, for if the priest and Levite were travelling within sight of each other, they would surely have travelled together for the sake of greater safety. The alternative is that Jesus deliberately framed this detail this way for its instructive value, even though (as in so many others of his parables) it meant abandoning verisimilitude.

Then came a fourth traveller, who was not going down from Jerusalem. He, as soon as he set eyes on the stricken man, came up to him, all compassion (see Study 88) and eagerness to help—and he was one of the despised and hated Samaritans. Thus Jesus adroitly corrected the prejudices of his apostles who would have called fire down from heaven on a hostile Samaritan village.

This outsider proceeded to enact a finer interpretation of "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself/' such as put priest and Levite to shame.

He used the wine and oil he had with him to cleanse and mollify the victim's cuts and bruises, and tore his own garment into strips for bandaging (see Notes). Then, hoisting him as gently as possible on to the back of his ass, he brought him with all possible care to the nearest inn. This was not a khan of the kind where people had to fend for themselves, but a hostelry where service was available. Nevertheless, the Samaritan, still moved with compassion for the man in his suffering, took upon himself to do all that was needful to ease his pains and give him comfort.

This part of the story appears to have been inspired by a remarkable episode in the reign of king Ahaz. The northern kingdom of Israel had had a particularly successful campaign against their brethren in Judah, taking many prisoners. However, responding to the exhortation of Oded the prophet, certain of the men of Samaria re-equipped their captives, succoured the wounded among them, and, setting them on asses, brought them to Jericho. There they handed them over to the care of their own folk (2 Chr.28 :9-15). The whole point of this incident is that Jews and men of Samaria are brothers.

In the parable the Samaritan went even further in his solicitude. He paid to the innkeeper enough for the sick man's immediate needs (£30-40 in 1983) and, his credit being good, he undertook to cover on his return all further expense which might be incurred before the man was well enough to go on his way. Fully as valuable as the financial aid now assured was the strong personal injunction to the innkeeper: "Take care of him." The sufferer was left in good hands.

Thus Jesus taught not only who was the neighbour to be loved—the man, whoever he is, whose need is before you and whom you have the means to help—but also how he is to be loved, with every degree of compasssion and personal involvement that is possible.

"Which now," Jesus asked, "of these three, thinkest thou, became and continued to be neighbour to him that fell among the thieves?'

There could be only one answer, yet even in giving it the scribe could not bring himself to pronounce the hated word “Samarita”. He had asked for a definition of "neighbour" and had got it. But this theoretical comprehension was not enough to satisfy Jesus. There must be application of the lesson learned: "Go, and do thou likewise'—and he used a continuous imperative. This love of one's neighbour must be a way of life.

Significant Details

For those who believe that in telling his parables Jesus was always aiming at teaching one needful moral lesson, the Good Samaritan is a perfect illustration. But it is also the best possible example for those who are convinced that Jesus intended every detail of his parable to be significant. When interpreted point by point, this parable turns "neighbour" into "Neighbour."

"A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves." Jerusalem is the city of peace with God. Jericho was the city associated with yielding to temptation (Josh. 7:1), and therefore with curse and destruction (Josh. 7:15), and there is hardly a more downhill road in all the world. Here, then, is a picture of the human race in its natural state.

The evil work of the thieves shows each man as a prey to his own personal sins as well as his inherited condition. As this wayfarer was "stripped of his raiment, wounded and half dead", so each sinner, whilst not yet dead, is in a dying and utterly hopeless condition. He can do nothing to help himself. His own robe of "righteousness" is torn from him. He is naked and helpless.

The sacrificial and the moral law, represented by priest and Levite, only served to emphasize the hopelessness of his case. If they could not help him, who could? They also were going downhill. "By the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified ... By the Law is the knowledge of sin" (Rom. 3:20).

But then came one who was despised and rejected of men - it does not say he was going downhill!-and this man "came where he was." This unexpected Saviour identified himself with the stricken man as closely as possible-Jesus shared the very nature of those he came to redeem. Contrast the priest and Levite "on the other side"-the Old Testament doctrine of holiness put a wide separation between God and the worshipper.

This Saviour, moved with compassion, (for "God so loved the world") bound up his wounds, pouring oil and wine-"the oil of the Word, and the wine of the Sacrament," says one writer. Here the gracious ministry of Jesus is clearly shown. Would the Samaritan travel equipped with bandaging? What wrapping for those wounds and that naked body except his own garments? (Is. l:6;61:l; Ps. 147:8).

"Then he set him on his beast, and brought him to an inn." Thus, without any effort on his part, the wretched castaway found himself where normally his Saviour would have been. And the beast this Saviour rode was an ass (Jn. 12 :14,15), a token of his meek character and his kingship, both of them now shared with the one he rescued. Thus, identified with his Saviour (baptism pre-figured?), the sinner is brought to a resting place where he is cared for. "In my Father's house'' said Jesus, "are many abiding places." There he "took care of him"- it is a picture of the continuing care of repentant sinners by their Saviour.

"On the morrow, when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host" (2Cor.8:9). The Greek work here means: "One who receives all men." This "two pence" is the exact equivalent of the half-shekel of the sanctuary (Ex.30:15; and study 113) which was to be paid, under the Law, by all, whether rich or poor, "to make an atonement for your souls." ls it accident, then, that this particular sum of money found its way into the parable? Jesus might just as easily have said "one penny" or "three pence." How remarkable that he did not!

And is it accident that this was "on the morrow" and not "the same day" or "two days later"? For this implies that the Samaritan slept and rose again before he went a way-the Saviour was "raised again for our justification." Could details be more apt than these? But there is more behind.

"Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again I will repay idee." Here is the promise of a personal return, and also a guarantee that everything needful for the man's restoration will be fully provided. The sacrifice of Christ is all-sufficient, not only to cover sins done aforetime, but also those which call for the exercise of divine grace in the days to come.

Not neighbour, but Neighbour

And now comes one of the most subtle, and certainly one of the most lovely touches of all.

Jesus had said: "Thou shalt love the lord thy God ... and thy neighbour..."

"But who is my neighbour?"

For answer there followed the parable ending with:

"Which now . . . was neighbour to him that fell among thieves?"

"He that showed mercy on him."

The Samaritan, representing Jesus, was "neighbour" to the wayfarer, representing the sinner. The parable is usually and carelessly misread the other way round-that the sinner was "neighbour" to the Samaritan and therefore the Samaritan loved him.

But again it can hardly be accident that Jesus phrased it the reverse way. The stricken wayfarer is bidden love his "neighbour", the Samaritan. The sinner is bidden love his Saviour Jesus. Is there any other commandment big enough to stand alongside: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God"? And if a man loves Jesus as he should, will he not honour his Saviour by loving his fellow-men also, even as he did?

It may be that this lawyer, no fool, saw the force of this aspect of the parable also, for, when challenged to identify the true neighbour to the stricken man, he answered: "He that shewed mercy on him." The words spendidly describe the saving work of the Samaritan. But they happen also to be an Old Testament phrase for the forgiveness of sins! (Micah 7 :18; Dan.9:4; Num. 14:18; Ps.86:5; 103 :8-10; and many more).

Notes: Lk. 10:25-37

A certain lawyer. The Greek here might imply a known lawyer, one well-known in the early church?

What shall I do... ?The same question was the chief anxiety of another would-be disciple; Lk.18 :18. *S
With all thy heart. Consider: Jer.15 :16; Ex.36:2; 1 Kgs.3 :9; Lk.5 :22; 24 :32,38; Rom.10:8,9.

Thy neighbour as thyself More likely quoted not by sudden intuition but as a long-pondered conclusion.
Jesus answering said. A somewhat unusual Gk. word, apparently implying: "taking up the challenge."
By chance. The word does not imply fluke. Gk: sun-kuria might even have been chosen because it suggests "with the Lord"-the very opposite of chance.
A Samaritan. A neat indirect lesson to James and John; 9:54.
Went to him. The word for "neighbour" means literally "one who is near."

Bound up his wounds. Alternative to the explanation already offered: He was a medical man (Luke himself?), and carried bandages and medicines.

Brought. This word suggests a picture of the Samaritan leading his beast with the stricken man on it.
Whatsoever. This translation is not too emphatic. When I come again; s.w. 19:15 only.
Thinkest thou... ? Here dokei implies: 'You know, don't you?'

Was neighbour. As a translation, quite inadequate: "became and continued to be neighbour."

Mercy on him. Here again the Gk preposition (not pros or epior eis, but meta) suggests fellowship and at the same time a distinction. The Gk. of this paragraph is full of delightful, almost untranslatable, inflections.

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