Like many familiar and wonderful passages of Scripture, the parable of the Good Samaritan is often seen as a stand-alone passage of Scripture. A tale told by Jesus that has universal appeal and meaning, apart from the context of Luke 10. In its context it is even more powerful, not only as a moral tale demonstrating the power of loving your neighbor as godly activity, but as a redemptive historical declaration of Jesus regarding his place in fulfilling the law and the prophets.
Many early commentators on the passage see a correspondence between the Good Samaritan and Jesus. Often going overboard in their allegorical view of this parable, they have been criticized and the connection has been shunned for the most part as part of that allegorization. I find that to be an overreaction, and I do see Christ being the exemplary image being conjured up in the story of the Samaritan. It is Jesus who has come to dwell among us as our neighbor, and to love and rescue us, to heal and bandage us. Jeremiah 30:17 and Hosea 6:1-10 serve as the Old Testament backdrop to this parable. The imagery of healing and bandaging is emblematic of the Messiah and his ministry. Often in the parables the principle of contrast is used in depicting God (see the parable of the Persistent Widow, Luke 18:1-8).
The parable also must be seen in its greater context of Luke 10:25-42. I also submit that the story of Mary and Martha is part of the the pericope that makes up this section. The passage has a chiastic structure to it (click here for an explanation of chiasm). So the passage looks like this:
A: Love the Lord Your God with all….
B: Love your neighbor
B: The Parable of the Samaritan
A: The story of Mary and Martha
Very simply: the parable of the Samaritan explains the command to love your neighbor while the story of Mary and Martha illustrates the supremacy of loving God. Both revolve around Christ.
One of the best books I have read on the parables is the pair of books by Kenneth Bailey entitled “Poet and Peasant” and “Through Peasant Eyes”. Many of my insights are simple repetitions of his original work.
There are five characters in the parable.
First the “man.” That is all we know about him and that is all Jesus wants us to know about him. He doesn’t describe his nationality, economic status, social status, age, body size/type, etc. We know nothing about him except that he was traveling on this road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Jesus gives us two details that are intended to tell us that his identity is also hidden from the passersby: He is stripped and half-dead. Without clothing he has no identifiable markings as to status or nationality. He is reduced to commonality. He is probably unconscious so the other identifier is also removed. He is not speaking to anyone passing by, he appears dead. Helpless on the side of the road, if no one stops to help, he will probably die.
Second, the priest. The priest is traveling down the same road. Priests served at the temple in two week shifts. He is probably heading home after finishing his temple service. He has been performing the tasks of the temple, possibly performing the sacrificial service; offering up offerings on behalf of the people. He would have to be ritually pure to do this. He is most certainly riding a donkey as a higher echelon member of society. As he approaches the man who looks dead, he doesn’t want to inconvenience himself with the embarrassment of becoming “unclean” for coming in contact with a dead man, so he passes him by. Choosing the ceremonial over actual service, the priest stands for all that Christ was angry at within the nation of Israel. Reminiscent of Luke 6:9, Jesus is asking the same Sabbath questions, making the same Sabbath points: the Jewish leadership has sacrificed true love and fulfillment of the law, that is obedience, for the outward show of ceremony. Ultimately as well, we know that Christ is our true high priest (Hebrews).
Thirdly, a Levite. All priests were Levites, but not all Levites were priests. He is more likely a teacher, possibly a rabbi, maybe a commoner. But he follows the priest, and the priest is supposed to demonstrate the “way” to the rest of Israel. Ideally, the Levite should have happened upon the priest offering assistance and joined in helping him. But he most assuredly knows the priest is ahead of him, and as he approaches the “place” where the man is he must be thinking that the only option is that the man is dead and the priest didn’t want to defile himself with contacting a dead body. So he comes closer than the priest, to the place, and he sees the man so we can assume he knows that he is still alive, but he too passes by. I think the point is heavy on example. He further condemns not only himself but the priesthood: He didn’t “do this so that he might live.” In following the example of the priest, the Levite is taken further away from the Lord.
Fourth, the Samaritan. It is well known that the Samaritans were hated. Jesus introducing a Samaritan here is totally unexpected. If we go down the list, the expectation would have been to introduce a normal Jew, someone without religious standing or roots. But Jesus turns the tables. He makes the arch-enemy the hero. The action of the Samaritan is Christlike: He has compassion. This word is used almost exclusively in the gospels to describe Christ. Only here and in the parable of the Prodigal Son is it used to describe someone other than Christ, or is it? The Samaritan bandages the wounds of the man, pouring oil and wine over them. These also are acts of the Messiah (Jeremiah 30:17; Psalm 147:3; Isaiah 1:5-6). The oil and wine were also used in the temple service, the job of the priest was to anoint sacrifices with oil and wine. This serves as further condemnation of the priest who passed by, and the whole of the priesthood of Israel who unlike Simeon and Zacharias waited patiently for the Messiah.
Fifth the Innkeeper. I will leave him for another time.
Notice Jesus never answers the question. He never bothers to tell us who our neighbor is, only how to be a neighbor. The implication is that the neighbor doesn’t bother with trying to escape serving others, or judging who is worthy of help, he simply helps. He shows compassion and mercy upon those in need.
Jesus tells us in the parable what it means to be a neighbor. Jesus demonstrates in his incarnation what it means to be a neighbor. In that sense, the Samaritan stands for Jesus.