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The Parable of the Good Samaritan

The parable of the Good Samaritan is one of those parables that’s so familiar that we may have been inoculated with a slight case of it that’s preventing us from really getting at the heart of it.  I like to say that a text without a context is just a pretext for whatever you want it to mean.

The first thing about the context that you need to understand about this is that Samaritans and Jews didn’t get along. So this Samaritan is out of bounds; he’s not in Samaria, he’s in Judea. The second thing to notice about this is that this lawyer would have identified with the priest or the Levite in the story.  They would have been his heroes in the story, but they don’t prove to be the heroes of the story.  No, it’s the Samaritan who proves to be the hero of the story. 

So much was the animus between Samaritans and Jews that as John 4 says, they wouldn’t even share a common cup.  They wouldn’t even extend ancient Near Eastern hospitality to one another.  So, the last person on earth that the lawyer was expecting to be the third person who was the hero in the story, would be a Samaritan in the story.  And then the Samaritan doesn’t just stop and bind up the man’s wounds, he puts him on his pack animal; and he doesn’t just put him on the pack animal and go down to the Holiday Inn Express in Jericho and dump him on a Jew running the Holiday Inn Express and say, “He’s your kind of guy, you take care of him.” No, he pays for the rehabilitation and says, “I travel up and down this road from time to time, if there’s more expenses when I come back I’ll take care of it.”

We were told that the lawyer was seeking to justify himself.  He was an expert in the Mosaic law.  He wanted to know the limitations of neighborliness.  Jesus doesn’t tell a story about who is the neighbor, he tells a story about how to be a neighbor to whomever, whenever, wherever; that’s what the story is about.  At the end, you have the punch line; Jesus asks the question at the very end, “And who do you think in the story was the neighbor to that Jewish person wounded on the side of the road?”  And you can imagine the lawyer sort of gritting his teeth and saying, well, I guess it was the Samaritan, yuck!  Jesus then sticks the knife in, twists it, and says, “Go be like the Samaritan.”  This is a story that’s intended to blow up social prejudice between Jews and Samaritans and include within the boundary of neighbor even the despised Samaritans. Here’s a parable that rehabilitates not only the Samaritan but the relationship between Jews and Samaritans.

  • Ben Witherington

    Ben Witherington is Amos Professor of New Testament for Doctoral Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary and is on the doctoral faculty at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. He has presented seminars for churches, colleges, and biblical meetings not only in the United States but around the world. Recent works include Invitation to the New Testament (Oxford University Press, 2013) and A Week in the Life of Corinth (InterVarsity, 2012). He is the general editor of the New Cambridge Bible Commentary Series.