Commentary on Luke 10:25-37
The story of the Good Samaritan is one of the most well-known stories of Jesus. Many countries even have Good Samaritan laws, so-named to provide legal protections for those who act as “good Samaritans” to help others. The good Samaritan has become a paragon for going beyond typical expectations to care for others. So, we might think we know all there is to know about this parable that Jesus tells. Yet by taking another look, I hope that we can see not only a powerful example for Christians to follow but a renewed glimpse of the wide scope of God’s restoration of God’s people.
When Jesus is tested by a Torah expert about actions consistent with inheriting eternal life (Luke 10:25), Jesus responds by returning the question, asking “What is written in the Law?” and inquiring about this expert’s interpretation of the Torah on this specific point (10:26). When the man answers using the central Scriptural commands to love God and love neighbor (Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18, respectively), Jesus affirms that his interpretation is correct and confirms that living in line with these covenantal expectations will result in life (10:28).
Here’s where Luke’s story takes an interesting turn. The Torah expert desires to “justify himself” and so asks the now-infamous question, “And who is my neighbor?” (10:29). Luke’s characterization suggests that this Torah scholar is hoping to limit the category of “neighbor” in some way. Doing so would certainly make adherence to the command easier, since the smaller the circle of one’s “neighbors,” presumably the easier it is to act in love toward them.
Jesus’ answer to this question comes in a parable about a Samaritan who rescues a Jewish man who had been attacked, robbed, and left for dead (10:30). The contrast to this Samaritan is provided by a priest and Levite, who both see the desperate man but “passed by on the other side” (10:31-32). At this point, Luke’s audience, as well as Jesus’ listeners, would have begun to feel the surprise of the story. The priest and Levite are the anticipated “good guys” of the story, while a Samaritan (10:33) would hardly be expected to stop and help a Jewish person in trouble given past conflicts between their peoples (see also John 4:9).
Jesus details the Samaritan’s acts of compassion (splagchnizomai; 10:33) for the man in trouble: attending to his wounds, bringing him to an inn, and paying for his care (10:34-35). These tangible actions are the authentic signs of what neighbors do. Jesus’ final question turns on its head his interrogator’s earlier question, “who is my neighbor?” (10:29). Jesus instead asks which of the three characters in the story fulfilled the role of “neighbor” (10:36). By being so concerned about who qualified as his neighbor, this Torah expert neglected to consider whether he himself was acting like a “neighbor.” We hear this discipleship value in Jesus’ final words, “Go and do likewise” (in other words, show mercy; 10:37). Those who follow Jesus are to take on the role of neighbor to others, especially those in need and in desperate circumstances. This is certainly a Lukan theme, as he highlights the importance of compassionate care for the marginalized (for example, 1:53; 4:17-21; 14:7-11). And this ethical expectation fits with Jesus’ own ministry of compassion in the third Gospel (for example, 1:72; 7:13; 18:35-42).
Yet Luke does not narrate this episode (unique to the third Gospel) for ethical purposes alone. Luke’s interest in Samaritans is well known and is characteristic in his travel narrative (9:51-19:27; see specifically 9:51-56; 10:25-37; and 17:11-19) as well as in his second volume, Acts (1:8; 8:1, 3-8, 9-25; 9:31; 15:3-4). Although it may come as a surprise to modern readers, Luke does not identify Samaritans as a distinctly separate ethnic category. Instead, they are a part of wider Israel—conceived broadly and as envisioned in the Hebrew Scriptures. So, Samaritans in Luke-Acts are distinct from Gentiles (in other words, they are not Gentiles by category). We see this in Acts 1:8, where Judea and Samaria are joined closely together in the scope of the church’s mission and are separate from “to the ends of the earth” (in other words, Gentiles; see also 9:31). Samaritans do, however, represent the contested boundaries of the people of Israel, especially given tensions between Jews and Samaritans in the first-century world (Chalmers). Yet they are an integral part of the people of God, and their inclusion in Luke’s story of Jesus indicates that God’s restoration of Israel has begun in earnest.
Jesus’ parable portrays a Samaritan as an exemplary neighbor to another member of Israel and intimates that Samaritans are a part of wider Israel. The parable demonstrates that God is enacting, in Jesus the Messiah, the restoration of the fullness of Israel, as a prelude to the offering of salvation to all nations (Acts 1:8). A surprising twist of the parable is that “the Samaritan who enacted mercy is not only an Israelite but functions in the parable as an ideal Israelite” (Brown and Yamazaki-Ransom, p. 245).
Preaching and teaching this captivating parable offers an opportunity to highlight God’s restoration of Israel—a project that includes both Jew and Samaritan and that will, after Jesus’ resurrection, reach to the “ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The parable also offers an insistent call to the people of God to emulate this compassionate Samaritan as a way of living out their identity as God’s people in the world.
- Jeannine K. Brown and Kazuhiko Yamazaki-Ransom, “The Parable of the Good Samaritan and the Narrative Portrayal of Samaritans in Luke-Acts,” Journal of Theological Interpretation 15/2 (2021), 233-246.
- Matthew Chalmers, “Rethinking Luke 10: The Parable of the Good Samaritan Israelite,” Journal of Biblical Literature 139 (2020): 543-566.