The Good Samaritan: Bible Background
Background on Luke
Luke is one of the four Gospels. The author of Luke is believed to have been a Gentile physician who was a friend of Paul. Luke also authored the book of Acts. Luke knew Greek well and was familiar with Old Testament and Jewish practices. The writing of the Gospel is dated to the mid-eighties AD.
Each gospel writer presents a unique picture of Jesus. Luke’s gospel reveals a compassionate Jesus, who is a friend to outcasts. Luke also shows how Jesus relates to the Scriptures, Israel’s history, contemporary world history and the unfolding of God’s redemptive purposes. Jesus is the One who was sent to seek and to save the lost.
Themes in Luke’s Gospel
God’s Redemptive Purposes: In Luke and Acts, everything that happens is seen as part of God’s redemptive plan for the salvation of all humanity. Three emphases are woven throughout the texts: the sovereignty of God, the fulfillment of Scripture and the scope of Jesus’ redemptive work.
Salvation for All: In Luke’s gospel, it is clear that salvation is for all people. Luke presents a Jesus who constantly reaches out to those who are considered society’s outcasts: sinners, Samaritans, tax collectors and women. This inclusiveness challenges the established religious and societal order in a way that was scandalous at the time.
The Blessings of Poverty and the Dangers of Wealth:
More than any of the other three gospels Luke speaks of the poor and rich. People of the day
believed that God’s blessings on the rich came because they were more deserving than the poor. Jesus turns this idea upside down and instead he lifts up the poor, confronting the economic realities of poverty.
Table Fellowship: Eating in New Testament times was an important act of hospitality. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus is often found eating with others (often outcasts). These frequent meals help to make a connection to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The Table becomes the place where our differences are set aside.
Jesus is present with us when we break bread together in community.
Role of a Disciple: Jesus is our role model for discipleship. As we come to understand who Jesus is, we learn more about our own identity as his disciples. Jesus is obedient to God in all things. He is filled with and empowered by the Spirit. He shows compassion toward the poor and oppressed. He heals the sick. He forgives sinners. He stays closely connected to God, the Father through prayer and ultimately he dies a martyr’s death.
The Witnesses: In the New Testament, witnesses testify to the truth of the gospel and are ultimately willing to die for the sake of the gospel. In Luke’s gospel, the disciples are witnesses who are guided and empowered by the Spirit.
What's a Parable?
The Parable of the Good Samaritan is one of the most well-known stories in the New Testament. Stories have tremendous power; they teach, evoke emotions and inspire thought. Stories grab the attention and kindle the imagination of the listener. The Jewish tradition was rich in stories and Jesus was a master storyteller. Jesus often taught using parables. In fact, over one third of Jesus’ teaching in the gospels is recorded in parables.
Jesus told parables to answer questions or to explain concepts. A parable uses everyday images to illustrate something about God, God’s kingdom or a particular spiritual truth. Parables are sometimes referred to as “earthly stories with heavenly meanings.” Jesus used everyday objects and common situations in the parables he told. The use of the common or well-known image helped the listeners understand the lesser-known concept. The images familiar to first century Palestine might not be as familiar to us today. What images might Jesus use today to convey the same truths?
Parables require the listener to think and reflect upon the story and its meaning. Parables allow the hearers to understand the message on different levels to accommodate their different abilities and willingness to accept the message. Jesus often said that the unwilling and those without faith would not understand the deeper meanings of the parables he told. To these people, a parable was simply a story. But for those who listened with willing, open hearts and faith, the message could be life transforming! This is true for us today as well!
Many of Jesus’ parables were told as a result of confrontation with the Pharisees. The Pharisees regularly criticized Jesus for his association with tax collectors and other “sinners.” According to the Pharisees, respectable religious people didn’t associate with people who disobeyed God’s laws. Jesus often attacked this formalism – accusing the Pharisees of caring more for their rules and “outward show” than truly loving people and helping them.
The parable of the Good Samaritan is an example of this. It is told in response to a question from a lawyer, "a teacher of the Law,” one who studied and interpreted the Jewish law. He would have been considered an expert in Scripture because civil and religious laws were essentially the same. The lawyer asks, "Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Luke describes this question as a "trap," implying evil intent. This is the type of question, though, that Jewish scholars would love to debate with one another. As one whose credentials were established, he may have wanted to see if this popular teacher knew the correct answer.
The inheritance in question is God’s promise to the covenant people. God had promised to make the Jews a great people, to bless them, and to give them a land (Genesis 12:1-3). Over time the understanding of the promised inheritance became more future-oriented and came to mean the gift of eternal life in God’s kingdom.
Jesus turned the question back on him, asking, "What do the Scriptures say? How do you interpret them?" The man responds in classical fashion, with what we call the Greatest Commandment. It is based on Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. Jesus affirms his answer. The man presses on, however. Luke tells us that he wants to "justify himself," so he asks Jesus, "Who is my neighbor? Who must I love as I love myself?” Jesus responded by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan.
Jesus tells the story of a man who was going "down" from Jerusalem to Jericho (probably returning home after being at the Temple). That road literally went "down," dropping 3,300 feet in elevation in the course of 17 miles. It went through rocky wilderness areas, perfect hideouts for bandits and robbers. And this is exactly what happened; the man was attacked, robbed, beaten, stripped, and left for dead.
A Priest and a Levite, in turn, passed by on the other side of the road -- though the Levite took a good look first! Why didn’t they stop? Were they worried about being attacked themselves? Or were they worried that they would become unclean by touching a dead body? No reasons are given why neither one stopped to help the injured man, but we can surmise it was probably related to their temple duties and the need to avoid being ritually unclean by touching an outcast (Samaritan) and someone who was injured. Touching a dead or bleeding body would have made Jewish men ritually unclean – meaning they would not be able to worship without an elaborate ritual of steps and a lengthy time-frame to re-establish their cleanliness. More than likely, the Levite and the priest didn’t want to help the injured man because of the sacrifice it would mean to them personally.
Then a Samaritan comes along. Jesus tells us the man's heart is "filled with pity." He applies such first-aid as was available in the day--bandages, wine and olive oil. He puts the man on his animal to ride, while he walks. He takes the man to an inn, stays with him overnight, pays for his care, and guarantees any future expenditures that would be needed.
To get the full impact of the story, it is helpful to remember that both the priest and the Levite were officials involved with worship at the Jerusalem Temple. They would have known the Law, and might have been expected to help the man in need--especially presuming the victim was a member of the Jewish community. A Samaritan, however, was quite the outsider. He would have been the person least expected to help!
Samaritans and Jews were related. Samaria was a region near Israel, between Galilee and Judea. The city of Samaria was the capital of the Northern kingdom of Israel (during the time of the divided kingdoms). When many Israelites were taken into exile by the Babylonians, (587-539 BC), the Samaritans were among those left behind. They developed their own worship practices, differently than the Jews, primarily by building a new Temple and creating an alternate center of religion there. Their language evolved into a slightly different version of Aramaic (the Hebrew dialect Jesus spoke) and they had a slightly different version of the Scriptures. Many Samaritans intermarried with the neighboring Canaanites. Because of these changes, the Jews considered them to be "impure" religiously and "half-breeds" racially.
Samaritans, on the other hand, claimed they were the true keepers of the faith (after all, they had not been exiled to a foreign land!). The Jews and Samaritans separated themselves by living in different towns. Their two capitals were only 42 miles apart. To outsiders, Jews and Samaritans would have appeared nearly identical, yet by Jesus’ time there was strong antagonism between Jews and Samaritans.
After finishing the story, Jesus asked the teacher of the law, "Which one of these three acted like a neighbor toward the man in need?" The answer was obvious. The man could not bring himself to use the word "Samaritan" but had to admit that "the one who was kind to him" was the one who best kept God's Law. Jesus responded, "Go then, and do likewise."
Why is This Story Important?
Matthew and Mark both have accounts of the lawyer’s questioning of Jesus that include a statement of the greatest commandment. (Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-31) Luke, however, is the only gospel to include the story of the Good Samaritan, staying true to his focus on the outcasts of society (in this case the Samaritan) who truly acts out of love for neighbor. This story shatters the boundaries that we like to draw to define our "neighbors." If our neighbors are the people next door, or our best friends, then loving them is a relatively easy task. But if a despised Samaritan is our neighbor, and acts neighborly to a stranger, the challenge is much greater. By telling the story so that the hated outcast is the hero, Jesus, in typical fashion, abolishes all societal boundaries and confronts the religious leaders with their hypocrisy. EVERYONE is our neighbor -- even the hated Samaritans!
This parable also teaches us that our actions are an important part of the way we honor God. The priest and the Levite probably believed the right things, but it was the Samaritan who put his love for God into action by helping the person in need. Jesus concluded the story with "Go and do likewise."
Finally, the phrase "Good Samaritan" is very much a part of our popular culture. "Good Samaritan" laws protect people who provide help in an emergency from being sued for malpractice. It is helpful to know the original source of the "Good Samaritan" story, and recognize God’s radical love for us and to understand the way God wants His people to live.
Interpreters often connect this story to the story of Mary and Martha that immediately follows. Reading these two stories together helps us better understand what it truly means to follow Jesus Christ. In the Parable of the Good Samaritan we learn that discipleship means actively loving one’s neighbor. In the Mary and Martha story we learn to love the Lord – by sitting and listening at His feet. Being a disciple of Christ requires both action and reflection. The Christian life is a balance of both doing and being.
- What is a parable? (a story with two meanings – a literal meaning and a spiritual meaning)
- Why did Jesus tell this parable? (to explain what it means to be a neighbor)
- Why do you think the Priest and Levite passed the injured man without helping?
- What excuses have you made to not help someone?
- Who did the right thing in the story? (the Samaritan)
- Why was this so surprising? (the Jews disliked the Samaritans)
- How do you know the right thing to do? (WWJD? Saying it without doing it isn’t good enough!)
- What are some ways you can show God you love Him?
- What are some other ways to show you love your neighbors?
- What about people who are hard to love? How do we love them?
- How do we know what God wants us to do?
- What are 2 or 3 things you could be doing to help someone else, but instead you are making excuses not to help?
- Who are people different than you who are serving God? Remember: the “twist” in the Good Samaritan parable is that a member of a DESPISED and REJECTED group is cast as the hero. The Lawyer, who is part of the “in-group” is told by Jesus to go act like the good but rejected man. The story isn’t just about “doing good,” it’s about how we view others and the kind of people God favors!
"Faith Quest: The Good Samaritan, Workshop Leader's Bible Study." Kirk of Kildaire
Presbyterian Church, Cary NC. Web.
Bible Teacher’s Commentary, Lawrence O. Richards, Cook Communications Ministries,
Craddock, Fred. “Luke.” Interpretation. James Luther Mays, et al. editors. Louisville: John
Knox Press, 1990. Print.
Culpepper, R. Alan. “Luke.” The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. IX. Leander Keck, et al.
editors. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995. Print.
A Bible Background written by Jaymie Derden from State Street United Methodist Church, in Bristol, VA.
Image in this post is of a window in the Church of St Brendan the Navigator, Bantry, Co. Cork, Ireland, via Wikimedia Commons.
A representative of Rotation.org reformatted this post to improve readability.