Rotation.org Writing Team
Parable of the Good Samaritan
Bible Background & Lesson Objectives
Scripture for this lesson set:
Luke 10:25-37 (NRSV-Updated Edition)
Lesson Objectives for this set:
- To know and be able to recite both the Great Commandment and the Parable of the Good Samaritan to the best of the student's ability.
- To be able to define our "neighbor" as anyone in need and as anyone who shows compassion to those in need—regardless of their background or beliefs.
- To be able to identify people "in need" within the students' world (their "Jericho road") and to think of actions they could take to show compassion/mercy to those people.
The parable of the Good Samaritan is arguably the most well-known of Jesus' teachings. It is so well-known, in fact, that "being a Good Samaritan" has become synonymous in the secular world with "helping others."
And while Jesus does indeed teach us to "help others," as usual his parable and the context in which it was delivered teaches us a much deeper truth about God, ourselves, and the "conditions" (excuses) we use to keep our prejudices.
The religious establishment:
Who do I have to love?
Everyone, including the beaten man and the despised Samaritan.
When the Expert in Religious Law asks Jesus, "And just WHO IS my neighbor?" his question implies that some people are NOT our neighbors. That we are only required by the Great Commandment to love certain kinds of people as we love ourselves. This is what the secular world thinks, and it is what the expert in the law thinks. This is also what the Priest and Levite think in the story. But this is not what Jesus thinks.
Jesus thinks they are BOTH our neighbors.
The one who needs mercy—and the one who gives it.
The one who needs compassion, like the bloodied man, the robbers, the religious people
—and the one who is compassionate, even people from Samaria.
In a word: EVERYONE.
Everyone deserves your compassion and love. No excuses. No lists of "who's in and who's out." No "sinner" tests, no separating into friends and enemies, "us vs. them." By elevating both the bloodied stranger and the despised Samaritan, Jesus resets the bar on God's love, and thus, ours.
And as we learn from other passages like Matthew 25:40, the reason why we should love strangers and Samaritans and everyone in between is because God is in them. "As you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me."
To love God is to recognize God's presence in all his children, every single one of them, and to love them as you would love yourself, with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind.
Love is what God wants us to become
Loving our neighbors is more than just an act of compassion, it's an act of faith and gratitude for the love and mercy we have received. For "we love because he first loved us" (1 John 4:19); and the more we love, the more we are "being transformed into his likeness" (2 Cor 3:18).
You are all the people in this parable
- You are the clever "expert" who doesn't think you can learn anything new from Jesus or his teachings and doesn't expect him to challenge your beliefs or ask you to change your thinking.
- You are the Priest and Levite trying to step past problems and hold on to your excuses for not having your life inconvenienced by the needs of others.
- You are the Samaritan suddenly confronted with the needs of others and having to decide if you should help or keep moving down the road.
- You are the Samaritan being judged because of where you are from and how you believe rather than for how you care for others.
- You are the robber who steals another person's sense of safety, self-worth, and dignity—knowingly or unknowingly.
- You are the innkeeper asked to take care of someone you don't know and to believe someone you never met before.
- You are the beaten man, dependent on the love of strangers.
- And yes, you may even be Jesus in this story, — confronting those who want to exclude rather than include, those who want to judge and not be judged, people who love to focus on specks of scripture rather than logjams of compassion in your heart. You may even be called to sacrifice your life for a friend. Greater love hath no one than that.
There is another interpretation of this parable that puts Jesus in the role of the Good Samaritan—that Jesus is the one who gives mercy and brings the stranger to the innkeeper which is the Church, a place of healing and acceptance. This interpretation reminds us of the image of the Church as a hospital for sinners and the sick, and the collective power of people when they decide to work together as Samaritans. Perhaps that was the inspiration of the unknown artist who created the image are using in our lesson set logo:
The parable of the Good Samaritan gets even more fascinating when you realize that Luke's version reworks the same story told in Mark 12: 28-34, but with interesting differences! Luke's emphasis on accepting the Samaritans continues in Luke 17 when Jesus blesses even more of them.
About the Great Commandment, also known as "The Shema"
The Great Commandment, quoted before the parable by the Expert, is a powerful summary of the law and the prophets. It begins with the Hebrew word "Shema," as in "Listen" or "Hear" O Israel! It is a compilation of several Old Testament scriptures and was quoted by Jesus in Matthew, Mark, and Luke (though without the opening "Shema O Israel"). You can read more about it here.
The meaning of "heart, soul, strength, and mind"
A lot has been written about these four words. Suffice to say that in total, they mean "with everything!" "Don't hold anything back." Today, we might say that you can't just love God with your "thoughts and prayers"—you are called to get involved, to be passionate and unselfish about compassion. "Heart" in Jesus' day was your seat of emotions, your will, your passion. "Soul" in Greek means "your life," your essence, your vitality. "Strength" in Greek means "abilities, powers, energy." "Mind" in Greek means your ability to think, reason, figure out, and feel. Together they call us to Love God and our neighbors using "all that you are and all that you are capable of doing."
Thoughts on what "(love) your neighbor as yourself" means
Jesus and the Great Commandment instruct us to love our neighbor "as we love ourselves." In other words, NO DOUBLE STANDARDS.
But what if you don't know what love is? Or have a skewed understanding of it? Surely the Levite loved himself, or so he thought. He was probably a respectable and loving person to his own people. His problem seems to be that he couldn't be compassionate because touching a bloodied man would have made him ritually "unclean" for his Temple duties. He may have also just been late, or thought "someone else will help," or that the man (no doubt a sinner) "got what he deserved." We don't know, but we can imagine. Selfishness has a thousand reasons and excuses. Nevertheless, the Commandment is simple: put yourself in their place and imagine what YOU would want done for you in the same circumstance—that will tell you what the right thing to do is.
A similar teaching by Jesus is found in Matthew 7:12's Sermon on the Mount and is known as The Golden Rule, "In everything do to others as you would have them do to you."
Do we inherit eternal life by "doing good"?
Is Jesus saying that salvation is by "works"? That we are saved by doing good deeds? Taken at face value, that's what it seems. But we have to keep in mind that Jesus addressed salvation and forgiveness in other famous parables, too. In the Prodigal Son, the son wastes his father's "inheritance" and yet is still welcomed back home. In the Parable of the Lost Sheep, the shepherd goes looking for the lost. And on the cross, Jesus said, 'forgive them, they don't know what they are doing."
Instead of thinking of eternal life as something that happens when you die, you begin to "LIVE" as Jesus says in verse 28, and "go and do" in verse 37. See the word studies below for a richer understanding of "eternal life."
Luke 10:25-37 is something of an "Illustrated Version" of Mark 12:28-34's The Great Commandment story
Mark 12:28-34, a passage known to us as "The Great Commandment," has the same scene, lesson, and primary characters found in Luke 10:25-27, but Mark doesn't include the parable of the Samaritan. Luke added2 the parable to Mark's story (and made a few other changes) to ILLUSTRATE the Great Commandment and to go deeper into the question of "whom" should we love.
In both Mark and Luke's versions of the encounter, Jesus is speaking with a "Scribe"—an expert in the Law of Moses (the Torah)—someone who was responsible for both teaching religious rules and settling disputes about them. ("scribe," "lawyer," and "expert in the law" are interchangeable terms.) It was his job to judge others, and in both tellings, he had come to judge (test) Jesus. Why? Because that was his job.
In Mark's version, it is Jesus who quotes the Great Commandment ("Love God... love your neighbor"). Whereas in Luke, it is the expert in the law who says the Great Commandment (the "Shema"). Why the difference? In Mark, the scribe's role seems to be to praise and validate Jesus. In Luke, the expert comes forward as an example of the self-righteous rule-makers who seek to discredit Jesus. In the same basic story we can see how two different writers shaped the story for different purposes and and perhaps different audiences. Interesting!
In Mark, it is the scribe/expert who proclaims that Jesus is "right." Whereas in Luke's Good Samaritan passage, Jesus is the one who declares the expert as "right," which seems to unsettle the expert and prompt his follow-up question to Jesus about "who is my neighbor?"
In Mark's version, the scribe/expert announces that compassion, loving your neighbor as yourself, "is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices." (v33) Whereas Luke literally embodies this statement about burnt offerings and sacrifices in the characters of the priest and Levite. They must avoid touching the beaten (bloodied) man lest they become "unclean" and thus unable to perform their sacrifices.
In summary, Mark's religious authority praises and validates Jesus, whereas Luke's "experts," including the priest and Levite, are examples of who you DON'T want to be.
Why the Samaritans were despised by many Jews in Jesus' day
I can tell you with almost 100% certainty that NO ONE in that crowd that day, including "the expert," ever expected that the despised Samaritan would be the hero of Jesus' parable and that they would be called to BE LIKE THE SAMARITAN!
Name a branch of the Christian faith you really don't like and think are a bunch of heretics, and you have identified how most Jerusalem Jews felt about the Samaritans. (Through this parable you've also identified what Jesus thinks about your opinion of his other children.)
A look at a map of Israel and a dip into Israel's history reveal the reason why.
Samaria is the region north of Jerusalem/Judea/Judah and south of Galilee. It had been the seat of the "Northern Kingdom" of Israel during the hundreds of years that Israel had been split into two kingdoms. Think King Ahab and Queen Jezebel of the Northern Kingdom and you begin to see the problem (1 Kings 16 ff). Not only had the Samaritans created a rival version of Judaism outside of Jerusalem, they were accused by their southern neighbors of being "impure," because when the Northern Kingdom was conquered by the Assyrians in 732 B.C., the Assyrians settled their army there, intermarried with the Israelites, and allowed non-Jewish religions and practices to get established. By the 5th century B.C., the Samaritans even had their own Temple on Mt. Gerezim, developing a rival Jewish religion with some different scriptures and traditions. One hundred years before the birth of Christ, an army from Jerusalem led by John Hyrcanus, a Hasmonean (Maccabean) leader, demolished the Samaritan Temple. Recall that "tearing down high places" and "foreign influences" are a constant thorn in Israel's history dating back to the Book of Judges. Jesus himself spent quite a bit of time in Samaria, which probably only added to his reputation for loving the "wrong" people.
Setting the parable on the Road to Jericho adds another element of conflict to the parable. It was well-traveled, and was well-patrolled by the Roman army because it was a rugged commercial highway to Jerusalem for the caravans coming up from the east across the Dead Sea and from Egypt. Jericho was a commercial town, even an "international desert port" of sorts. It was also the southern gateway to the River Jordan and the road up to Galilee. Jesus undoubtedly knew these roads well and the different kinds of people who would have traveled on them.
In a child's world, the "boundaries" that separate people are more likely to be social and economic, racial and cultural, and yes, a bit geographic too.
- What does "the map" of differences and cultures look like in your community? In your schools?
- Who are the ones considered "impure" and "unworthy" in your community? In our world?
- Why do we judge people based on where they worship or how they look or on their history, rather than on how loving and compassionate they are?
- Where is the "Road to Jericho" in your community? The place where people are hurting?
A closer look at the meaning of the Greek words chosen by Luke often reveals a broader range of meaning than any single English translation can capture. Here are several interesting and important word studies from the parable.
"Neighbor"—the word appears three times in the passage
πλησίον (play-see'-on) "neighbor," "one who is near," "friend," "fellow countryman." "Paesano" in Spanish and "paisano" in Italian are based on the Greek word πλησίον used in the New Testament, which came into Latin (Roman) as "pagensis." It was sometimes used to describe "rustic" country dwellers, and is related to the word "peasant" and "pagan" (which originally meant "village or country dweller").
Interestingly, "paella" the Spanish dish with a similar spelling and sound to "paesano" means stew that is cooked and served in a common "pot" or "little pan" a "paella." (I mention that as a possible tip for a Cooking Workshop.) A "neighbor" is someone you recognize as coming from the same pan. What pan do Christians come from?
The typical definition of "neighbor" is someone who lives near you, which usually means someone "like" you. Jesus' definition, however, knocks over the conventional walls of race, religion, and socio-economic status and redefines "neighbor" as anyone who both needs mercy and gives it.
"What must I do to inherit eternal life?" (v25)
The expert in the law stood up to "test" Jesus' knowledge of scripture and the Law—to see if Jesus really knew his stuff or was a pretender or a false teacher. Amazingly, Jesus invites the expert to answer his own question. And when the expert quotes scripture, you get the sense that he proudly and lovingly did so. The expert recites what we know as the "Great Commandment" and what Jews call the "Shema" --- "Hear O Israel... love God, love your neighbor as your self." Jesus tells him he is right and to "do this and you will live."
Eternal or everlasting life can certainly be a reference to the afterlife, heaven, etc., but the word "ζωή" ("Zoe" "life") that Luke uses in the story can also be understood as a "fulfilling life" or "genuine" (faithful) life, a life pleasing to God. It will be helpful to explain this to children and invite them to rephrase the question that all the world tries to answer:
What must I do to have a fulfilling life? ...a happy life? ...a genuine life?
What must I do to please God? What does God want me to do?
The answer is to "love God and love your neighbor." Do this and you will be fulfilled, happy, faithful, content, at peace, satisfied, cheerful, unworried—in other words, all the things we hear Jesus trying to teach us in other scriptures such as the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount. The life we are to inherit starts now.
The one who showed and "poured mercy" (v37)
The word Luke uses for "mercy" ("ἔλεος" "eleos") in verse 37 is the same word he uses in verse 33 which is translated as "compassion." Mercy and compassion are interchangeable in scripture.
Interestingly, a version of the Greek word for "mercy" is a cry of pain or lament: ἐλελεῦ • (eleleû). It is onomatopoeic, meaning if you say "el-le-loooo" out loud with a slightly plaintive or painful voice, it sounds like a cry for help.
There is a possible etymological connection between the words "mercy/compassion" and the word "olive oil" which the Samaritan put on the man's wounds. Olive oil was used as a cleaning agent and medicine in ancient times. The Greek word Luke uses for "olive oil" is ἐλαία (el-ah'-yah) which shares the same root as "ἔλεος" (eleos) "mercy/compassion." Thus, we have the possible image of the Samaritan "pouring mercy" into the man's wounds. Olive oil has a symbolic and liturgical significance found throughout scripture. For example, in the stories of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath (I Kings 17) and Elisha and Shunammite widow (2 Kings 6), the oil that doesn't run out is a symbol of God's forgiveness and mercy to those who are outsiders and considered unworthy.
"Doing" and "showing" compassion, mercy (v36, 37)
36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
In verse 37, Jesus uses the same verb as the Expert in the Law when he says, "go and do likewise."
SHOW | DO: ποιέω ("poy-eh-o") is most often translated in the Bible as to "do" or "make." Sometimes it is translated as "show," "construct," "produce," "bring forth." It is not enough to pray, hope, or think about compassion, Jesus calls us to DO it, make it, build it. This is in stark contrast to the priest and Levite who used a religious excuse to not do compassion. Perhaps they felt compassion for the beaten man, but merely feeling it isn't enough.
Synonyms for "do" and "show" are helpful in thinking about how to be compassionate or merciful (and how we might teach it, or act it out). One can "engineer" compassion, "construct" it, "proclaim" it, "demonstrate" it, "behave/model" it, "make it visible," "be an example of" compassion, "build," "form," "pressure," and even "require" mercy.
"Go and engineer it."
"Go and proclaim it."
"Go and require it."
1The NRSV's Updated Edition makes three interesting changes to the traditional NRSV and NIV translations—and each change improves the explanation of the parable to children.
(1) Verse 23: Lawyer ⇒ Expert in the Law
The NRSV identifies the person quizzing Jesus as "a lawyer," whereas the NRSVUE uses the phrase "expert in the law." The NIV also uses "expert in the law." The reason for the NRSV's change is that today the word "lawyer" typically describes someone who interprets civil law and appears in a courtroom. Whereas the legal expert in the parable is an expert in the Torah, The Law of Moses, and applied those laws strictly to everyday life and behavior. Here's a good article about "experts in the law" in Jesus' day. Keep in mind that elsewhere in scripture these "experts" were known as "scribes."
(2) Verse 29: wanting to justify himself ⇒ wanting to vindicate himself
Both the NRSV and NIV use the phrase "justify himself" to describe the law expert's motives for asking Jesus a second question. Word meanings change over time, and it appears that the NRSV Updated Edition changed "justify" to "vindicate" to take the ambiguity out of what the legal expert was trying to do. He had failed to trip up Jesus in front of the crowd with his opening question, so we might say he was "trying to save face" by asking a trickier question. "And who is my neighbor?" Luke's Greek word here is δικαιοῦν (dikaioo), which can mean "justify," "show," "free," "appear to be righteous." Synonyms for "vindicate" are "acquit, liberate, redeem." In 2022 common American English, "redeem himself" would have been a better choice than "vindicate." I'm guessing the NRSVUE translators chose "vindicate" because it is a more legal term than "redeem."
(3) Verse 33: he was moved with pity ⇒ he was moved with compassion
The NRSV Updated Edition changes "pity" to "compassion," no doubt because the word "pity" in modern American English is sometimes used to cast a cold or negative judgment on someone without the "heart" that the word "compassion" evokes. Compassion makes a stronger case that the Good Samaritan's actions came from his heart, whereas the Priest and the Levite may have pitied the poor man but were not moved to overcome their reasons for not helping. Jesus wants us to care, not just act (or not act) out of a sense of duty.
2 Re: "adding the character of the Good Samaritan."
Careful comparisons between Matthew, Mark, and Luke have led most Bible scholars to conclude that Matthew and Luke had a copy of Mark in front of them when they wrote their Gospels. Comparing, we can see the changes and additions Luke made to Mark's account, such as including Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan in the discussion between Jesus and the scribe/lawyer/expert about the "greatest" commandment.
Written for the Rotation.org Writing Team by Rev. Neil MacQueen (PCUSA)
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