The Parable of the Good Samaritan is a famous New Testament parable appearing only in the Gospel of Luke (10:25-37). It is one of the most frequently quoted of Jesus’ parables.
This parable is one of the most famous from the New Testament and its influence is such that to be called a Samaritan in Western culture today is to be described as a generous person who is ready to provide aid to people in distress without hesitation. In many English-speaking countries, a Good Samaritan law exists to protect from liability those who choose to aid people who are seriously ill or injured. Luke’s parable may also prefigure the positive image of Samaritans in Acts, which is a continuation of the story as told in his gospel. There the Samaritans respond positively to the Christian message.
The frame story for the incident begins when a religious scholar of the Law tests Jesus by asking him what is necessary to inherit eternal life. Jesus asks the lawyer what the Mosaic Law says about it. When the lawyer quotes the scripture, saying “Love God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strengths and all your mind (Deuteronomy 6:5), and the parallel law of “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18), Jesus says that he has answered correctly–”Do this and you will live,” he tells him. See also this section of Ministry of Jesus. This can be understood as meaning that those who follow the law, Jewish or not, will be able to inherit eternal life.
But the lawyer then asks Jesus to tell him who his neighbor is. Jesus responds with a parable about a man who was attacked and robbed and left to die by the side of a road. Later, a priest saw the stricken figure and avoided him, presumably in order to maintain ritual purity. Similarly, a Levite saw the man and ignored him as well. Then a Samaritan passed by, and, despite the mutual antipathy between Samaritans and the Jewish population, he immediately rendered assistance by giving him first aid and taking him to an inn to recover while promising to cover the expenses. He pays the innkeeper two denarii, silver coins equal to an entire day’s wages for an average laborer, and then promises the innkeeper that he will come back and take care of any further charges the beaten man incurs.
At the conclusion of the story, Jesus asks the lawyer, of the three passers-by, who was the stricken man’s neighbor? The lawyer, apparently unwilling to say, “The Samaritan,” responds, “The one who helped him.” Jesus responds with “Go and do the same.”
And, behold, a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted him, saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life? He said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou?
And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.
And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live.
But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbour?
And Jesus answering said, A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.
And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.
And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side.
But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him, –
And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.
And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee.
Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves?
And he said, He that shewed mercy on him. Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise. KJV
The Samaritans known in the Talmud as Kuthim, are an ethnoreligious group of the Levant. Ancestrally, they are descended from a group of Israelite inhabitants that have connections to ancient Samaria from the beginning of the Babylonian Exile up to the beginning of the Christian Era. The Samaritans, however, derive their name not from this geographical designation, but rather from the term שַמֶרִים (šāmĕrı̂m), “keeper [of the law]”. Religiously, they are the adherents to Samaritanism, a religion based on the Torah. Samaritans claim that their worship (as opposed to mainstream Judaism) is the true religion of the ancient Israelites, predating the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem.
The Samaritans speak either Modern Hebrew (in Holon) or Palestinian Arabic (in Nablus) as their mother language. For liturgical purposes, Samaritan Hebrew, also known as ancient Hebrew, and Samaritan Aramaic are used.
Samaritans were despised by the Jews, the story’s target audience. Located in an area that was once part of the Northern Kingdom of greater Israel, their traditions included a mix of traditions from the region, including Jewish. The Samaritans were also largely taught by their interpretation of history to hate Jews.
The Jewish Encyclopedia argues that the parable was changed in order to cast the Jewish people in a more negative light.
One of these parables deserves special mention here, as it has obviously been changed, for dogmatic reasons, so as to have an anti-Jewish application. There is little doubt that J. Halevy is right (“R. E. J.” iv. 249-255) in suggesting that in the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke x. 17-37) the original contrast was between the priest, the Levite, and the ordinary Israelite—representing the three great classes into which Jews then and now were and are divided. The point of the parable is against the sacerdotal class, whose members indeed brought about the death of Jesus. Later, “Israelite” or “Jew” was changed into “Samaritan,” which introduces an element of inconsistency, since no Samaritan would have been found on the road between Jericho and Jerusalem (ib. 30).
The predominant Christian view indicates this parable is told by Jesus in order to illustrate that compassion should be for all people, and that fulfilling the spirit of the Law is just as important as fulfilling the letter of the Law. Jesus expands the definition of neighbor beyond the ethnic or religious context, emphasizing our common humanity was the basis for what constitutes a neighbor.
This parable is not only one of Jesus’ most famous sayings, but one of the most recognizable stories of the New Testament. Like all successful narratives, it has number of different layers of meaning. It is predicated on turning the expectation of the hearer on its head. The Jewish listeners would naturally identify with the Levite and despise the Samaritan, but the story confounds their expectation. The hated minority proves to be the truly righteous figure. Within the context of the narrative, it is the character displayed by the actions of the Samaritan, not the religion and ethnicity of the other two Jewish characters that counts for righteousness. From that specific lesson, the story has come to stand for a generalized theme of non-discrimination and interracial harmony. As the story reached those who were unaware of the status of Samaritans, this aspect of the parable became more pronounced as fewer people knew the specific historical context. Ironically, as a result, the name Samaritan has taken on a very favorable cast, in diametric opposition to the perspective of the Jewish listeners.
The implication of Jesus’ answer is that a “neighbor” is anyone who needs love and help and the “good neighbor” of the story was the one who acted in love. As with many of Jesus’ parables, the story takes the essential meaning that is inscribed in the Jewish traditions and expands it. The law promotes righteous behavior, but the good action performed by the Samaritan extends beyond what is commanded, demonstrating a higher standard of love.
Given the enmity between Jews and Samaritans, the moral dimension of the story makes it applicable to many contemporary situations. Any situation where enemies confront one another–Jews and Palestinians, Hutu and Tutsi, Chinese and Tibetan. The message’s essential point is that humanity’s bonds in brotherhood transcend social and cognitive segmentations which we adopt in our lives, and that our moral obligations extend beyond those boundaries.
Many Christians have used it as an example of Christianity against racial prejudice.
While this parable is known for its social implications in our modern world, it also presents a very important contextual spiritual message. During his ministry Jesus was often accused of associating with the publicans and sinners by the Scribes and Pharisees (Luke 5:30). In the parable of the Good Samaritan Jesus reaffirms his reasons for doing so, which are also reported in Luke 5:31-32. The stricken figure in the parable represents all those who are spiritually sick, such as the gentiles and the sinners. That it was a priest and then a Levite who first passed by is significant beyond the irony of the situation: people who were expected to help, didn’t, while someone whom the victim (and Jesus’ audience) despised, did.
The priest may have failed to help since touching a dying or badly wounded person, while not forbidden, would have violated ritual purity laws and would have required the necessary cleansing rituals prescribed by Mosaic Law. On this reading, the priest could be seen as more concerned with the tenets of his religion than with the common humanity that he shared with the victim. This perspective would be consistent with other saying by Jesus, such as plucking grain on the Sabbath that was apparently a point of contention between him and the authorities.
One approach to interpretation of Biblical texts is allegorical. According to John Welch the parable can be read as an allegory of the Fall and Redemption.
“This parable’s content is clearly practical and dramatic in its obvious meaning, but a time-honored Christian tradition also saw the parable as an impressive allegory of the Fall and Redemption of mankind. This early Christian understanding of the good Samaritan is depicted in a famous eleventh-century cathedral in Chartres, France. One of its beautiful stained-glass windows portrays the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden at the top of the window, and, in parallel, the parable of the good Samaritan at the bottom. This illustrates “a symbolic interpretation of Christ’s parable that was popular in the Middle Ages.” … The roots of this allegorical interpretation reach deep into early Christianity. In the second century C.E., Irenaeus in France and Clement of Alexandria both saw the good Samaritan as symbolizing Christ Himself saving the fallen victim, wounded with sin. A few years later, Clement’s pupil Origen stated that this interpretation came down to him from earlier Christians, who had described the allegory as follows:
The man who was going down is Adam. Jerusalem is paradise, and Jericho is the world. The robbers are hostile powers. The priest is the Law, the Levite is the prophets, and the Samaritan is Christ. The wounds are disobedience, the beast is the Lord’s body, the [inn], which accepts all who wish to enter, is the Church. … The manager of the [inn] is the head of the Church, to whom its care has been entrusted. And the fact that the Samaritan promises he will return represents the Savior’s second coming.
“This allegorical reading was taught not only by ancient followers of Jesus, but it was virtually universal throughout early Christianity, being advocated by Irenaeus, Clement, and Origen, and in the fourth and fifth centuries by Chrysostom in Constantinople, Ambrose in Milan, and Augustine in North Africa. This interpretation is found most completely in two other medieval stained-glass windows, in the French cathedrals at Bourges and Sens.”