The Good Samaritan – some extra ideas

What’s on this page?

  • Book extracts about Jesus and the parable of the Good Samaritan

Who’s in the gospel parable of the Good Samaritan?

  • a Temple priest from Jerusalem, a Levite, a Samaritan, and a hapless victim of robbery with violence

‘I suppose I had best lay my cards face up right here. To me, the central figure in the parable is not the Samaritan. He is simply one of the three characters in the story who have the opportunity to display neighborliness as Jesus defines it.

The defining character — the one to whom the other three respond by being non-neighbor or neighbor — is the man who fell among thieves.

The actual Christ-figure in the story, therefore, is yet another loser, yet another down-and-outer who, by just lying there in his lostness and proximity to death (hémithané – ‘practically dead’ is the way Jesus describes him), is in fact the closest thing to Jesus in the parable.

That runs counter, of course, to the better part of two thousand years’ worth of interpretation, but I shall insist on it. This parable, like so many of Jesus’ most telling ones, has been egregiously misnamed. It is not primarily about the Samaritan but about the man on the ground (just as the Prodigal Son is not about a boy’s sins but about his father’s forgiveness, and just as the Laborers in the Vineyard is not about the workers but about the beneficent vineyard-owner).

This means, incidentally, that Good Samaritan Hospitals have been likewise misnamed. It is the suffering, dying patients in such institutions who look most like Jesus in his redeeming work, not the doctors with their authoritarian stethoscopes around their necks. Accordingly, it would have been much less misleading to have named them Man-Who-Fell-Among Thieves Hospitals. But then the medical profession might sense libel in such an attempt at theological correctness. Back to my argument…’

The Parables of Grace, Robert Farr Capon, Chapter 7, ‘The First of the Misnamed Parables’, p.212


“A certain man,” Jesus says, “went down from Jerusalem to Jericho.” Consider first the physical remarkability of the journey. It is downhill all the way. Jerusalem stands 2,500 feet above the level of the Mediterranean and Jericho lies 825 feet below it.

That’s a drop of the better part of three-fifths of a mile and it takes the man in question down into increasingly depressing territory.

Without making too much of it, I am disposed to take Jesus’ postulation of such a descent as a parable in itself of his own downhill journey to his passion and death, and thus into the lastness, lostness, etc., that he now sees as the heart of his saving work.

And as if to underscore the allusion, he adds a whole string of details that Mark the man as a loser par excellence: “he fell among thieves who stripped him and beat him up and went away, leaving him half dead.”

Score several points for my notion that the man who fell among thieves is the authentic Christ-figure in the parable of the Good Samaritan.

The Parables of Grace, Robert Farr Capon, Chapter 7, ‘The First of the Misnamed Parables’, p.215

‘The parable involves the seventeen-mile road from Jerusalem to Jericho, which was notorious for its danger. A man of unidentified race falls among robbers, is beaten, and is left for dead. A priest and a Levite pass him by, offering no aid. In fact, they use the other side of the road to go by.

Jesus according to ScriptureIn contrast, a Samaritan stops out of compassion and takes care of the man.

At a literary level the account slows down here and gives very detailed attention to high-light the Samaritan’s action. Every act of kindness is noted: he dresses the victim’s wounds, comforts him by anointing the wounds with oil, places him on his animal, takes him to an inn, cares for him, and even leaves money to pay for his stay until he returns.

Jesus asks who acted as a neighbor to the wounded man.

The narrative takes a twist at two points.

  • First, Jesus took a question about who is a neighbor and turns it around to tell a story about being a neighbor. The issue is not thinking about who someone else is, but what kind of person I am. In effect, Jesus cuts the premise of classes of people out from the question.
  • Second, he makes a hated Samaritan the example. The statement is that neighbors can come in surprising packages and places. It is likely that the lawyer would have thought of a Samaritan as a non-neighbor. So Jesus has challenged the premise in a second way by making the exemplary neighbor a person whom the questioner would have rejected as a neighbor!’

Jesus according to Scripture, Darrell L. Bock, 2002, p.255

A priest, even in everyday life, was forbidden to touch a corpse (with the exceptions of his nearest blood-relations). But the Levite was only required to observe ritual cleanliness in the course of his cultic activities. If the Levite, like the priest in Luke 10.31, was journeying from Jerusalem to Jericho, there would be nothing to prevent him from touching ‘a dead body by the road’.

It must thus be assumed that if he were actuated by ritual considerations he was on his way to Jerusalem to perform his official duties. The passage (v. 32) does not exclude this assumption.

But another difficulty then arises: the weekly detachments of priests, Levites, and laymen who ran the temple service, used to travel up to Jerusalem in closed groups. Had the Levite in the parable been delayed? Was he one of the head Levites who served permanently in the temple? In short, it is difficult to regard the Levite as governed by ritual considerations.

According to the triadic form of popular stories, the audience would now have expected a third character, namely, after the priest and the Levite, an Israelite layman; they would hence have expected the parable to have an anti-clerical point.

It would have been completely unexpected and disconcerting for them to hear that the third character, who fulfilled the duty of love, was a Samaritan. The relations between the Jews and the mixed peoples, which had undergone considerable fluctuations, had become very much worse in the time of Jesus, after the Samaritans, between AD 6 and 9 at midnight, during a Passover, had defiled the Temple court by strewing dead men’s bones. As a result irreconcilable hostility existed between the two parties.

Hence it is clear that Jesus had intentionally chosen an extreme example; by comparing the failure of the ministers of God with the unselfishness of the hated Samaritan, his hearers should be able to measure the absolute and unlimited nature of the duty of love.

The Parables of Jesus, Joachim Jeremias, 1963, p.203-204

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