The Good Samaritan is one of the most memorable parables told by Jesus (Luke 10:25-37). It’s the story of a man who had been brutally beaten by thieves and left for dead along a roadside. Two “good people,” a Priest and a Levite, avoided walking close to his battered body so they wouldn’t have to respond to the man’s need. But a Samaritan, who was, by their definition, not a good person, felt deep compassion and went out of his way to rescue the wounded man. The title “Good Samaritan” was created by Jesus’ followers to dramatize the irony that the seemingly “good people” were acting badly, while the “unrighteous,” second-class traveler was the one who demonstrated true goodness.

The Samaritans should have been kissing cousins to the Jews They were the remnants of the northern ten tribes of Israel, while the Jews were descendants of the southern two tribes. Their religion was based on the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, many of their worship practices were similar to the Jews’, and they shared an expectation of a coming Messiah. The big difference in their religious practice was geographic: the Samaritan Temple was on Mount Gerazim, while the Jewish Temple was on Mount Zion. The country of Samaria lay between Judah and Galilee, so Jewish people passed through Samaria day after day.

Jesus grew up surrounded by the typical Jewish prejudicial attitude toward Samaritans, so it was not natural for him to say something complimentary about them. Besides this parable, there are three other recorded incidents in the Gospels that refer to his interactions with them:

  • An incident early in his ministry when he was refused hospitality by people in a small Samaritan village, showing that the Jew/Samaritan prejudice was two-way and that Jesus experienced it personally (Luke 9:51-56).
  • His encounter with the woman at the well (John 4) who had more than three strikes against her: being a woman, being a Samaritan, having had five husbands and currently living with a man without being married. Her conversion led to many more Samaritan conversions (verse 39).
  • His healing of ten lepers, in which the only one who returned to thank him was identified as a Samaritan (Luke 17:11-19). Reminiscent of the woman at the well, this man had two identity factors which seemed to disqualify him from salvation, he was a leper and he was a Samaritan, yet Jesus said to him, “Your faith has saved you” (verse 19).

So, when Jesus chose to make a Samaritan the hero of his parable about caring for people in need, he was using exquisite irony. For many of the self-righteous people hearing him, there was no such thing as a “Good Samaritan”; they were, by definition, outsiders, excluded. Yet, this man from an underclass in society was acting in a way that put to shame the Priest and the Levite. They knew how to feign goodness, but he demonstrated true goodness through showing compassion to a stranger.

In contrast to the in-group leaders’ avoidance of Samaritans, lepers and adulterous women, Jesus said, “The Father seeks such as these to worship him” (John 4:23).

What does this say to us as Twenty-First Century American Christians? I think it’s pretty clear that Jesus is telling us to be like the Samaritan, and not like the Priest and the Levite. We should be watching out for hurting people by the side of the road whom we can embrace in the name of Jesus, not looking for ways to avoid addressing their needs. But he’s also humbling us by uncovering subtle prejudices we have toward people whom we consider second-class in some way. We just don’t expect them to act in a way that is genuinely good, and when they do, our own failure to live up to our professed standards is exposed.

Who are your Samaritans? What type of people does God use to show you up?

– Pastor George Van Alstine