WE EVADE the challenge of this Sunday’s parable if we take it simply as a call to be “good Samaritans”. Jesus is not primarily inviting his hearers to extend the range of people to whom they might be charitable: he is urging them to recognise the sacrificial love that is displayed by the very people they despise.
There is tension in the air from the beginning of Jesus’s dialogue with the lawyer. As David Lyle Jeffrey explains, the lawyer is “clearly baiting Jesus” (Brazos Theological Commentary on Scripture: Luke). Jesus sidesteps the attempt to impugn his orthodoxy: as St Cyril of Alexandria observes, “The lawyer missed his prey.” In doing so, Jesus draws out of his opponent a clear summary of the Law, with which Jesus will criticise the way in which that Law is used by the religious authorities.
The lawyer is left dissatisfied. “Wanting to justify himself,” he asks: “Who is my neighbour?” As Jeffrey observes, “This particular question presents itself as an enquiry after the good, or justice, but is actually something else.” The lawyer is probing the limits of the groups in society who are worthy of neighbourly love. This line of inquiry was probably prompted by the range of characters with whom Jesus was sharing table fellowship, and on whom he was bestowing healing.
Jesus does not tell a story about an exemplary rabbi who cared for a Samaritan in need. (That would have been the obvious story to tell, had Jesus’s primary message been that we should care for those in need, regardless of background.) Such a story would still have shocked the lawyer; for Samaritans were a group for whom he would have understood himself to have no duty of care. Indeed, he would have held and taught that Jews should not even break bread with Samaritans.
The point that Jesus is making, however, is even more subversive. In his parables, the Good Samaritan is not a controversial object of charity: he is the one who dispenses it, in a manner explicitly contrasted with that of the priests and Levites who are fastidious about their spiritual purity.
The story is, in part, a satire on the religious elite of Jesus’s day — a group obsessed with external recognition and observances, and yet deficient in the virtues that the Law was intended to inculcate in God’s people. As our first reading reminds us, the Lord gave the Law not simply as a collection of rules to be obeyed, but as a way to fullness of life, which the people were to have “in their hearts” as well as on their lips. Faithfulness to the Law involved “turning” to the Lord “with all your heart and all your soul” — a point echoed in the lawyer’s own summary of the Law, but one that Jesus is showing to be absent in his practice.
In their outward observance, the priest and the Levite in the parable have missed the heart of the Law, in which obedience to God is expressed not only in worship, but in care of those in need (including the stranger in the land, cf. Deuteronomy 10.18-19). This is the point at issue in Jesus’s healings on the sabbath, his inclusion of lepers and Gentiles, and his critique of the use of legalism to evade the deeper intent of the Law (for example, Mark 7.11-12).
It is the stranger who reveals the true nature of divine grace: a compassion that, when confronted with human suffering, does not seek refuge in legalistic excuses, but responds with sacrificial love. From the earliest days, this parable has also been understood as an allegory of Christ’s ministry. St Augustine tells his hearers that “robbers left you half-dead on the road, but you have been found lying there by the passing and kindly Samaritan. Wine and oil have been poured on you. You have received the sacrament of the only-begotten Son. You have been lifted on to his mule.”
As our epistle reminds us, it is precisely because the death and resurrection of Jesus is “the means through which God has transformed the universe” that we are able to be ministers of his grace and mercy (Margaret MacDonald, Sacra Pagina: Colossians and Ephesians). Our life in Christ begins not with our own obedience, but with the compassion of one whom we had in Adam made a stranger, but who restores us through his sacrificial love.