Biblical reflection for the year of mercy (7):The ‘Merciful’ Neighbor: The Good Samaritan (Lk 10:25-37)


“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead” (v.30). During my studies in the Holy Land (at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem) in 2013, I had the opportunity to go down this perilous road from Jerusalem to Jericho many times with my NT history teacher and classmates. The road connecting the two cities is approximately sixteen miles long and it passes through Wadi Qelt. Geographically, Wadi Qelt is a valley that runs west to east across the Judean desert. Every time, we passed by this road, either our teacher or my classmates reminded one another of how Jesus and his disciples could have walked this part of the desert, and how the parable would have come alive to Jesus’ audience, who were exposed to the imminent risk on this hazardous path.

Undoubtedly, the parable of the Good Samaritan in Lk 10:25-37 is one of the most well-known and treasured parables of the NT. Beyond the Bible, so enormous its impact on the secular world that several aid organizations and emergency services are named after the proverbial ‘good Samaritan’. Found in the Lucan Travel Narrative (Lk 9:51-19:44) that describes Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem with his disciples, this parable is undeniably, Jesus’ most provocative parable that intends to bring together the love for God and the love for neighbor—the two sides of the scale in an intricate way. It all begins with a lawyer’s question, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (v.25) In response, both Jesus and the lawyer agree that the love for God (Deuteronomy 6:5) and the love for neighbor (Leviticus 19:18) are the necessary conditions to inherit eternal life. However, the dialogue doesn’t end there, rather it takes an interesting turn. The words “wanting to justify himself” (v.29) by the legal expert indicate that he wanted to outwit Jesus and to demonstrate what he really understood about the neighbor as defined by the Law. Perhaps, he might have expected Jesus to define and delimit the neighbor to his close relations and friends. However, Jesus transcends all social, religious and cultural boundaries and that of kith and kin, rich and poor, near and far, regions and religions and by narrating the parable of the Good Samaritan, he illustrates that all those who are in need are one’s neighbors. Thus, he affirms the superiority of love over legalism.

Though the characters in the story, the priest, the Levite and the Samaritan are anonymous, they are identified by their religious and ethnic identities. This brings to the fore the prevalent relationship between the Jews and the Samaritans, marked by hostility. The Samaritans had a fourfold creed: 1) One God – YHWH; 2) One Prophet – Moses; 3) One Book – Torah; and 4) One Place – Mt Gerizim. The Jews agreed with the Samaritans on ‘One God’ and disagreed with the rest. One of the root causes for the friction between both the communities concerning worship is found in the dialogue between Jesus and the Samaritan woman in Jn 4:20—on which mountain should people worship God? On the mount in Jerusalem or on Mount Gerizim where the Samaritans worship? Given these Jewish-Samaritan tensions, both groups tried to avoid passing through each other’s territories and those travelling to Galilee made a round about journey, avoiding Samaria. At the end of the parable, this frictional sentiment is conspicuous in the words of the lawyer, who does not want to mention that it was the Samaritan who showed mercy to the dying man, rather he resorts to say, “the one who…”

The reader can easily discern that the priest and the Levite are representatives of Judaism, who should have been examples of mercy, reaching out to the dying man. The priests were basically set apart for the temple service, while the Levites who were associated with the temple and had a special dedication towards the Law, assisted people to worship and fulfill their obligations to God. But neither of them helped the dying man. Perhaps, they were risking defilement. Because, according to the Mosaic Law, whoever touched a corpse was unclean for a week. The law was perspicuous that if someone became contaminated and then performed a ritual action, he had to be excluded from Israel (cf. Nm 19:11-13). In a situation that involved either helping a dying man (risking defilement) or observe the laws of ritual purity (ignoring the wounded), the priest and the Levite chose the latter. Both of them saw the dying man and passed by on the other side, thus ignoring the ‘needy in the flesh’.

What they avoid or ignore doing is done by a Samarian—an enemy, a stranger and a foreigner. This is the most glaring paradox of the story. He saw the dying man and “had compassion” (v.33). The Greek verb that expresses the Samaritan’s compassion towards the dying man is splanchnizomai (= to have compassion), which literally means to feel for the other from the bowels. This verb derives from the noun splanchna meaning bowels. It implies that Samaritan’s compassion is not a transient and outward feeling of pity, but a deep and profound visceral compassion that flows from his innermost self.

The compassion felt by the Samaritan results in action, by caring for the dying man. The parable recounts with utmost precision, a series of specific actions, performed by the Samaritan: he went to him, he bound up his wounds pouring on oil and wine, he set him on his own animal, he brought him to an inn, and he took care of him in the inn for the night (attention paid when there is the most risk of dying). On the following day, he paid two denarii to the innkeeper (equivalent of two days’ wages) and guaranteed to repay him on this return, if there were other expenses. He truly walked an extra mile!

It is noteworthy that from the beginning till the end, the parable does not specify the religious or ethnic identity of the dying man whether he was a Jew or a pagan, nor his social or economic status whether he was poor or rich. Instead, the attention is paid to the reaction of the characters and their actions upon seeing the condition of the dying man. Unlike the priest and the Levite who left the wounded traveler completely alone, the Samaritan was merciful. His caring and courageous act towards the dying man demonstrates that compassion does not leave one indifferent or insensitive to another’s pain, but it compels one to show solidarity with the suffering. The Samaritan chose to open his heart and respond to the genuine human need of the dying man. He stopped by not out of curiosity, but out of compassionate love. At that moment, a neighbor was born. St. Ambrose of Milan said it beautifully, “Mercy, not kinship, makes someone a neighbor.” (Expo. Luke 7, 84). This is echoed by Pope Benedict in his Encyclical Deus Caritas Est (God is Love), no. 15: “The parable of the Good Samaritan (cf. Lk 10:25-37) offers two particularly important clarifications. Until that time, the concept of “neighbor” was understood as referring essentially to one’s countrymen and to foreigners who had settled in the land of Israel; in other words, to the closely-knit community of a single country or people. This limit is now abolished. Anyone who needs me, and whom I can help, is my neighbor. The concept of “neighbor” is now universalized, yet it remains concrete. Despite being extended to all mankind, it is not reduced to a generic, abstract and undemanding expression of love, but calls for my own practical commitment here and now.”

What does this parable convey to us? Firstly, Love for God and love for neighbor are two sides of the same scale. Love of God does not necessarily result in love for one’s neighbor or make one more merciful and compassionate. However, love for one’s neighbor is certainly born out of the experience that God has loved us, “We love, because he first loved us” (1 Jn 4:19). This operative principle unites both the great commandments enshrined in Deut 6:5 and Lev 19:18. Secondly, this parable is a perfect example for what compassionate and merciful love can do or achieve: it is able to stop and see the need of the neighbor; it is able to identify oneself with the needy neighbor; it is ready and willing to make sacrifices for the other; generous enough to spend one’s time and share resources with the other; readiness to walk the extra mile to alleviate the suffering of the other; and the disposition to be at the loving service of the other, “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Mt 25:40).

To conclude, reflecting on this parable, Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB speaks of four ‘P’s of this parable that convey the central message of this story: powerful, personal, pastoral and practical. He writes, “Luke’s story is powerful, for it speaks of the power of love that transcends all creeds and cultures and “creates” a neighbor out of a complete stranger. The parable is personal, for it describes with profound simplicity the birth of a human relationship that has a personal, physical touch, transcending social and cultural taboos, as one person binds the wounds of another. The parable is a pastoral, for it is filled with the mystery of care and concern that is at the heart of what is best in human beings. The story is primarily practical, for it urges us to cross all barriers of culture and community and to go and do likewise!”

“Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor…?” (v.36)
“The one who showed him mercy.” (v.37)
“Go and do likewise.”

A call to be merciful neighbor!

Fr. Naveen Rebello, SVD