Parable of the Good Samaritan
The parable of the Good Samaritan is a parable told by Jesus and is mentioned in only one of the gospels of the New Testament. According to the Gospel of Luke (10:29–37) a traveller (who may or may not have been a Jew) is beaten, robbed, and left half dead along the road. First a priest and then a Levite come by, but both avoid the man. Finally, a Samaritan comes by. Samaritans and Jews generally despised each other, but the Samaritan helps the injured man. Jesus is described as telling the parable in response to a question regarding the identity of the "neighbour", who Leviticus 19:18 says should be loved.
Some Christians, such as Augustine, have interpreted the parable allegorically, with the Samaritan representing Jesus Christ, who saves the sinful soul. Others, however, discount this allegory as unrelated to the parable's original meaning and see the parable as exemplifying the ethics of Jesus.
The parable has inspired painting, sculpture, poetry, and film. The colloquial phrase "good Samaritan", meaning someone who helps a stranger, derives from this parable, and many hospitals and charitable organizations are named after the Good Samaritan.
In the Gospel of Luke, the parable is introduced by a question, known as the Great Commandment:
Behold, a certain lawyer stood up and tested him, saying, "Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?"
He said to him, "What is written in the law? How do you read it?"
He answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, with all your mind, [Deuteronomy 6:5]; and your neighbour as yourself [Leviticus 19:18]."
He said to him, "You have answered correctly. Do this, and you will live."
But he, desiring to justify himself, asked Jesus, "Who is my neighbour?"
— Luke 10:25–29, World English Bible
Jesus replies with a story:
Jesus answered, "A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who both stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead. By chance a certain priest was going down that way. When he saw him, he passed by on the other side. In the same way a Levite also, when he came to the place, and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he travelled, came where he was. When he saw him, he was moved with compassion, came to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. He set him on his own animal, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, and gave them to the host, and said to him, 'Take care of him. Whatever you spend beyond that, I will repay you when I return.' Now which of these three do you think seemed to be a neighbour to him who fell among the robbers?"
He said, "He who showed mercy on him."
Then Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise."
— Luke 10:30–37, World English Bible
Road from Jerusalem to Jericho
In the time of Jesus, the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was notorious for its danger and difficulty, and was known as the "Way of Blood" because "of the blood which is often shed there by robbers". Martin Luther King, Jr., in his "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech, on the day before his death, described the road as follows:
- I remember when Mrs. King and I were first in Jerusalem. We rented a car and drove from Jerusalem down to Jericho. And as soon as we got on that road I said to my wife, "I can see why Jesus used this as the setting for his parable." It's a winding, meandering road. It's really conducive for ambushing. You start out in Jerusalem, which is about twelve hundred feet above sea level [actually about 2100 feet or 640 metres]. And by the time you get down to Jericho fifteen or twenty minutes later, you're about twenty-two feet [7 m] below sea level [actually 846 feet or 258 metres]. That's a dangerous road. In the days of Jesus it came to be known as the "Bloody Pass." And you know, it's possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it's possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking, and he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt in order to seize them over there, lure them there for quick and easy seizure. And so the first question that the priest asked, the first question that the Levite asked was, "If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?"
However, King continues:
- But then the Good Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question: "If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?"
Samaritans and Jesus
Samaritans were hated by Jesus' target audience, the Jews, to such a degree that the Lawyer's phrase "The one who had mercy on him" may indicate a reluctance to name the Samaritan. The Samaritans in turn hated the Jews. Tensions were particularly high in the early decades of the 1st century because Samaritans had desecrated the Jewish Temple at Passover with human bones.
As the story reached those who were unaware of the oppression of the Samaritans, this aspect of the parable became less and less discernible: fewer and fewer people ever heard of them in any context other than as a description. Today, the story is often recast in a more modern setting where the people are ones in equivalent social groups known not to interact comfortably. Thus, cast appropriately, the parable regains its message to modern listeners: namely, that an individual of a social group they disapprove of can exhibit moral behavior that is superior to individuals of the groups they approve. Christians have used it as an example of Christianity's opposition to racial, ethnic, and sectarian prejudice. For example, anti-slavery campaigner William Jay described clergy who ignored slavery as "following the example of the priest and Levite". Martin Luther King, Jr., in his "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech, described the Samaritan as "a man of another race". Sundee Tucker Frazier saw the Samaritan more specifically as an example of a mixed-race person. Klyne Snodgrass wrote: "On the basis of this parable we must deal with our own racism but must also seek justice for, and offer assistance to, those in need, regardless of the group to which they belong."
Samaritans appear elsewhere in the Gospels. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus heals ten lepers and only the Samaritan among them thanks him (Luke 17:11–19), although Luke 9:51–56 depicts Jesus receiving a hostile reception in Samaria. Luke's favorable treatment of Samaritans is in line with Luke's favorable treatment of the weak and of outcasts, generally. In John, Jesus has an extended dialogue with a Samaritan woman, and many Samaritans come to believe in him. In Matthew, however, Jesus instructs his disciples not to preach in heathen or Samaritan cities (Matthew 10:5–8). In the Gospels, generally, "though the Jews of Jesus' day had no time for the 'half-breed' people of Samaria", Jesus "never spoke disparagingly about them" and "held a benign view of Samaritans".
Priests and Levites
In Jesus's culture, contact with a dead body was understood to be defiling. Priests were particularly enjoined to avoid uncleanness. The priest and Levite may therefore have assumed that the fallen traveler was dead and avoided him to keep themselves ritually clean. On the other hand, the depiction of travel downhill (from Jerusalem to Jericho) may indicate that their temple duties had already been completed, making this explanation less likely, although this is disputed. Since the Mishnah made an exception for neglected corpses, the priest and the Levite could have used the law to justify both touching a corpse and ignoring it. In any case, passing by on the other side avoided checking "whether he was dead or alive". Indeed, "it weighed more with them that he might be dead and defiling to the touch of those whose business was with holy things than that he might be alive and in need of care."
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.
John Welch further states:
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."
How kind the good Samaritan
To him who fell among the thieves!
Thus Jesus pities fallen man,
And heals the wounds the soul receives.
Robert Funk also suggests that Jesus' Jewish listeners were to identify with the robbed and wounded man. In his view, the help received from a hated Samaritan is like the kingdom of God received as grace from an unexpected source.
- The allegory which is here contrived by the advocates of free will is too absurd to deserve refutation. According to them, under the figure of a wounded man is described the condition of Adam after the fall; from which they infer that the power of acting well was not wholly extinguished in him; because he is said to be only half-dead. As if it had been the design of Christ, in this passage, to speak of the corruption of human nature, and to inquire whether the wound which Satan inflicted on Adam were deadly or curable; nay, as if he had not plainly, and without a figure, declared in another passage, that all are dead, but those whom he quickens by his voice (John 5:25). As little plausibility belongs to another allegory, which, however, has been so highly satisfactory, that it has been admitted by almost universal consent, as if it had been a revelation from heaven. This Samaritan they imagine to be Christ, because he is our guardian; and they tell us that wine was poured, along with oil, into the wound, because Christ cures us by repentance and by a promise of grace. They have contrived a third subtlety, that Christ does not immediately restore health, but sends us to the Church, as an innkeeper, to be gradually cured. I acknowledge that I have no liking for any of these interpretations; but we ought to have a deeper reverence for Scripture than to reckon ourselves at liberty to disguise its natural meaning. And, indeed, any one may see that the curiosity of certain men has led them to contrive these speculations, contrary to the intention of Christ.
Francis Schaeffer suggested: "Christians are not to love their believing brothers to the exclusion of their non-believing fellowmen. That is ugly. We are to have the example of the good Samaritan consciously in mind at all times."
Other modern theologians have taken similar positions. For example, G. B. Caird wrote:
- Dodd quotes as a cautionary example Augustine's allegorisation of the Good Samaritan, in which the man is Adam, Jerusalem the heavenly city, Jericho the moon – the symbol of immortality; the thieves are the devil and his angels, who strip the man of immortality by persuading him to sin and so leave him (spiritually) half dead; the priest and levite represent the Old Testament, the Samaritan Christ, the beast his flesh which he assumed at the Incarnation; the inn is the church and the innkeeper the apostle Paul. Most modern readers would agree with Dodd that this farrago bears no relationship to the real meaning of the parable.
The meaning of the parable for Calvin was, instead, that "compassion, which an enemy showed to a Jew, demonstrates that the guidance and teaching of nature are sufficient to show that man was created for the sake of man. Hence it is inferred that there is a mutual obligation between all men." In other writings, Calvin pointed out that people are not born merely for themselves, but rather "mankind is knit together with a holy knot ... we must not live for ourselves, but for our neighbors." Earlier, Cyril of Alexandria had written that "a crown of love is being twined for him who loves his neighbour."
- ... presupposes the identification of "anyone" as a neighbor, then presses the point that such an identification opens wide the door of loving action. By leaving aside the identity of the wounded man and by portraying the Samaritan traveler as one who performs the law (and so as one whose actions are consistent with an orientation to eternal life), Jesus has nullified the worldview that gives rise to such questions as, Who is my neighbor? The purity-holiness matrix has been capsized. And, not surprisingly in the Third Gospel, neighborly love has been concretized in care for one who is, in this parable, self-evidently a social outcast
Such a reading of the parable makes it important in liberation theology, where it provides a concrete anchoring for love and indicates an "all embracing reach of solidarity." In Indian Dalit theology, it is seen as providing a "life-giving message to the marginalized Dalits and a challenging message to the non-Dalits."
Martin Luther King, Jr. often spoke of this parable, contrasting the rapacious philosophy of the robbers, and the self-preserving non-involvement of the priest and Levite, with the Samaritan's coming to the aid of the man in need. King also extended the call for neighbourly assistance to society at large:
- On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life's roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.
The unexpected appearance of the Samaritan led Joseph Halévy to suggest that the parable originally involved "a priest, a Levite, and an Israelite", in line with contemporary Jewish stories, and that Luke changed the parable to be more familiar to a gentile audience." Halévy further suggests that, in real life, it was unlikely that a Samaritan would actually have been found on the road between Jericho and Jerusalem, although others claim that there was "nothing strange about a Samaritan travelling in Jewish territory". William C. Placher points out that such debate misinterprets the biblical genre of a parable, which illustrates a moral rather than a historical point: on reading the story, "we are not inclined to check the story against the police blotter for the Jerusalem-Jericho highway patrol. We recognize that Jesus is telling a story to illustrate a moral point, and that such stories often don't claim to correspond to actual events." The moral of the story would still hold if the parable originally followed the priest-Levite-Israelite sequence of contemporary Jewish stories, as Halévy suggested.
The Jesus Seminar voted this parable to be authentic, with 60% of fellows rating it "red" (authentic) and a further 29% rating it "pink" (probably authentic). The paradox of a disliked outsider such as a Samaritan helping a Jew is typical of Jesus' provocative parables, and is a deliberate feature of this parable. In the Greek text, the shock value of the Samaritan's appearance is enhanced by the emphatic Σαμαρίτης (Samaritēs) at the beginning of the sentence in verse 33.
Bernard Brandon Scott, a member of the Jesus Seminar, questions the authenticity of the parable's context, suggesting that "the parable originally circulated separately from the question about neighborliness" and that the "existence of the lawyer's question in Mark and Matthew, in addition to the evidence of heavy Lukan editing" indicates the parable and its context were "very probably joined editorially by Luke." A number of other commentators share this opinion, with the consensus of the Jesus Seminar being that verses 36–37 were added by Luke to "connect with the lawyer's question." On the other hand, the "keen rabbinic interest in the question of the greatest commandment" may make this argument invalid, in that Luke may be describing a different occurrence of the question being asked. Differences between the gospels suggest that Luke is referring to a different episode from Mark and Matthew, and Klyne Snodgrass writes that "While one cannot exclude that Luke has joined two originally separate narratives, evidence for this is not convincing." The Oxford Bible Commentary notes:
- That Jesus was only tested once in this way is not a necessary assumption. The twist between the lawyer's question and Jesus' answer is entirely in keeping with Jesus' radical stance: he was making the lawyer rethink his presuppositions.
As a metaphor and name
The term "good Samaritan" is used as a common metaphor: "The word now applies to any charitable person, especially one who, like the man in the parable, rescues or helps out a needy stranger."
The name has consequently been used for a number of charitable organisations, including Samaritans, Samaritan's Purse, Sisters of the Good Samaritan, and The Samaritan Befrienders Hong Kong. The name Good Samaritan Hospital is used for a number of hospitals around the world. Good Samaritan laws encourage those who choose to serve and tend to others who are injured or ill.
Art and popular culture
This parable was one of the most popular in medieval art. The allegorical interpretation was often illustrated, with Christ as the Good Samaritan. Accompanying angels were sometimes also shown. In some Orthodox icons of the parable, the identification of the Good Samaritan as Christ is made explicit with a halo bearing a cross.
The numerous later artistic depictions of the parable include those of Rembrandt, Jan Wijnants, Vincent van Gogh, Aimé Morot, Domenico Fetti, Johann Carl Loth, George Frederic Watts, and Giacomo Conti. Sculptors such as Piet Esser and François-Léon Sicard have also produced works based on the parable.
In his essay Lost in Non-Translation, biochemist and author Isaac Asimov reminds us that at the time when the parable was included in the gospel, there were no good Samaritans; this was half the point of the parable. As Asimov put it, we need to think of the story occurring in Alabama in 1950, with a mayor and a preacher ignoring a man who has been beaten and robbed, with the role of the Samaritan being played by a poor black sharecropper.
The parable of the Good Samaritan is the theme for the Austrian Christian Charity commemorative coin, minted 12 March 2003. This coin shows the Good Samaritan with the wounded man, on his horse, as he takes him to an inn for medical attention. An older coin with this theme is the American "Good Samaritan Shilling" of 1652.
"He's been a fool, perhaps, and would
Have prospered had he tried,
But he was one who never could
Pass by the other side.
An honest man whom men called soft,
While laughing in their sleeves —
No doubt in business ways he oft
Had fallen amongst thieves."
Dramatic film adaptations of the Parable of the Good Samaritan include Samaritan, part of the widely acclaimed Modern Parables DVD Bible study series. Samaritan, which sets the parable in modern times, stars Antonio Albadran in the role of the Good Samaritan.
The English composer, Benjamin Britten, was commissioned to write a piece to mark the centenary of the Red Cross. His resulting work for solo voices, choir, and orchestra, Cantata Misericordium, sets a Latin text by Patrick Wilkinson that tells the parable of the Good Samaritan. It was first performed in Geneva in 1963. 
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- Brotherly Love
- Bystander effect
- Christian ethics
- Christian–Jewish reconciliation
- Golden Rule
- Matthew 5
- Great Commandment
- Life of Jesus in the New Testament
- Ministry of Jesus
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