The Parable of the Good Samaritan

07.13.16 | by Rev. D.J. Griffin

    The Rev. D. J. Griffin

    A Reflection on Luke 10:25-37

    The manner in which the Summary of the Law shows up in the Gospel of Luke is interesting. Unlike in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, it does not come from the lips of Jesus, but rather from the lawyer. This particular lawyer, seeking to test Jesus and to make himself look smart while doing it, asks the Lord a typical question one might pose to rabbi: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” More than likely, the lawyer probably already knows the answer (or so he thinks); he is just interested in seeing how Jesus answers it. Jesus, in typical fashion, responds to the lawyer by throwing it right back at him. In a rather Socratic manner, Jesus responds with questions of his own: “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” Now it is Jesus who wants to see how the lawyer responds, and the lawyer takes the bait. But the implication in Jesus’s questions is that it is walking in God’s ways that one finds eternal life.

    The lawyer’s response has both Scriptural and rabbinic precedent. His two-part answer comes verbatim from Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. Ecclesiastes 12:13 makes a similar claim to Deuteronomy: “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone.” A rabbi named Aquiba ben Joseph, about a century before the birth of Christ, said of Leviticus 19:18, “This is the great principle of the Torah.”[1] And another great 1st-century B.C. rabbi named Hillel is recorded to have said, “What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Go, learn it!”[2] Having answered in the manner of such good authorities, the lawyer is probably not surprised when Jesus commends him.

    But the lawyer is not done yet. Fastidious as he is, he now wants to know exactly who Jesus defines as a “neighbor.” Perhaps he has in mind the way the Babylonian Talmud interprets Leviticus 19:18: “If he does what your people do, you shall love him; but if he does not, you shall not love him.”[3]

    Jesus’s answer, in the form of the famous Parable of the Good Samaritan, certainly subverts such expectations. Jesus’s fellow Jews would not have considered Samaritans to be among those who “do what [their] people do.” The Samaritans were the product of mixed unions, genetic and religious, with Assyrians who had conquered the Northern Israelites. They did not worship on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, as the Jews did, but (improperly) on Mount Gerizim. And these are only the beginning of their differences. It is for this reason that, in another story, a Samaritan woman is surprised when Jesus begins a conversation with her, for, as St. John notes, at that time “Jews [did] not share things in common with Samaritans” (John 4:9).

    But the funny thing is that, in the parable, it is a Samaritan – an outsider, a Gentile (in the eyes of the Jews) – who actually fulfills the law, not the priest or the Levite who (so to speak) should know better. It is a Samaritan who does what, in the lawyer’s own words, is the substance of the law. As St. Paul says to the Romans, “When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness” (Romans 2:14-15). Furthermore, as the Protestant reformer Martin Luther points out, the Samaritan reminds us of Christ himself, who came to us in our time of need, perfectly obeys God, and offers us the healing grace flowing from the cross.[4]

    With his parable, Jesus challenges the lawyer, and us, both to think less provincially and to step up our own game. He commends the example of someone who, though a Gentile, acts more like a son of the Covenant than actual sons of the Covenant. He calls to the People of God to do their job, to live out their purpose in the world of extending the compassion of the Gospel to those who are in both physical and spiritual need.

    And now that we have been given our charge, now that we have been enlightened by our Lord’s glorious Gospel, we have no excuse – but we are not without help. Indeed, as Moses declares to the people in Deuteronomy 30:14, “The word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.” Having the word of knowledge of God’s will for us so near at hand, and by the help of God who has written that word on our hearts, we may, in Paul’s words to the Colossians, “lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as [we] bear fruit in every good work and as [we] grow in the knowledge of God.” To use the words of one of the Collect of our Prayer Book, having the “know[ledge] and understand[ing] of what things [we] ought to do,” may God give us “grace and power faithfully to accomplish them” – in other words, the grace and power to “go and do likewise.”


    [1] Midrash, Siphara 19:18 (89a), accessed at

    [2] Babylonian Talmud, Shabbath 31a, accessed at

    [3] Babylonian Talmud (supplement), Aboth de R. Nathan 16.4, accessed at

    [4] Martin Luther, “A Sermon on the Gospel in a Parable,” accessed at