A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
This parable perfectly illustrates the fact that God’s moral standards are much higher than our own (Isaiah 55:9). Jesus often reinforced this point (Matthew 5), because unless we understand our own sinfulness, we’ll never realize our need for a Savior (Romans 3:19, Romans 7:12-13, and 1 Peter 5:5-6).
Jesus is speaking to an expert in the Old Testament Law who thinks that he’s morally perfect. He knows that the Law requires him to love his neighbor as himself, but this lawyer is so self-righteous that he actually thinks that he can find a loophole. He tries to justify himself by narrowing down the definition of neighbor to exclude anyone he doesn’t like. Clearly this is someone whose heart is not humble enough to hear the Gospel.
In an effort to knock some sense into the lawyer, Jesus tells him this shocking parable. It’s shocking because the Samaritan is someone who knows practically nothing about the Law, and yet he turns out to be a better man than the priest and the Levite, who were supposed experts. Also, the Jews hated Samaritans to begin with, and this Samaritan’s level of compassion is absolutely unprecedented:
- He stops to help a complete stranger, increasing his own risk of being attacked.
- He probably removes his own robes to use as bandages.
- He lavishly pours his own oil and wine to cleanse and disinfect the wounds.
- He lays the injured man across the back of his donkey, while he walks the rest of the way.
- He takes the injured man to an inn, and risks being blamed for the man’s injuries.
- He cares for the injured man all night long, and then gives the innkeeper two days’ wages. That would have been the equivalent of 1-2 months’ room and board.
- He exposes himself to probable extortion by opening a tab with the innkeeper, and he promises to return later to make sure the injured man recovers.
When Jesus finishes telling the parable, He asks the lawyer which of the three characters in the story was a better neighbor to the injured man. The lawyer is forced to admit that the Samaritan, the one least familiar with the letter of the Law, was the one who best fulfilled the spirit of the Law. Then, Jesus tells the lawyer to go and do likewise. In other words, obedience to the Law requires that you show that same degree of compassion to everyone you meet, all of the time, for your entire life, from birth until death.
Luke doesn’t tell us any more about this lawyer, so we’re left to wonder what becomes of him. What he should have done was admit that he’s not able to keep the Law and therefore in need of a Savior. However, this whole situation is so similar to that of the rich young ruler (Matthew 19:16-22, Mark 10:17-22, and Luke 18:18-23), that the lawyer probably just went away sad.
Now that we’ve identified the simple and straightforward meaning of the parable, we can proceed to superimpose another layer of meaning by using the characters as archetypes:
- When we begin our lives, we’re like the injured man. We’re dead in our trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1) and helpless to save ourselves. Initially, we look to the Law (the priest and the Levite), but we eventually realize that it’s powerless to save us (Romans 8:3-4) because we cannot follow it perfectly. Our only hope then is for Christ (the Samaritan) to save us and bring us back to life.
- When he pours the oil and wine to cleanse our wounds, it reminds us that the blood of Christ washes away our sins (Revelation 7:14).
- When he takes us to an inn, it reminds us that Christ will lead us to a church or to mature Christians so that we can hear the Gospel and be saved (Romans 10:14-15).
- When he pays the bill, it reminds us that Christ has paid a price to redeem us from our sins (1 Corinthians 6:20 and Galatians 3:13).
- After we’re saved from bondage to sin (Galatians 5:1), we’re free to live like the Samaritan and share the love of Christ with others (1 John 3:16). Of course we will never be able to love perfectly in this life, but at least our actions will flow from the right motives.
- We don’t want to end up like the priest or the Levite where we only know the Gospel, but we never allow it to penetrate our heart so we can be born again. People like that are puffed up with knowledge to the point where it becomes a source of pride, when they ought to stay humble and put that knowledge to work through love for others (1 Corinthians 8:1-3).
Although these archetypes are helpful for further discussion, we have to be careful not to let those get in the way of the plain, straightforward meaning of the parable.
Where People Go Wrong
Very often kids are taught this parable in Sunday school as an example of how to love our neighbors. While that may be a secondary application of the parable, the main point is to illustrate our need for a Savior. The danger with making “love others” the primary purpose of this parable is that it overshadows the Gospel and leads to guilt trips.
We never want to force people into doing good works as a result of external pressure. Instead, we need to share the Gospel, preach the Word, and encourage people to study their Bibles. As the Holy Spirit works within Christians to grow them in holiness (1 Corinthians 3:18 and Romans 12:2), they will gradually seek to give more and serve more, and then God gets all the glory.
If you’re preaching this parable and never mention the Gospel, then you’re doing it wrong.