Many of us are familiar with the parable of the good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37. However, because we live in cultures very different from that of first-century Palestine, there are aspects of the story that we may not understand. When we hear or read this parable, it doesn’t necessarily shock us or defy the status quo of today’s world. Yet the first-century listeners who heard Jesus tell this parable would have been taken aback by it. The message would have run contrary to their expectations and challenged their cultural boundaries.
The parable features several characters, and knowing a bit more information about the priests, Levites, and Samaritans helps to give a broader understanding about the significance of the role each plays within the story. Let’s take a look at the cast of characters in the order of their appearance.
The parable tells us very little about the first character, the man who was beaten and robbed, but it does provide one fact that is crucial to the story. He was stripped of his clothes and was half dead. He was lying on the ground, severely beaten and unconscious.1
This is significant because people in the first century were easily identifiable by the style of clothes they wore and their language or accent. During Jesus’ lifetime, the Middle East was ruled by the Romans, who spoke Latin. The region was Hellenized, meaning heavily influenced by all things Greek. There were many Greek cities, and Greek was widely spoken. Jewish scholars spoke Hebrew, and Jewish peasants, and the common people all over the region, spoke Aramaic. So hearing someone speak helped to identify who they were.
Because the beaten man had no clothes, it was impossible to tell his nationality. That he was unconscious and unable to speak made it impossible to identify who he was or where he was from. As we’ll see, this is a key factor in the parable.
The second character in the story is the priest. Jewish priests in Israel were the clergy who ministered within the temple in Jerusalem. There was a hierarchy within the priesthood, with the high priest at the top, followed by the chief priests. The captain of the temple was the main chief priest, and he had priests under him who served as the temple treasurers, the temple overseers, and the priests in charge of the ordinary priests.
The ordinary priests were those who ministered in the temple for one week at a time during a 24-week period, meaning that in one year each priest ministered in the temple at two different times, for one week each time. Not all of the priests lived in Jerusalem; many lived in the nearby city of Jericho or in other cities spread throughout Israel. So priests who didn’t live in Jerusalem had to travel there between two and five times a year.
There are no details given about the priest in this story, but those who heard Jesus’ parable most likely assumed that he was returning to his home in Jericho after his week ministering in the temple.2
The third character in the parable is the Levite. While all priests were Levites, not all Levites were priests. Levites who were not priests did, however, play a role in the temple. They were considered minor clergy, of lower rank than the priests. Like the priests, they also served for two weeks at two different times of the year.
Some Levites were the singers and musicians. Others were the temple servants who were responsible to clean and maintain the temple, and help the priests put on and take off their vestments. The temple’s police force was also made up of Levites. They stood guard at the doors and in the courtyard of the Gentiles, as well as outside the places where only priests were allowed to enter. They also made arrests and administered punishment when directed to do so by the Sanhedrin, which was the Jewish court of the time.
The Samaritans were a people who lived in the hill country of Samaria between Galilee in the north and Judea in the south. They believed in the first five books of Moses, but believed that God had ordained Mount Gerizim as the God-designated place to worship, instead of Jerusalem. In 128 BC, the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim was destroyed by the Jewish army. Between AD 6 and 7 some Samaritans scattered human bones in the Jewish temple, thus defiling it. These two events played a role in the deep animosity that existed between the Jews and Samaritans. That animosity is evident within the New Testament. When Jews from Galilee were traveling south to Jerusalem, they would often take the long way there, going around Samaritan country. This added an extra 40 kilometers to their trip or another two or three days of travel.
Jews called other Jews “Samaritans” as an insult, as they did once to Jesus, when they said, “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?”3 It was within this setting of cultural, racial, and religious animosity that Jesus told the parable of the good Samaritan.4
Our last character is the lawyer. While the lawyer isn’t part of the parable, it is because of the questions he asks Jesus that the parable is told. Without the dialog between Jesus and the lawyer, the parable is taken out of its original context, and significant aspects are missing.
In New Testament times, a lawyer was the same as a scribe. They were specialists in religious law, interpreters and teachers of the laws of Moses. They examined the more difficult and subtle questions of the law and gave opinions. They were highly esteemed because of their knowledge. As a sign of respect, people would stand when asking them a question.
Such teachers often would engage other teachers and rabbis in discussions and disputations about the interpretation and understanding of Scripture. This lawyer’s motive for asking Jesus his questions might have been to begin such a debate. It also might have been because he was a spiritual seeker.
Now that we are more familiar with the cast of characters, let’s look at what transpired when Jesus was questioned by the lawyer in Luke chapter 10, verse 25: And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
The lawyer stood when addressing Jesus and called Him “Teacher.” In other places throughout the Gospels, Jesus is called “Rabbi,” which is the title used for a religious teacher. The question of how to obtain eternal life was debated among Jewish scholars in the first century, with the emphasis put on obeying the law as the means of gaining eternal life.5
[Jesus] said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he [the lawyer] answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”6
As seen throughout the Gospels, this was exactly what Jesus had been teaching, and perhaps the lawyer had heard Jesus say it before. Jesus told the lawyer that he was right, that he should uphold this standard of loving God with all that is within him, and loving his neighbor.
In his next sentence, the lawyer is looking for the way of justification before God. He wants to know what it is that he has to do, what works, what actions he needs to take to justify himself; in other words, to earn salvation. But he [the lawyer], desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”7
The lawyer understands that he can love God by keeping the law, but this “love your neighbor” point is a bit vague or fuzzy. So he wants to know who is his neighbor, who is it exactly that he needs to love. He knows that his neighbor includes fellow Jews. But is there anyone else? Gentiles weren’t considered neighbors, though it does say in Leviticus 19:34: You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself…
So neighbors to the lawyer would probably be fellow Jews, and any stranger living in his own town. Anyone else is definitely not a neighbor, especially the hated Samaritans. It’s in response to this question, “Who is my neighbor”—in other words, who is it that I need to love—that Jesus tells the parable.
Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead.”8
The trip to Jericho was notoriously dangerous due to robbers. Robbers in the Middle East were known to beat their victims only if they resisted, and the man in question is likely to have done so, as he had been stripped, beaten, and left on the road, unconscious and half dead.
Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side.9
It’s likely that the priest was returning from one of the weeks he served in the temple. Because of his status, he was most likely riding on a donkey and could have transported the injured man to Jericho. The problem was that he couldn’t tell who, or what nationality, the man was, since he was both unconscious and naked. The priest was under the duty of the Mosaic law to help a fellow Jew, but not a foreigner, and under the circumstances he couldn’t tell which the injured man was.
On top of it, the priest didn’t know if the man was dead or not, and according to the law, going near or touching a dead body would cause him to be ceremonially unclean. If he went closer than about two meters, and the man was dead, then the priest would be defiled, and it would require a week of religious rituals, including purchasing a sacrificial animal, to be purified. 10 So helping this unidentifiable man would have been costly for the priest. In the end he decided, for whatever reason, to pass by the man, staying on the other side of the road to make sure he kept the proper distance from him.
The parable continues with: So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.11 The Levite, probably returning home after his week of service at the temple, does the same as the priest. He makes the decision not to help.
The Levite, being of a lower social status than the priest, may have been walking. While he may not have been able to take the man anywhere, he could have administered some sort of first aid, as he wasn’t under the same purity laws as the priest.
No motive is given for his passing by, but it’s possible that knowing that the priest, who was more knowledgeable about the religious laws and obligations, did nothing, he assumed that it was best for him to do nothing as well. Another reason for not helping might have been fear for his own safety. The bandits might have still been in the area, and if he spent time helping the dying man, he could end up in the same condition.
The third person who enters the scene is a despised Samaritan, an enemy. Jesus tells of all the Samaritan does for the dying man, things that the religious priest and Levite, who both serve in the temple, should have done.
But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him.12
The Samaritan, probably a merchant carrying wine and oil, with at least one animal has compassion on the wounded man. First he binds up his wounds. He then pours wine and oil for cleansing, disinfecting, and healing. Beyond that, he lifts the man onto his own animal and takes him to an inn, presumably in Jericho. The priest could have taken the man to Jericho to get him help. The Levite could have at least offered some first aid. Yet the Samaritan is the one who did what neither the priest nor Levite would do.
The Samaritan takes the injured man to an inn and takes care of him there. For his own safety, it might have been wiser if he had left the man near the town, or at the town gates, but instead he took him to the inn and spent the night caring for him. And then he did even more.
And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, 'Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.'13
Two denarii was the equivalent of two days’ wages for a laborer. The Samaritan’s promise to return and pay any extra expenses ensured the safety and continued care of the beaten man. The Samaritan most likely had regular business in Jerusalem and often passed through Jericho on his way there. As a regular customer at the inn, it makes sense that the innkeeper would have agreed to accept his pledge that he would return to cover any further expenses.
Upon finishing the story, Jesus asks the lawyer: “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”14
The question the lawyer asked was, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus didn’t answer with the specifics the lawyer was looking for. Instead, He told a story and then asked the lawyer who proved to be a neighbor. The lawyer wanted a categorical, black-and-white type of answer, such as: your neighbor is your fellow Jew, as well as someone who has converted to Judaism, and the foreigner who lives among you. But Jesus’ story showed that there is no short list limiting who you are responsible to love or who you are supposed to consider your neighbor. Jesus defined “your neighbor” as those in need whom God brings across your path.
Jesus’ final words to the lawyer were, “Go and do likewise.” He was telling the lawyer that he was asking the wrong question. Instead of seeking to know who he was duty-bound to love, he should have been asking, “To whom should I become a neighbor?”
Through this parable Jesus was making it clear that his neighbor—our neighbor—is anyone in need, regardless of their race, religion, or standing in the community. Jesus’ message is that there are no boundaries when it comes to whom we should show love and compassion to. Compassion goes way beyond the requirements of the law. We are even expected to love our enemies.
Being a neighbor to those in need can be costly. The Samaritan put his own safety on the line. It cost him financially in oil, wine, cloth, and money. It took his time, his energy, and his resources. Loving others is a sacrifice, sometimes it’s even a risk. As Christians, as Jesus’ disciples, we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves. There are no hard-and-fast rules as to who is your neighbor, but it’s clear that when the Lord brings someone in need across your path, the expectation is that you will prove to be his or her neighbor.
The challenge of the parable is to “go and do likewise,” to be compassionate and loving. The beaten men and women whom we come across in our lives may not be physically half dead by the side of the road. But so many need to feel love and compassion, to receive a helping hand, or someone willing to listen to their heart cries, so they know that they matter, that someone loves and cares for them. And if God has brought you across their path, then He may be calling you to be that person.
You might show compassion through providing material assistance, emotional support and friendship, or spiritual help. You might assist someone in need financially, or by giving moral support, or by connecting them with Jesus and His Word.
Jesus set the bar for love and compassion in this parable, and His closing words to you and me—the listeners of today—are, “Go, and do likewise.”
For more writings by Peter Amsterdam, visit Directors Corner.
1 Luke 10:30.
2 Information about the priesthood and the temple from Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975).
3 John 8:48 ESV.
4 Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 725–728.
5 Throughout this article I used the excellent books of Kenneth E. Baily for reference: Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008). Poet & Peasant, and Through Peasant Eyes, combined edition (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1985).
6 Luke 10:26–27 ESV.
7 Luke 10:29 ESV.
8 Luke 10:30 ESV.
9 Luke 10:31 ESV.
10 Kenneth E. Bailey, Poet & Peasant, and Through Peasant Eyes, combined edition (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1985).
11 Luke 10:32 ESV.
12 Luke 10:33–34 ESV.
13 Luke 10:35 ESV.
14 Luke 10:36–37 ESV.