A Journey Interrupted

Eery few parables of Jesus have had the impact of the story of the Samaritan who stops and helps an injured man on the desolate road to Jericho. The Good Samaritan has been portrayed in art at the Lancet Window at Chartres and by Bassano, Giordano and Rembrandt. Hospitals and health care systems have taken its name. It is a byword for anyone helping another in need, and one contemporary firm even markets Good Samaritan Healing Ointment, touted as the best ointment on the market for cuts, scrapes and even diaper rash! Yet the parable is more profound than a startling example of compassionate help.

The narrative begins with a lawyer testing Jesus about the requirements for eternal life. Jesus turns the question back on him, and he correctly articulates the two great commands of the Jewish law: total love of God and love of neighbor as one’s self. The lawyer then has a follow-up question and asks, Who is my neighbor? This evokes the parable, which does not answer the lawyer’s question but tells him what it is to be neighbor and, subtly, who is neighbor.


The story describes a man beaten, robbed and left half dead on the Jericho road. All identifying characteristics are gone; we do not know whether he is rich or poor, Jew or Samaritan. Three travelers come down the road. The first, a priest, arrives by chance (NAB happened), sees him and walks past, as does the second, a Levite. Too often we can interpret this as a bit of anti-Jewish polemic, but if the priest and Levite were going to Jericho to perform religious duties, any contact with a corpse would have made them unclean. They are good people caught in a dilemma. Next comes a Samaritan. Given the intense hatred at the time of Jesus between Jews and Samaritans (see Jn. 4:9; 8:48), Jesus’ hearers may have expected the Samaritan to finish the man off. Yet the rhythm of seeing and passing by is broken by the explosive Greek verb esplanchnisthe- , he was moved with compassion. Only then does the Samaritan enter the world of the injured man with saving help. Luke combines seeing and compassion when Jesus sees and has compassion on the widow at Nain (7:13) and when the father welcomes home the returning prodigal (15:20). Compassion is the divine quality that, when present in human beings, enables them to feel deeply the suffering of others and move from the world of observer to the world of helper.

Like all parables, this story has multiple meanings. Most shocking in the parable, though, is not that someone stopped. It would be a story of compassion if a Jewish lay person stopped. The parable forces us as readers to put together good and Samaritan. The outsider provides the model of love of neighbor; the apostate fulfills the law. We might also put ourselves battered in the ditch and ask if we are ready to be helped by those whom we would class as outsiders. Who today teaches us and enacts for us the meaning of love of God and neighbor? The lawyer grudgingly answers, The one who treated him with mercy. Can we live out this answer?

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