What Made the Good Samaritan "Good?"

Most Christians are familiar with the Parable of the Good Samaritan. We heard about it in Sunday school as kids; we remember the flannel graphed Samaritan helping the now-horizontal traveller lying on the edge of a dusty Judean road winding down to Jericho. 

In this post, I want to explore and hopefully answer a question that's easy to overlook: "What Made the Good Samaritan Good?" Maybe that's like asking "What makes Superman super?" or "What made 'Honest Abe' honest?" 

Let's dive in.  

The Backdrop (Luke 10:25-29)

In this famous story, Jesus is answering the challenge of a plucky legal expert. His question, while a good one its face (Luke 10:25), is designed to discredit Jesus, and is, in actuality, rooted in false belief in in man’s ability to earn divine favor. In response, Jesus points him to the Mosaic Law, the expression of God’s will and holiness. 

The lawyer’s surprisingly good answer—love God and love neighbor—mirrors Jesus’ own response to the same question (compare Luke 10:27 with Matthew 22:35-40, for example). “This do, and thou shalt live,” Jesus replies. That’s shocking for a couple of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that Jesus seems to be teaching works salvation. That runs counter to everything we as evangelical Christians believe (Ephesians 2:8-9; Titus 3:5; Romans 1:16-17; 4:5, etc.). So what’s going on here? 

The next verse hints at the answer. The lawyer doesn’t say, “Oh good. I’m so relieved, because I’m confident I’ve faithfully loved God and my neighbor in every regard.” Deep down, the lawyer knows he hasn’t met that standard. 

So he does what every good Pharisee does: he attempts to lower the divine standard by limiting who his neighbor is. And yes, you read that right—legalism is a lowering, not a raising of the divine standard to make it more keepable. Perhaps, this lawyer knows he hasn’t always rightly treated the stranger in line at the temple, or he’s ignored that particularly annoying beggar he sees every year in Jerusalem. 

If Jesus defines his neighbor to just refer to his, you know, actual neighbor, or his fellow lawyers, or the folks in his synagogue, he might just be able to squeak by. But to his great dismay, Jesus does not play along by his rules. Instead, he responds by telling the famous Parable of the Good Samaritan, raising the standard even higher. 

The Story (Luke 10:30-37)

We know the story. A traveller is mugged by murderous thieves. He’s ignominiously dumped in the ditch and left to die. Three passersby all see him; only one acts to help him. The guy who helps him displays genuine neighbor love and serves as the classic example of keeping the second great commandment. 

Two statements bookend the story, revealing Jesus’ point: “This do, and thou shalt live….Go, and do thou likewise.” (Luke 10:28, 37).  Jesus’ point, of course, is that, since every needy person you encounter is your neighbor to whom you owe service and sacrifice, the standard of God’s Law is infinitely high. 

As a double-whammy against the lawyer’s smug self-justification, Jesus casts a hated Samaritan as the hero, demonstrating that ethnic heritage does not equate to being “in” or “out.” Thus, Jesus not only answers the lawyer’s question (“who is my neighbor?”), but also exposes the lawyer’s assumptions about who’s in and who’s out—suggesting that the lawyer himself just might be in the latter category. 

What made Good Sam different? 

So what about that initial question? We'll find our answer in the contrast at the heart of the story between the priest, Levite, and Samaritan. Notice first how they are similar. All were traveling. All saw the man. The first two, when they saw, crossed over the road. They avoided any association with the wounded man. After all, it could be an ambush, a baited trap waiting to be sprung by the marauding bandits known to lurk in the rocky terrain along the narrow road. 

In contrast, the Samaritan saw, was moved with compassion, and went toward the man. Unlike the other two, his seeing provoked deep compassion, which in turn spurred him to move toward the needy man. Whereas the other two moved away from the man, the Samaritan moved toward the needy man. Luke deliberately uses verbs with the same stem in both cases (built on erchomai). This brief analysis highlights three points of contrast among the three men, revealing what made the Good Samaritan “good.” 

1. He was moved with compassion instead of fear. 

When we see needs around us, our immediate reaction is often fear and mistrust. What if they reject my help? What if I’m taken advantage of? What if this is a scam? What if I can’t meet my own needs as a result? How much will it cost? 

Being moved with genuine compassion comes only as a result of having a regenerate, Christlike heart. A quick survey of the verb σπλαγχνίζομαι shows that all NT usages of the word either refer to Jesus or are used by Jesus in parables. There’s a remarkable pattern that exists in this parable that exists in other passages: the pattern of “seeing” and then “being moved with compassion” (Matthew 9:36, 14:14; Luke 7:13). 

All that to say this: seeing and being moved with compassion is a Jesus thing. We only do it when we have had our hearts changed by the gospel. In fact, one of the sure signs that we've been regenerated is that we show this kind of love to others. 

2. He deliberately moved toward, not away from the need. 

Unlike the priest and Levite, Good Sam moved toward the need. He made it his business to move in and help. And once again, we see Jesus in this. He saw our need, felt compassion, and moved toward us. We call that the incarnation. 

As Jesus-followers, we’re empowered and required to live the same way. We are to move in close. That might mean sitting with a grieving widow, delivering meals to new parents, mounting a rescue operation in a church member’s messy marriage, or just making it a point to call or write to a struggling saint. It might mean opening your home up and showing genuine hospitality (literally, “love of strangers”). 

3. He personally sacrificed to ensure that the man’s needs were met. 

The fact this guy had oil and wine on him suggests that he was off on a long journey, and yet, he interrupted his plans to meet this need. He put the wounded man on his own donkey (emphatic τὸ ἴδιον κτῆνος in the Greek). He paid with his own money, and even promised to return and re-pay any other expenses. 

I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t help but think about Jesus as I read this. While we don’t want to allegorize this Parable and turn every person and article into some far-fetched symbolism, it’s hard not to see Jesus in the actions of the Good Samaritan. And like Good Sam, we’re to be like Jesus. Neighbor love means sacrificing for the ultimate good of others (I John 3:16-17) like Jesus did for us (John 3:16-17). When we show love to neighbors like this, we act like Jesus and reveal that God’s love indeed dwells in us. 

So, in short, here are a few quick takeaways from this paragraph. First, we must live this way (Luke 10:28. Second, we don’t live this way. Third, Jesus did live this way. Fourth, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we can, and must, live this way for the glory of God.  

“Go, and do thou likewise.” 


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