The parable of the Good Samaritan is one of the most popular stories Jesus ever told. There’s hardly a person living who has not heard of the Good Samaritan and who doesn’t know something of his story.
Churches, hospitals and medical centers have been named after the Good Samaritan. And that’s not all. Missions, societies, relief agencies, even a healing ointment have borrowed the Good Samaritan’s name and reputation as their own. Inspired by the Good Samaritan, Franklin Graham, son of Billy, named his worldwide relief organization Samaritan’s Purse. They’ve been coming to the aid of the world’s poor, sick and suffering for 35 years.
The famous story has a universal appeal. It is global and local at the same time. And yes, it takes us back to our own neighborhood and community. Who is my neighbor? Better yet, what kind of neighbor am I?
It all started when a lawyer brought a question to Jesus. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Luke says the lawyer asked his question to “test” Jesus. He wasn’t really interested in eternal life. He was playing games with Jesus. So Jesus played a game with him. “What is written in the law?” he asked. In other words, “You’re an expert in the law. You tell me what it says.”
Jesus knew the answer so well that he turned the lawyer’s question around and made him answer his own question. The expert lawyer didn’t know he was questioning the Expert on everything in the universe.
The lawyer took the bait and recited what is known as the greatest commandment. Basically it says to love God and love your neighbor. Do that and you will have fulfilled the law and gained eternal life. Sounds simple enough, right? Not so fast.
Jesus affirmed the lawyer’s answer to his own question and then told him to do likewise. That made the lawyer think about whether had had lived up to the standard. So he asked another question. This one was about as sincere as the first one. Luke writes, “But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, ‘Who is my neighbor?’”
Backed into a corner, the lawyer tried to narrow the definition of a neighbor. The Jews limited their sense of “neighbor” to a fellow Jew or someone in the same religious community. They specifically excluded Samaritans and other foreigners from their community. Sound familiar?
Now were ready for the story about the Good Samaritan. No need to review the details about the man overtaken by robbers and left for dead along the side of the road. I won’t spend time talking about the deplorable actions of the priest and the Levite who saw the hurting man but passed by on the other side. Everybody knows what the Samaritan did by rendering roadside assistance, taking the victim to a safe house and then paying for all his medical care. No wonder he has such a fine reputation.
After Jesus tells the story, he puts the lawyer on the witness stand. “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” Note to self: Jesus didn’t answer the “who is my neighbor?” question. Instead, he posed a much more important one: what kind of neighbor am I?