The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37) is one of the most familiar Bible stories. The concept of a “Good Samaritan” is ubiquitous far outside the church. It’s even been codified in laws such as Florida’s Good Samaritan Act, offering protection from civil damages when you act in good faith to save someone in an emergency situation (or, curiously, when you choose not to save someone—the literal opposite of a Good Samaritan).
When we hear the story of the Good Samaritan, we typically focus on the Good Samaritan himself. We note that he reached out to help when others simply walked by (Luke 10:31-33). He was generous, paying for two months lodging for the injured man and promising to cover his other expenses during recuperation (Luke 10:34-35). The man from Samaria is “Good” because he is compassionate.
We receive this story as instructive. We hear Jesus telling us to be compassionate and good.
To be sure, that is an important aspect of this parable. Probably even its primary meaning. But Jesus is a master storyteller and there are layers of meaning available for us to mine.
What if, instead of seeing ourselves reflected in the Good Samaritan, we admit that sometimes life leaves us feeling like the man who was robbed, stripped, beaten, and left for dead?
Although I’ve never been physically attacked like that, I can easily conjure up memories of times when I needed someone else to show me compassion and mercy.
I think about times I was late paying a bill and was thankful for a grace period. Or times when my car left me stranded on the side of the road with a mechanical problem or an empty gas tank and I needed someone to come rescue me. I also think about times when I was at my rock bottom emotionally, and friends and family members loved me through it.
Life has a way of showing us our own need for compassion and mercy.
Reading the Parable of the Good (Compassionate) Samaritan from the perspective of the man in need, has me asking myself: Do I define “neighbor” more broadly when I am the one in need?
Jesus tells this parable in response to the question: “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29). An expert in religious law has just confirmed with Jesus that the way to “inherit eternal life” is to “love 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” (Luke 10:25-28). Having established that, the expert then wants to know from Jesus who exactly he has to love to fulfill the “love your neighbor as yourself” mandate.
Instead of giving geographical or ethnic boundaries, Jesus tells the story of someone who needs compassion and mercy. He concludes the story by asking, “Who do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” (Luke 10:36).
We always focus on the one person in the story who chose to help (The Good Samaritan), but Jesus asks a question that forces us look at things from the perspective of the man who needed help.
From that perspective, my definition of neighbor is broad. Anyone who can help is my neighbor! When I am the one in need, I hope that anyone who can help, will help.
That’s just the definition Jesus was going for here.
But Jesus doesn’t want me to see things this way only when I am the one in need. The point of the parable is that this definition is equally true when I am in a position to help.
If I define my neighbor as anyone who can help me, then it must also be true that my neighbor is anyone I can help.
Jesus is inviting us to be compassionate and good, but he empowers to make that choice by activating our empathy, reminding us that we all need compassion and mercy sometimes.
What do you think? How do you decide who your neighbors are? When you read this parable, do you tend to identify with the Samaritan or the beaten man? Tell me about it in the comments, in an e-mail, or on Facebook.
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