Luke 9-10: A better question than “Who is my neighbor?”

“What’s at stake, then and now, is the question of whether we will use the God-given revelation of love and grace as a way of boosting our own sense of isolated security and purity, or whether we will see [God’s grace and love] as a call and challenge to extend love and grace to the whole world.” —N.T. Wright

Good Samaritan is a parable inside a conversation inside a travel story

The Good Samaritan is parable inside conversation inside travel narrative. The parable does more than call us to roadside assistance . . . but what? The Good Samaritan is a famous parable of Jesus that appears in Luke in what’s called “The Travel Narrative,” the portion after which Luke says Jesus “set his face resolutely toward Jerusalem.” From this point on Jesus is heading to die in Jerusalem, he knows it, and he’s letting his followers in on the plan.

The story of The Good Samaritan is one of the most powerful theological and practical teachings of Jesus. There is so much to it, even a “wrap around” story. What does a “wrap around” story mean? Luke is telling a story about how an expert in the law is trying to test Jesus with hard theological questions, and in the middle of that conversation in the middle of the travel narrative, Jesus tells a traveling parable.

Episodes that set the background of the parable

Here are episodes that set the background of Good Samaritan parable. First in Luke 9:46-48, the disciples argue on who is best. What is Jesus’s response?

Second, in Luke 9:49-50, the disciples demand a man stop casting out demons because he is “not one of us.” What is Jesus’s response?

Third, in Luke 9:51, Jesus “sets his face toward Jerusalem.” This is the beginning of what is called the “travel narrative,” and Luke will share many parables, beginning with this appropriate beginning, a travel parable. Two of the most powerful parables of Jesus bookend this travel narrative. The parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15 is the other bookend.

In Luke 9:51-56, just after Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem, James and John see a Samaritan village non-responsive to Jesus, and they think they are understanding Jesus’s message. “Lord, can we call down fire from heaven on these Samaritans?” Jesus rebukes them.

With these episodes and attitudes of the Jews toward Samaritans, it’s important to hear “Samaritan” not in today’s terms that always comes with “good,” but as disciples thought of Samaritans: hated, deserving of artillery from heaven.

One more episode before the conversation and parable of the Good Samaritan is important to mention. Luke 10:1-24 is a huge story about Jesus sending out 72 on a mission to replicate the work Jesus is doing: announce the redemption of Israel, preach good news to the nations, heal, and cast out demons. Jesus saw a vision of satan being cast down, and this is the vital work of the Messiah to begin the work of destroying the cunning work of the devil who has deceived even religious people. The work of Jesus to die on the cross and reverse the curse of sin, and the resurrection to prove life triumphs over death is the opening for the utter and eternal destruction of evil in the world to come.

Conversation that sets the direct context of the parable

So that’s some background for the parable, but the direct context of the parable is that it is housed within a conversation between Jesus and a religious expert. I’m quoting Luke 10:25-37 below from the New Revised Standard Version but have set off the dialogue in script form to make it more clear who is speaking and the back and forth.

Expert (trying to test Jesus): “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 

Jesus: “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 

Expert: “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.” 

Jesus: “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

Expert (wanting to justify himself): “And who is my neighbor?” 

Jesus answered this evasive, avoidance question of the expert with a story. And that story is the parable of The Good Samaritan.

The Parable of The Good Samaritan

Jesus said, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 

Expert: “The one who showed him mercy.” 

Jesus: “Go and do likewise.”

 As you can see, the parable is encased in a conversation that’s encased in the travel narrative. Jesus tells a story as Luke is relaying a conversation on his way, traveling to Jerusalem.

Expert’s question and Jesus’s question is very different

You may notice the expert’s question in v. 29 and Jesus’s answer in v. 36 don’t match? Why? What is different? The expert asks, “Who is my neighbor?” By this, it seems the expert is looking for boundaries, who to exclude. When Jesus asks, “Who was the real neighbor to the man hurt by the thieves?” Jesus was pointing beyond boundaries. 

What is biting in this parable within a story? The two people in the story you expect would help the poor victim of robbers, do not help. The Levite and the priest, the long-standing keepers of the worship objects and rituals, the ones who were very “hands-on” in their exercise of worship, do not have time or reason to help the person in front of them. Why did they “pass by on the other side” — even coming close to a person, certainly touching blood or other human contact would render a priest or levite unfit to do their duties in the temple. They would be called “ritually unclean” and would have to go through many days of rituals to become clean and fit to serve again. It was simply too inconvenient for them to help someone like this poor man.

In this statement, “Go and do likewise,” Jesus returns to the doing of the law, not merely finding out where the boundaries are for who is the neighbor. Jesus flips the question and asks, “Who really acted like a neighbor to the man who fell among thieves?”

Twice he has told the expert that it’s the doing of the law that matters. You can know the law by heart, love God and neighbor, but Jesus knew this expert had a practical problem. He didn’t practice the law, had ulterior motives for talking to Jesus, and Jesus wasn’t suffering a fool gladly. Again Jesus says basically, “So, since you claim to understand the story and which one had mercy, then go and show mercy.”

And we’re not even to the biting, cutting, surprising part of the story yet. The one you would expect to do right, didn’t. The priest and the levite passed by on the other side of the road, but the Samaritan, considered the “other,” the ones worthy of hell fire and artillery from heaven by James and John, was the hero. The Expert can’t even utter “Samaritan” but says “the one who showed mercy.” Then the real punchline, similar to v. 28 but altered in v. 37: “Go and do likewise.”

A better question than “Who is my neighbor?”

Can you recognize the Samaritan as a neighbor who helps you, you can learn from, receive from? If not, you might be left for dead. For example, Have you noticed non-Christians seeking justice, peace, mercy in our world? How do we often look for boundaries of love like the expert by asking what we think might be a good question, “Who is my neighbor?” but really fail to answer the better question Jesus is asking, “Who really was the best neighbor to the man who fell among thieves?”

“Go and do likewise”

So what do we do with this parable, within a story, within the Gospel of Luke? It’s quite a nut to crack, and when we’ve cracked it, Jesus calls us like the expert to “go and do likewise.” The very worst thing we can do is not do anything about the parable, so excuse our behavior, to ignore the cutting point of the parable. If we get the point, hear Jesus saying, “go and do likewise, be merciful likewise,” then we’ve got a life-changing teaching here to consider, to learn to practice. And by the way, it’s not just to be practiced as “roadside assistance.” That’s a good, practical, literal way to practice the good samaritan, but it certainly is to be practiced, lived more broadly than when we see someone in need by the side of the road or when victimized.

So, what are ways we can live out this parable more broadly today? Who are the victims beside the road? Who are the prisoners from Luke 4? The lame? The blind? The poor? Those who need to hear that this is the year of the Lord’s favor? What about the immigrants? Poor? Sick? Prisoners? Outcasts today?

Jesus sends the seventy-two to “Go and do likewise.” What about us? No church should be content with near or far neighbors lying half dead by road. 


Greg Taylor is preaching minister of The Journey: A New Generation Church of Christ in Tulsa, Oklahoma.Greg Taylor is preaching minister of The Journey: A New Generation Church of Christ in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Greg Taylor is preaching minister of The Journey: A New Generation Church of Christ in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Greg Taylor, M.Div.

Greg Taylor is the preacher for The Journey. He holds degrees in Print Journalism from Harding University and a Master of Divinity from Harding School of Theology. Greg is working on his Doctor of Ministry at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where The Journey is located. Greg is married to Jill, who is a math teacher at Broken Arrow High School. They have three adult children, Ashley, Anna, and Jacob, and of course they are very proud of each of what God has done in each one of their lives. Greg is author of several books you can order from your favorite bookseller.