The Good Samaritan: What God does, not what we do.


Christ Church, Oxford

10 July 2022

Trinity 4


Fr Richard Peers SMMS

Did you manage to listen carefully all the way through?

Or did you think, ‘Oh yes, the parable of the Good Samaritan’ and stop listening.

It must be the most famous of Jesus’ parables. It’s given its name to multiple organisations not least the Samaritans who help those in despair or pondering suicide and who have saved so many lives. 

Phrases from the story have entered the English language. We talk about those who ‘pass by on the other side’ and we thank people who have acted as ‘Good Samaritans’.

My favourite film is Wim Wenders 1987 film Wings of Desire. I must have watched it dozens of times, but its only when I can persuade somebody else to watch it with me, usually for them the first time (it’s a niche sort of film) that I notice new things about it. 

The parable of the Good Samaritan is a bit like that. I, we, need someone to help us look at it afresh. What I want to say about the parable has benefited enormously from the blog of Scripture Scholar and priest Ian Paul, he writes a commentary on the readings each week. I throughly recommend it.

There are three things I want to do. Firstly, look at the context of this passage, then think about two ways of reading this story prayerfully. I hope you will take your service sheets with you or look up Luke Chapter 10 in your bibles at home and spend some time with this scripture during the week ahead.

It is worth noting that this story occurs in only one of the gospels. St Luke.

There has, of course, been much scholarly activity around the relationship of the four gospels to each other and the knowledge they may or may not have had of the other texts. But it is not surprising that after preaching publicly for three years (as the Fourth Gospel suggests) Jesus would have used similar material on more than one occasion but in slightly different ways. I never preach a sermon more than once, but the stories and images I preach are repeated many times. I must have mentioned Wim Wenders’ film at least a dozen times over the years. 

Nor is it surprising that gospel writers wouldn’t try to include every story, saying or variant on a saying in their gospels.

So although the story of the Good Samaritan occurs only in Luke, the passage that introduces the story, the account of a lawyer questioning Jesus occurs in Matthew 22 and Mark 12 as well as Luke 10.

Jesus’ answer to the lawyer is very important because he quotes from Deuteronomy 6, the sh’ma, the great Jewish declaration of faith that begins (and only Mark’s gospel includes this) “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is God the Lord is One.”

So Jesus is doing exactly what those who questioned him are doing. I often point out that Jesus is quite good at not answering questions head-on, he comes at a tangent, but in this passage he is involved in the same task as his questioners.

This is important in challenging what can sometimes be an underlying anti-semitism in Christian readings of Scripture. Jesus is a Jew engaged in dialogue with his fellow Jews. This is an internal discussion. We should remember this in our reading of the parable too. The mention of the priest passing by on the other side of the road can too easily be read as a criticism of Judaism. 

So Jesus’ reaction to the questioning from the lawyer is to direct his listeners to their Judaism, to the Hebrew Scriptures and to one of the most important passages in the Torah, the law. This is not Jesus contrasting legalism with compassion, but Jesus telling his hearers that the basis of the Torah is love of God and love of neighbour. It’s a bit unhelpful that our word law is used to translate Torah. ‘Law’ make us think of rules and regulations but Torah is much richer and broader.

So that is, partly, the context in which Jesus tells the story. How can we read it in a way that helps us hear it again and understand what Jesus is trying to say.

The first method of doing which I am suggesting this is imaginative. The sort of thing suggested by Saint Ignatius of Loyola.

I get rather cross when I am looking for a novel to read and I open the first few pages and the author gives a list of the characters with little descriptions of who each character is. I know I am probably being unreasonable but it makes me feel that the author hasn’t done his or her job properly. That if the book was well written such a dramatis personae would be unnecessary.

Jesus’ stories are generally very short and don’t contain too many people. But I actually think writing a list of characters for this story might be quite helpful.

Try it at home make a list:

the man on a journey

the robbers (number unknown)

a priest

a Levite

a Samaritan

the innkeeper

You might want to try and imagine those people in a bit more detail.

then take each of those people in turn and imagine yourself as them.

Perhaps because we are so used to interpreting this story as Jesus telling us to be like the Samaritan and not pass by, it is probably easier to imagine ourselves as him, all be it beating ourselves up for not being like him in much of our lives.

So why not start off by imagining yourself as one of the robbers. then each of the other characters. Really use your visual imagination to do this and your empathy to imagine what they were thinking and feeling. Look at the details, in your imagination smell the olive oil and the wine poured on the man’s wounds. Hear the clink of the coins as they are handed over to the innkeeper. To be honest I would leave the Samaritan til last. I think you will get much more out of it that way.

You’ll probably need more than one sitting to do this. There are conveniently six characters in our story so you could do one each day of the week ahead.

There’s a second way you could think about the story. That is allegorically. Many writers in the first centuries of the church did this. Often pushing it quite a long way. The man is Adam, the first man, Jerusalem is Paradise where he is heading and so on.

The church has always read Scripture allegorically and it is clear that Jesus meant his stories to be understood that way. 

Luke when he wrote his gospel did so with much precision. Look closely at the text and you’ll see that the turning point comes when the Samaritan sees the man and is ‘moved with pity’. The Greek means literally that ‘his bowels were moved’, its is visceral, 

]tf m`acompassion is felt in our very depths. This is the key to the story, St Luke arranged his text so that this verb is at the very centre, numerically. There are the same number of words before as afterwards in this story.

It’s a word that only occurs in three places in Luke’s gospel, chapter 7 – the raising of the widow’s son, chapter 15 the parable of the Prodigal son, and today’s passage. In each case this verb is at the numerical centre.

In each of the other two cases it is clear that it is Jesus himself who is moved to compassion. So it seems likely that Jesus intends that we see the Samaritan as the Jesus figure in the story.

We are bruised and beaten, by life, by sin, and Jesus saves us.

The story has moral purpose, of course. But we should not lose sight of the fact that put simply Jesus saves us.

We don’t share from our wealth, we share from our poverty.

As St John says “ We love because he first loved us.”

The parable we know as the Good Samaritan is not about what WE do, it’s about what GOD does.

St Luke teaches us in this parable and throughout his gospel that we are those in need of a Saviour. 

Jesus doesn’t teach morality tales, although they may be moral. 

Jesus us shows us that we need a Saviour, that we need salvation, that we need him.

At the very heart of the good news is Jesus Christ our the only true Good Samaritan.


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