Tips on Interpreting The Bible: The Refugee Syrian and The Good Samaritan

Bible and Tech


Spend any amount of time reading political comments on Facebook or social media, and even the best of us can get confused when comments and posts invoke the Bible. 

Recently, when the debate on the United States accepting Syrian refugees heightened after the Paris terrorist attacks, numerous people used the parable of The Good Samaritan to argue both sides—that we should welcome these refugees and that we should not.  

Both can’t be right, especially since many comments outright accuse the other side of being wrong.

I suggest the first thing to do to figure out the correct interpretation is to read the passage for yourself. It’s in Luke 10. You can read it here.

Reading several different translations might help in understanding the nuances better.  Try a version that isn’t literal but a paraphrase, such as The Message, which does a good job of updating the words of the Bible into the thought vernacular of today.

Next, look up any words, phrases or places of which you’re confused or unsure.  In this passage, “Samaritan” jumps out the most. (It’s even made it’s way into the title of the passage.)  Also, who a “Levite” is seems to be important. And, knowing where exactly this story occurs, where this road is, will help set the scene.

Let’s look it up.  (Google makes it easy, but so does the Blue Letter Bible’s dictionary feature as well as their maps and other resources.)

Using the dictionary, we find out that in the time of Jesus, ” …years brought no lessening of the hatred between Jews and Samaritans.” (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia)

And that, “This name, [Levite], is, however, generally used as the title of that portion of the tribe which was set apart for the subordinate offices of the sanctuary service, as assistants to the priests.” (Easton’s Bible Dictionary)

While much can be said about each, we now know that Jews and Samaritans hated each other and Levites were a type of Jewish clergy worker.

Looking at this map we see that the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was in Judea and not Samaria (where the Samaritan is from).

Now, let’s look at a bit of context.

Jesus tells the parable of The Good Samaritan after he is asked “who is my neighbor?” (the neighbor in the “love your neighbor as yourself” concept) by a Jew. This passage never specifically defines the person asking as a Jew, but we can surmise this by their discussion of the “law”, or the Jewish Scripture of the time.

Now we know enough background to go back and read the passage and attempt an accurate interpretation.

Let’s summarize the story in an outline, so we can really focus on the key points:

  1. A man is hurt/left for dead.
    1. He left from Jerusalem, this is in Judea and not Samaria, and the story is being told to Jews, so it seems likely this man is also a Jew.
  2. A priest and a Levite (both Jewish pastoral types) ignored him.
  3. A Samaritan helped.
    1. The Samaritan was going either from or to Jerusalem (because it states that’s where the road goes), making him not near his home and in the land of those that hate him.
  4. The Samaritan went beyond the “call of duty” by putting the man up in a hotel and paying for his needs when just bandaging him could have been seen as all that was necessary.
    1. It seems the Samaritan continued on his journey, but planned to return to that spot in a few days.

Now, we can analyze what’s being said on social media about this passage.

Should we help Syrian refugees or not?

One argument against helping says that in this parable, the Samaritan didn’t take the hurting person into his home, so therefore we shouldn’t take refugees into our home/country.

Based on what we just looked over, this doesn’t correlate. The hurt man can return to where he lives without fearing he will be killed in his home.  The help he needed was only in that specific situation and not for the long term. Since the Samaritan was also traveling, and there would be no reason the Samaritan would take the hurt man to his home, the inn was the most logical and best option.

Today, a common view of The Good Samaritan passage is a call to help the needy, but that’s not really the point.  

Jesus says the answer to who your neighbor is, who you are to love as yourself, is anyone who shows you mercy, no matter how much you hate them. The passage ends with Jesus asking who the neighbor was to the hurt (Jewish) man.  The answer: the Samaritan.  The hated is the neighbor.