The Politics of the Good Samaritan (Part One)

So far, my arguments for Christological Pacifism on TTC have made use of creedal statements about Jesus and general concepts like freedom in Christ.  Sooner or later, however, thinking like a Christian means interpreting scripture.  So, in my next two posts, I would like to think about politics and violence by way of interpreting the story of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).

In this post, I will actually not discuss the explicitly political elements of the text or what I take to be the political lesson for us.  I simply want to set the stage by reflecting on some of the details of the story with you, and offering a concluding reflection on hermeneutics and applying the text to our lives.

(Please don’t run away because of the length of this post.  It only looks long because I’ve added the full text of Luke 10:25-37 in the following section for your convenience.)

The Good Samaritan

And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” 27 And he answered, “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.” 28 And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”

29 But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. 34 He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.” (ESV)

The Heart of the Good Samaritan

As even the evening news will tell you, the story of the good Samaritan is about showing love to strangers.  Dig a little deeper, and we see that this is no ordinary love.  For one thing, it is a love that is necessary for eternal life.  Moreover, according to Jesus, this love involves every bit of ourselves as human beings and overflows in compassion and merciful action.  I think that this is a fair description of the force of the lawyer’s quotation of the Torah (v. 27), as it is interpreted by Jesus’ parable (v. 30-35) in the context of the Lawyer’s question (v. 25).

An additional element of this passage is its insistence that this generous and merciful love extends beyond and destroys racial, religious, and social boundaries between people (Gonzalez 140).  The passage presents this point to us in a complex way.  We can see it in the choice of a Samaritan rather than a Priest or Levite as the one who embodies God’s law (v. 33) and who the lawyer must see as an example to imitate (v. 37), and by the anonymity of the man who is helped by the Samaritan (v. 30) (Green 429, 431).

I choose to elaborate on yet another way this point is made, namely, through the disconnect between the lawyer’s original question: “who is my neighbor?” (v. 29) and Jesus’ answering question: “Which of these three. do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” (v. 36).

The lawyer’s original question was meant to divide appropriate recipients of love (neighbors) from inappropriate recipients (not neighbors).  Based on the Torah, the lawyer would have expected the answer that love should only be shown to true Israelites and resident aliens who had converted to Judaism (Green 429).

In the broader context of Luke-Acts, we see that the lawyer wants to limit who receives love in a way that has already been rejected by Jesus when he asked his disciples to love their enemies (Luke 6:27-36) (Green 426).

Jesus’ new question: Which of these proved to be a neighbor? does not allow the lawyer to limit who the recipients of love should be (Green 433).  In the lawyer’s question, “neighbor” names the proper recipients of love.  In Jesus’ question, “neighbor” names one who embodies the love described in the Torah and Jesus’ parable (Creed qtd. in Fitzmyer 884).  In one swift redefinition, Jesus rejects the idea that love should pick and choose its recipients and refocuses the lawyer on the embodiment of love in his own person.

The Hermeneutics of the Good Samaritan

I want to now turn to a point about interpreting scripture made by New Testament scholar Richard B. Hays.  For the purposes of analysis, Hays says, the process of interpretation can be broken down into different tasks: describing the meaning of a text in its original literary and cultural setting, synthesizing a text with the rest of the New Testament canon, and bridging the logical gap between the results of these tasks and our own context.  Hays argues that there is yet another task: We must embody the meaning of the scriptures (23-25).

Hays’ point is well made by Luke 10:25-37.

Jesus happily accepts the emphasis on action in the lawyer’s question: “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (vs. 25, 28, 37).  In fact, if all that Jesus demanded of the lawyer was a correct statement about the law, then there would have been no conflict between the lawyer and Jesus.  Jesus accepts both answers that the lawyer gives to Jesus’ questions in the text (Craddock 150). 

The irony is that, although the lawyer’s question is about what he should do, in reality, he is more concerned with using his understanding of the law to try to justify himself and test Jesus (vs. 25, 29) (Johnson 172).

This is a temptation that will be recognized by us Christians who feel called to think about theological subjects, especially those of us who have spent time in universities.  Life in the academy teaches us that we must defend our positions against opponents in order to justify ourselves as academics, even when our opponent has a point.

Luke deliberately leaves us in the dark about the lawyer’s response.  In this way, we readers receive a challenge to action directly from the text: will we reject our pride and embody the overflowing and practical love of the Samaritan?

It will take me another post to articulate why I think that embodying the ethics of this story requires a particular politics.  As a hint, I will say this.  Perhaps the politics of church allow us to be wrong and to embody the truth of our interpretations in ways that the politics of universities do not.  If this is right, then interpreting scripture as part of the life of the church will be essential to interpreting and embodying it in a truthful manner.



Craddock, Fred B.. Luke. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990.

Fitzmyer, Joseph A.. The Gospel According to Luke: X-XXIV. New York: Doubleday, 1983.

Gonzalez, Justo L.. Luke. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.

Green, Joel B.. The Gospel of Luke. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997.

Hays, Richard B.. New Testament Ethics: The Story Retold. Winnipeg, Manitoba: CMBC Publication, 1998.

Johnson, Luke Timothy. The Gospel of Luke. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1991.

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