A Day in the Hood

People, including me, often say they would love to have been with Jesus and learned from Him while He was on Earth, to walk and talk with Him and to ask questions.  I’m not sure any of the people who asked Jesus questions ever got an answer they could feel good about.  Not even the disciples and especially not the lawyer who is questioning Jesus in today’s text.

Our text, Luke 10:25-37, features the last parable in our three session series on parables of forgiveness and love; the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

There really is no immediate context for the parable.  It sits, a seeming non-sequitur, sandwiched between Jesus’ sending out the 72 and the scene at Martha and Mary’s house where Martha complains about working while Mary sits.  Its only setting is “On one occasion” suggesting it is not related to any event in the text around it.

What the parable lacks in immediate context it more than makes up for in historical or social context.  In fact a failure to understand this context is to misread the story entirely.

Our first context clue is the identity of Jesus’ questioner.  The Greek word used to identify him is nomikos which means one learned in the law.  This man was not an advocate in the sense we use the word lawyer, but one who studied and taught the law and was called on to mediate disputes on its points.

He asks Jesus “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus turns the question on the lawyer and asks him how he reads the law.  He gives the answer that was the consensus answer among his fellow lawyers. Jesus’ response is,”Yep.  Now do what you already understand.” 

Two points from this exchange:

  1. The lawyer did not have a comprehension problem, he had an action problem.  He understood God’s will but was not doing it.
  2. He (like all of us) is ultimately incapable of doing God’s will and that was the actual lesson Jesus was driving home.

Even though he asked, and Jesus answered the question, “How do I live forever”, Jesus knew that the lawyer’s works would always fall short of what he could actually do, that if love was works and not the outcome of something else, there was no chance of eternity.

But the lawyer, who knew he fell short, wanted to make a claim that he was fulfilling the law by more narrowly defining the terms.  He figured he loved God with everything he had and, for certain definitions of neighbor, he did that too.  If only he could get Jesus to agree to a definition of neighbor as narrow as his (and perhaps love as well) he’d be in good shape.

Alas for him, and us too, Jesus never accommodates our desires to narrow His love, mercy, and grace, or His demands on our lives for the same.

We all know the the cultural backdrop to the story.  Jews held themselves aloof, as the chosen people, from the rest of the world.  They considered that their status as chosen made them superior to others.  There was even a hierarchy among their own numbers with the Priests at the top of the list, then the Levites and then ordinary Jews.  But all of them held themselves to be superior to sinners and tax collectors, Samaritans and Gentiles.

You’ll recall that Samaritans were not welcome among the Jews, although they traced their ancestors back to Abraham, because of their supposed intermarriage with non-Jews and their worship at Gerizim instead of Jerusalem.  The Samaritans claimed they were the true Jews and both sides forbade contact with the other.  Josephus reports numerous bloody clashes between the groups during the first half of the first century.

So as Jesus tells the Parable, you can see the progression of people passing by is in order of status, Priest, Levite, then, when the lawyer is expecting a regular Jew, bang, Samaritan.

Some language points here. 

  1. The word translated reply in the NIV in verse 30 is hupolambano and means “to take up in order to raise”.  The figure here is almost that the lawyer has thrown down his gauntlet and Jesus is picking it up.
  2. Going down.  No mystery in translation but the road from Jerusalem to Jericho is steeply downhill and Jesus appears to be using it to drive home the point that they are coming from Jerusalem and in the case of the Levite and Priest, likely from the Temple and their duties there.  The point is they had no excuse of maintaining ritual purity on the way to serve.

The action is simple.  A man walks through the Hood between Jerusalem and Jericho.  The road was so bad it was often called “The Way of Blood”.  On the way he was assaulted by  thugs who robbed and beat him nearly to death.  Those at the top of the heap religiously and socially speaking passed by and did nothing.  A hated Samaritan not only provides succor to the injured man, but opens his wallet for him as he gives the inn keeper carte blanche to spend what is necessary to care for the man.

The Samaritan’s actions are summarized in three C’s (stolen shamelessly from Hampton Keathly IV)

  • Compassion-Where the Priest and Levite moved away from the man, the Samaritan moved toward him at great risk to himself (what if the thugs were still around), and despite the fact that the man, likely a Jew, would not have extended him the same compassion.
  • Care-He didn’t just stuff some money in his pocket and hope somebody would come along later and care for him.  The Samaritan worked personally to help the man, binding his wounds, putting him on the donkey, taking him to the inn.  He got his hands dirty.
  • Cost-He set no upper limits on what he would pay to insure the man’s health.  It was not just two denarii, it was whatever else was required.

All of this left the Samaritan vulnerable.  Vulnerable to robbers, vulnerable in his personal dignity, vulnerable to rejection, vulnerable to being scammed by the inn keeper. 

But none of that is the point of the story.  Its point was that the lawyer does not get to redefine the law of love so that we have even the slightest snowflake’s chance of doing it well enough to earn eternal life.  To quote Keathly:


The man is asking, what must I do to get in? Jesus tells him what one who is on the inside looks like.

This is so important to understand. What Jesus is doing here is showing the difference between works and fruit. “Works” has the idea of what must I do to get in. But “Fruit” – what you do – is the result of being on the inside.

The lawyer would have obviously claimed to have been an insider, and so do we (or I).  Have we allowed Jesus to transform our lives to the point that we can do what the Samaritan did?  I’m not saying that if we don’t act like the Samaritan we aren’t saved, but neither are we absolved from acting with compassion and care to those around us even (especially) at great cost and risk to ourselves.