Perhaps the most surprising element of the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10 is not the cultural norms Jesus contradicts but rather the timing and context into which he spoke it. Sure, the Jews and Samaritans fervently hated each other. Yet, the paradoxical nature of Jesus’ parable is not all of the story. The Good Samaritan is but the ending of a longer narrative Luke started telling in the previous chapter.
In Luke 9 we read of the Mount of Transfiguration as a retelling of Mount Sinai (which deserves its own blog post). As Jesus descended from “Sinai,” we find events Luke intentionally recorded to draw us into Israel’s story. For example, when Jesus came down the mount, there was a chaotic crowd and apostles unable to perform their duties referencing Aaron and the Golden Calf. Later, at the beginning of chapter 10, Jesus sent out 72 disciples ahead of him, alluding to the 72 people Moses brought with him (Exodus 24:1). After the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus was set on a journey to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51) just as after Mount Sinai Moses was told to head towards the Promise Land (Exodus 33:1).
In the middle of this, Jesus sent messengers to a town in Samaria to prepare for his arrival. Without wasting time here, recall the long hate filled history Jews and Samaritans had – imagine Jesus’ disciples’ or the Samaritans’ utter confusion and disgust. So we are not surprised when we learn that the Samaritans “did not receive him” (Luke 9:53). What is a bit particular is Luke’s phrase “because [Jesus’] face was set toward Jerusalem.” We would expect the Samaritans to not receive Jesus because he was a Jew but this was not the reason Luke gave. However, Luke wanted his audience to know the reason the Samaritans wouldn’t receive Jesus was because he was heading toward Jerusalem.
Immediately after Jesus’ rejection, James and John ask to call down fire upon the Samaritans but Jesus rebukes his disciples and moves on to the towns of Judea (Luke 9:54-56). James’ and John’s request should not be considered an over-reaction. They both intimately knew the Old Testament. They would recall the golden calf at Sinai. They also would remember how the Samaritans built two golden calves (1 Kings 12:28) and Elijah calling down fire on Samaritans (2 Kings 1:10). Their request would have seemed “biblical.” Yet Jesus rebukes them and not the Samaritans.
So, we move on to chapter 10 where Jesus sent his 72 disciples ahead of him. His first words to them were, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Luke 10:2), which echoes Jesus’ words in the Samaritan woman story at John 4:35. He then told them, “whenever you enter a town and they do not receive you, go into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet we wipe off against you. Nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near.’” (Luke 10:10-11). Jesus then condemned the cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum (Luke 10:13-15). So, the question begs, why this stark rebuke for these towns as opposed to the rebuke he gave to his disciples in chapter 9 for wanting to condemn the Samaritan village? We will return to this question later but for now notice Jesus’ response to these towns in contrast to John’s and James’ earlier.
A few paragraphs later, a “lawyer” stood up and asked Jesus, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:25). This dialogue then follows in Luke 10:26-29:
[Jesus] said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” 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.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”
But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
From this Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37). Skipping the commentary of the parable itself, what is striking about the Good Samaritan parable was that Jesus, less than a chapter earlier, was refused hospitality from the Samaritans, the Jews’ neighbors. And still Jesus used a Samaritan as the center piece of, perhaps, his most iconic teaching. Instead of condemning his neighbors, Jesus intentionally leverages them as a model of what it means to fulfill the second greatest (and greatest) commandment. Rather than justifying the rift between the Jews and Samaritans, Jesus challenged the lawyer’s religious presumptions by bringing him face to face with a Samaritan as one who can fulfill God’s greatest command. In turn, the implication for the Jewish lawyer would be to love, protect, serve, house, feed, and heal Samaritans. The responsibility to restore relationships has always been on God’s people. Ultimately, it was the Jews that prevented Jesus from going to the Samaritans in chapter 9.
Later, Jesus’ disciples will head back to Samaria and the Samaritans would receive them and the gospel of the kingdom of God (Acts 8:12, 14, 25). Beyond just a moral calling, Jesus and his disciples were also restoring the divided kingdom of Israel as God’s kingdom advanced into the world (Acts 1:8). For the Kingdom to be undivided rifts and divisions must be healed. “So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied” (Acts 9:31). Love for one another is not just an “identification” of Jesus’ disciples but a necessary modus operandi, a strategy for the Kingdom to advance (John 13:35).
Jesus’ disciples are not to call fire to fall on and consume their enemies (at most we shake the dust of our sandals and simply move on). We should not harshly criticize our “neighbors,” those we would label the outsiders, heretics, pagans, or unsaved. The harshest criticism is reserved for those with the calling of God’s priests in a fallen world yet fail to love their neighbors. The call to heal and to reconcile the world falls not on the lost and the sick but on the redeemed and the healed.