How do you react when someone tries to make you look foolish? What do you do when an opponent tries to paint you into a rhetorical corner?
That’s exactly what happened to Jesus in Luke’s gospel, when an expert in Israel’s religious law tried to “put Him to the test” (Luke 10:25). This episode in the life of our Lord set the scene for one of His most famous parables, and one of His sharpest critiques of self-righteous religion.
The fact that Jesus continued to answer this man was in itself, an act of grace. The man’s attempt to show Jesus up was obnoxious. Religious leaders tried this many times with Jesus and always failed. His ability to answer all their hard questions only infuriated them. Try as they might, they could not provoke Him.
On this occasion in particular, Jesus’ reply stands out for its warmhearted, gracious, loving restraint. The man was deliberately trying to goad Jesus, begging for a sharp answer that he planned to pursue with a heated debate. But sometimes “a soft tongue breaks the bone” (Proverbs 25:15), and that’s what happens here.
Here is the parable of the Good Samaritan:
A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among robbers, and they stripped him and beat him, and went away leaving him half dead. And by chance a priest was going down on that road, and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite also, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, who was on a journey, came upon him; and when he saw him, he felt compassion, and came to him and bandaged up his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them; and he put him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn and took care of him. On the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper and said, “Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I return I will repay you.” (Luke 10:30–35)
Jesus does not tell this account as if it were a true story. It’s a parable, a tale spun to dramatize, in an unforgettable way, the point He wanted to drive into this legalist’s heart—and ours as well. As in most of Jesus’ stories and parables, He has one simple point to make. There are lots of details in this story, and plenty of secondary implications, but what’s important here is the central lesson, and that is what we need to focus on.
The story begins with a journey on a very dangerous road. It is the road “from Jerusalem to Jericho” (Luke 10:30). The road is real. I have traveled on that very road. Visitors to Israel can still take the same route used by travelers in Jesus’ time. From Jerusalem to Jericho is about a four-thousand-foot drop in elevation across seventeen miles of winding road, crossing barren mountains over very rough terrain. In places, a steep, three-hundred-foot precipice, rather than any kind of shoulder, borders the road. Much of the route is lined with caves and massive boulders, which offer hideouts for robbers. It is still a dangerous road.
In Jesus’ story, the predictable happens. A man traveling alone on that road was jumped by a band of thieves—particularly brutal ones. They didn’t just rob him; they stripped him almost naked. They didn’t just take his purse with his cash; they took everything he had. Then they brutally beat him and left him for dead. We would say today he was in critical condition, a dying man on a desert road.
That road saw a steady stream of travelers when people were coming and going from Jerusalem for the feasts. But in other seasons—especially during the peak heat of summer or the stifling windy season and cold of winter—traffic on the road could be meager. There were no homes and very few stopping points on that stretch of road. It was not a friendly place—especially for someone alone and desperate. It might be a very long time before help came along—if ever. There was no guarantee anyone would find him or help him.
At this dramatic point in the story, Jesus introduces a bit of hope: “By chance a priest was going down that road” (Luke 10:31). This appears on the surface to be the best of news. Here comes a servant of God, one who offers sacrifices for people in the temple, a spiritual man who should be a paragon of compassion (Hebrews 5:2). He represents the best of men. A priest, of all people, would be familiar with the Mosaic law. He would know Leviticus 19:18 says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” He ought to know as well that verses 33 and 34 in that same chapter expound on the principle of neighborly love by applying it to strangers in particular: “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself.” A priest would know Micah 6:8:
He has told you, O man, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justice, to love kindness,
And to walk humbly with your God?
He would be fully aware that “he who shuts his ear to the cry of the poor will also cry himself and not be answered” (Proverbs 21:13). The principle spelled out in James 2:13 was woven into the Old Testament as well: “Judgment will be merciless to the one who has shown no mercy.”
The priest was surely familiar with Exodus 23:4–5:
If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey wandering away, you shall surely return it to him. If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying helpless under its load, you shall refrain from leaving it to him, you shall surely release it with him.
So if a person found his enemy’s donkey in a ditch, he was obliged to rescue the donkey, right? Of course he had a greater duty to help a man in critical condition.
But that flash of hope was short-lived. When the priest saw the injured man, “he passed by on the other side” (Luke 10:31). The Greek text uses a verb found nowhere in Scripture other than in that verse and the one that follows: antiparerchomai. The anti-prefix, of course, means “opposite.” It’s an active verb signifying that the priest deliberately relocated to the opposite side of the road. He went out of his way to avoid the injured traveler—purposely shunning the man in need.
The priest obviously had no compassion for people in dire distress. No other conclusion can be drawn from this. Jesus turned the lawyer’s question on its head. The question the fellow asked was, “Who is my neighbor?” But that’s not the right question. Jesus is showing him through this parable that righteous compassion is not narrow. It is not seeking for definitions of which sufferers are qualified to deserve help. The duties of the second great commandment are not defined by the question of who our neighbor is. In fact, the converse is true: genuine love compels us to be neighborly even to strangers and aliens. The full meaning of the second great commandment includes the principle Jesus made emphatic in Matthew 5:44: We should love even our enemies. They are our neighbors, too, and therefore we are obliged to bless them, do good to them, and pray for them.
The coldhearted priest in this parable is not necessarily included as an indictment of the priesthood in general. It was quite true that many of the priests and other religious leaders in Jesus’ time lacked compassion. But that is not the point here. This priest represents anyone with full knowledge of the Scriptures and a familiarity with the duties of the law, who is expected to help. But he does not.
The next verse introduces a Levite. All priests were of course from the tribe of Levi. More specifically, those who served as priests were descendants of Aaron (one of the sons of Levi). The term Levite therefore referred to descendants of Levi who were not also in the line of Aaron. They served in subordinate roles in the temple. Some were assistants to the priests; some were temple police; others worked in various behind-the-scenes roles maintaining and servicing the temple grounds. But their lives were devoted to religious service, so they were (like the priests) expected to have a good knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures.
Nevertheless, when this Levite came to the place where the wounded man lay, he did the same thing the priest had done. As soon as he saw the helpless victim lying there, he moved to the opposite side of the road. Here was another man devoid of compassion and bereft of lovingkindness.
Earlier in Luke’s gospel, Jesus had prayed, “I praise You, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants. Yes, Father, for this way was well-pleasing in Your sight” (Luke 10:21). These two religious characters in the parable, a priest and a Levite, embodied what Jesus meant by “the wise and intelligent.” They represented their culture’s best-educated and most highly esteemed religious dignitaries. But they did not really know God.
Neither was truly fit for heaven; they were “sons of disobedience”—and therefore objects of God’s wrath (Ephesians 2:2, 5:6; Colossians 3:6). They didn’t truly love God, because if you love God, you keep His commandments. They also didn’t love their neighbors, because when they faced a real and urgent need and had an opportunity to demonstrate love, they refused. They are striking illustrations of religious hypocrites, observing the ceremonial law, and even devoting their lives to the service of the temple but lacking any real virtue.
People sometimes cite the story of the Good Samaritan, point to the priest and Levite as examples of utter inhumanity, and then close the book with a sense of moral superiority.
To do that is to miss Jesus’ point.
It’s right, of course, to condemn the callous disregard of these two men and look upon their deliberate heedlessness with utter scorn. But in doing so, we condemn ourselves as well. Their attitude is precisely what we see in human nature today, even within our own hearts. We think, I don’t want to get involved. I don’t know what this man, or the people who beat him up, might do to me. Without in any way justifying the coldhearted apathy Jesus was condemning, we must confess that we, too, are guilty of similar blind indifference, wretched insensitivity, and careless disregard of people in dire need. Even if we don’t turn away every time we see someone in need, we all fail in this duty enough to stand guilty before the law with its demand for complete perfection.
Jesus makes that point unmistakable by introducing us to the Good Samaritan.