Gospel parables, an Orthodox commentary

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The good Samaritan


The parable of the good Samaritan is well known to many of us from childhood. We think we know it well although we know only a part of it. No one knows it fully until Christ's words become his rule of life.

Christ tells the parable of the good Samaritan to answer a lawyer's question about how to gain eternal life. All Jews knew the answer to this question, already given by God in the Old Testament books of Deuteronomy (6:5) and Leviticus (19:18). The answer is love of God and of neighbor. Christ makes the lawyer answer his own question aloud. The Savior confirms the answer and, adding: "This do, and thou shalt live" (Luke 10:28).

The lawyer asks: "Who is my neighbor?" The lawyers consider only Jews as their neighbors. The Pharisees consider their neighbors to be only men who are as righteous as Pharisees themselves. And other men are sinners (as in the parable of the publican and the Pharisee). The Lord Jesus Christ introduces a complement to this moral law of the Old Testament when He tells the scribe what a neighbor is in the parable of the Good Samaritan, which the Evangelist Luke has preserved for us:

"A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, who stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him, and went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two denarii, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee. Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbor unto him that fell among the thieves? And he said, He that showed mercy on him. Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise" (Luke 10:30-37).

The Samaritans and Jews were at cross purposes because of a schism of religion. To a pious Jew, a Samaritan was an unclean and despicable man. But the Samaritan knows that works of mercy permit no distinction between men. According to the Gospel, every man is a "neighbor," irrespective of his background or convictions. A "neighbor" to a fellow countryman is neither a like-minded person, nor a colleague. A neighbor may be our public, political enemy, our ideological opponent, a man who disagree with us on religion and other subjects, or a man psychologically and physically alien to us and offensive.

But every man is a "neighbor," whether he is one of our own or a stranger. Love for one's "own" must not fill our whole heart with no place left for "strangers." The parable of the good Samaritan and all the Gospel erases the boundaries between who is "near" and who is "far." For God, no one is far or near. All are his precious creations.

Few of us can love everyone equally, but our hearts must try to feel the value of each human being. It may be beyond our strength to love an enemy, but we can look on an enemy through the prism of Divine love. It is within our strength to know that Christ died on the Cross for our enemy too. Something in him is worthy of Christ's death. He is not a blank, but God's creature, bearing His image and likeness. God became man so that man might become god-like. God Himself is humane, so man too must be humane. Men's humanity manifests their divine likeness. The parable of the good Samaritan teaches us that any man - be he sick, poor, thief, or enemy-has greater value than any abstract idea of goodness, of common or public welfare, or churchmanship, or traditions, regulations and canons.

The parable of the good Samaritan teaches us a hierarchy of values: man comes first, and the Sabbath second. Public, social and ecclesiastical institutions serve man, and not man serving them. Like the Samaritan, we must first see the man, his status in society notwithstanding, his fine clothes or pauper's rags notwithstanding. The Lord gave us the parable of the good Samaritan to answer to the lawyer who asked what he should do to gain eternal life.

When Christ answered with the commandment on love, the lawyer again asked a basic question: "And who is my neighbor?" The parable of the good Samaritan, shows us that there can be no minimum due. The parable teaches that our neighbor is every man who needs mercy.

According to the Fathers, the man going down from Jerusalem to Jericho is Adam, who is all mankind. Our first parents, who did not stand firm in good and fell into sin, were banished from Paradise, from the "Heavenly Jerusalem," and had to live in the world, with many difficulties. The thieves are demonic powers who envied the purity of the first people and pushed them onto sin, depriving them of faithfulness to God's will and of life in Paradise. The man's wounds are the consequences of sin, which make us spiritually weak. The priest and the Levite are the law of the Old Testament, given by Moses, and the priesthood of Aaron, which cannot save man. The Good Samaritan is Jesus Christ, Who gave us the New Testament and the grace of God (the oil and wine in the parable) to heal our infirmities. The inn is the Church of God, where we find all things needful for recovery. The innkeeper is the sum of Church's pastors and teachers, whom God charged to care for the flock. The departure of the Samaritan in the morning symbolizes the appearance of Christ after his Resurrection and also His glorious Ascension. The two denarii, given to the innkeeper, are the Divine Revelation, in Sacred Scripture and Tradition. Finally, the Samaritan's promise to return to the inn for a final reckoning is a prophesy of the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, when to each man will be given according to his works.

This small portion of the parable of the Good Samaritan teaches us who our neighbor is and how to become Christian neighbors. "Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God" (I John 4:7).

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