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The Parable of the Good Samaritan From a Jewish Perspective

by Dr. Eitan Bar
10 minutes read

Long before it became embedded in legal frameworks, Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan in response to a question from a Torah scholar—a Jewish lawyer—seeking to understand how to gain God’s favor. This story has transcended its biblical origins to become synonymous with selflessly aiding strangers and even enemies without expecting a reward. Reflecting the enduring impact of Jesus’ narrative, some Western nations have established “Good Samaritan laws” inspired by the ethos of this parable.

The universal resonance of this story is no coincidence. In a Jewish context, the parable of the Good Samaritan specifically addresses the question: “Who is my ‘neighbor’ whom I am to love?” This query and its implications have made “The Good Samaritan” one of the most iconic stories in human history:

25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?26 What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it? 27 He answered, “‘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, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’28 You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor? 30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’ 36 Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers? 37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.

Luke 10:25-37

Background

Luke does not provide much background for the event; we only know that during one of Jesus’ teaching sessions, a listener decided to challenge him: “A man, a Torah scholar, stood up to test him and said: ‘Rabbi, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’” (Luke 10:25). This Torah expert, akin to a modern-day professor of law, was well-versed in Hebrew law. He posed his question not necessarily as a genuine inquiry but perhaps as a challenge. In Judaism, it was customary for the teacher to stand while the students sat. However, the scholar stood up not to seek wisdom as a humble student but rather to test or challenge Jesus’ authority and potentially entrap him.

The phrase ‘to inherit eternal life‘ was in reference to one’s spiritual inheritance in the afterlife (Matthew 19:29). The choices we make in this life—our actions and behaviors—not only shape our earthly experiences but also determine the rewards—inheritance in “Jewish language”—we receive from God in the world to come.

Jesus responded to the Torah scholar’s challenge with a probing question: “What is written in the Torah? How do you read it?” The scholar answered by quoting the Torah: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:26-27)

The scholar correctly linked the commandments to love God and to love one’s neighbor as oneself—a connection Jesus had often emphasized in his teachings. This acknowledgment highlights an essential truth: it is impossible to “love God with all your heart” without “loving thy neighbor as yourself.” Yet, the focus of their exchange was a deeper issue.

Jesus affirmed the scholar’s response: “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.” (Luke 10:28). This statement underscores the importance of living out one’s beliefs. Merely knowing the right answers, like winning a Bible quiz, doesn’t equate to knowing God or applying one’s knowledge in life. Theoretical knowledge serves as a tool, not the endpoint.

In saying, “Do this and you will live,” Jesus alludes to Leviticus 18:5, “Keep my decrees and laws, for the person who obeys them will live by them.” which promises God’s blessings to those who live by His commandments. In Judaism, “life” represents blessings. In fact, a common Jewish toast, “L’Chaim!,” which means “To Life!” is often said at celebrations in anticipation of all the good things to come. This reference is particularly poignant as it precedes the commandment “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18), framing Jesus’ teaching within a broader scriptural context. In essence, Jesus was saying, “You want a blessed life? love others!”

Your Neighbor

Here, we finally reach the bone of contention. Seeking to justify himself further, the Torah scholar pressed Jesus with another question: “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29)

The scholar’s love was selective, confined only to certain groups of people, prompting him to focus the discussion narrowly. His question, “And who is my neighbor?” implies that, in his view, not everyone merits the designation of ‘neighbor’—and thus, not everyone is deserving of his love. At this point, we arrive at the heart of the debate. Until this moment, Jesus and the Torah scholar had agreed on the obligation to love others by word and action. However, the scholar’s query reveals a fundamental divergence in their understanding. He essentially says, “Sure, I need to love my neighbor, but who exactly qualifies as my neighbor?”

The term ‘neighbor’ traditionally encompasses a range of relationships—it could be a friend, an acquaintance, or someone living in proximity. The Torah even extends this commandment to include foreigners who lived among Israel, instructing: “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:34) However, rabbinical interpretations1 later restricted this commandment, limiting it to loving only those Jews who adhere to halacha (restrict rabbinic Jewish law).

While the Torah scholar anticipated a definition aligning with ‘a law-abiding Jew,’ Jesus aimed to expand this understanding. He challenged the restrictive views that dictate whom to love based on religious or racial criteria. Jesus advocated for a universal love that transcends differences, embracing those who are different and even those who may not reciprocate love.

This broader, inclusive definition of love sets the stage for Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, which illustrates that true love knows no boundaries and overcomes all cultural, religious, and racial divides.

Parable of the Good Samaritan

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.

Luke 10:30

The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was notoriously perilous. Josephus Flavius, a historian, notes its significance as a major route to the Temple frequented by both Jews and Samaritans. In Jesus’ narrative, the victim’s identity remains ambiguous due to his lack of clothing, making it impossible to determine whether he was a Jew. This anonymity suggests that the man represents every person, transcending specific racial or religious identities.

As the story unfolds, a priest happens upon the scene but deliberately avoids the injured man by crossing to the opposite side of the road. Since Jericho was home to many priests living outside Jerusalem, it’s plausible he was returning from Temple duties. The priest’s avoidance, therefore, was not merely an oversight; it was a conscious decision to evade involvement.

Likewise, upon encountering the scene, a Levite made the same choice to pass by on the other side. Their reluctance possibly stemmed from a fear that the man was dead, which would have rendered them ceremonially unclean according to Torah law,2 had they made any contact. The fact Jesus chose a priest and a Levit highlights a subtle criticism: the adherence to religious law took precedence over the sanctity of human life.

It is conceivable that the injured man was a neighbor, possibly even a fellow priest or Levite. Moreover, if he had just left the Temple, where he might have made offerings, both the priest and the Levite indirectly benefited from his contributions. Despite this connection, they chose inaction, avoiding the risk of ritual impurity at the cost of a life.

Up to this point, neither the priest nor the Levite—representing the highest religious authority—broke any laws; they simply did nothing. This inaction underscores the parable’s profound critique: they prioritized legalism over the urgent needs of a fellow human being, illustrating the great moral failure of neglect in the face of suffering. Choosing to remain neutral in situations of injustice often means that you are siding with the oppressor.

And behold, a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he was moved with compassion.

Luke 10:33

Jesus introduces a Samaritan into the story at a crucial moment. During the Second Temple period, Jews and Samaritans had deeply strained relations, akin to the hostilities sometimes observed today between Israelis and Palestinians. They mutually saw one another as enemies. In the eyes of many Jews, Samaritans were considered impure and subhuman, definitely not regarded as the “neighbors” whom one was commanded to love in the scriptural sense.

The priest and the Levite, who passed by the injured man earlier, may have been constrained by fear of their own safety. They might have thought, “If I stop to help, what will happen to me? Could I also be robbed?” Their decisions could be seen as a form of self-preservation, a common human reaction when faced with potential danger.

However, the Samaritan’s reaction was dramatically different. When he saw the wounded man, he was moved with compassion. This emotional response shifted his mental focus from self-concern to the welfare of the injured man, reflecting a profound reinterpretation of the question, “Who is my neighbor?” This Samaritan, whom societal norms would not expect to show such compassion, asked himself, “If I do not stop to help, what will happen to this man?” This pivotal moment begins the redefinition of “neighbor” to encompass all humanity, regardless of race or creed.

The Samaritan’s actions demonstrate the essence of the love Jesus preached. This love calls for service and sacrifice for others, irrespective of who they are or what risks might be involved, devoid of any desire for recognition or reward. He approached the man, treated his wounds with oil and wine, and bandaged them. These items—oil and wine—were valuable commodities that symbolized status and wealth in the worldly sense and festivity in the heavenly realm. Beyond their practical use in cleansing and treating wounds, oil and wine held religious significance as they were used in Temple rituals. In the eyes of Jesus, the Samaritan’s oil and wine were considered much more ‘divine worship’ than the oil and wine poured by the priests a short while earlier in the Temple.

The Samaritan then placed the man on his animal, brought him to an inn, and cared for him. The next day, he gave the innkeeper two denarii and promised to cover any additional expenses upon his return. The Samaritan’s commitment illustrates a profound level of care and responsibility, highlighting that true compassion often involves personal sacrifice. The two denarii he left could sustain a person for nearly a month, indicating the Samaritan’s generosity in providing the very best, not just the bare minimum.

In a striking irony, Jesus points out that while the priest and the Levite, who had possibly just used oil and wine in their act of Temple worship, avoided the injured man, the Samaritan, using oil and wine for healing, truly embodied the service to God they professed to uphold. This loving act of kindness and mercy, offered by a supposed outsider, starkly contrasted with the actions of the religious leaders and effectively served as a more genuine act of worship and adherence to God’s commandments.

Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?

Luke 10:36

For the Torah scholar, who was a law expert, the concept of a ‘neighbor’ was primarily a legal one—an object of the commandment. His questions revolved around legal responsibilities: Am I required to help? Whom must I help? To what extent?

However, Jesus redefines the term by making ‘neighbor’ the subject of the story. He challenges the legalistic perspective, urging the scholar to see beyond laws and regulations and to view each person as a creation of God, deserving of love. This shift transforms ‘neighbor’ from a category of obligation to a universal identity that includes every person, regardless of race or belief.

The scholar’s response, “The one who…” reveals his reluctance even to utter the word “Samaritan.” Yet, he acknowledges that the true neighbor, the one who embodied genuine love, was the Samaritan who showed mercy.

To love your enemies goes far beyond merely being polite to them. It means bearing their burdens, sacrificing your time, altering plans if necessary, giving from your resources, digging deep into your pockets, and sometimes even disregarding your comfort and security to enter the dangerous alleyway of their struggle—even if it means facing criticism from others later for the decision you made. Sacrificing for others always comes at a cost. But the God who sees in secret rewards in secret.

When Jesus responds, “Go and do likewise,” he isn’t sending him on the road between Jerusalem and Hebron to look for strangers thrown by the wayside but rather speaking about a way of life. “do likewise” is essentially Jesus’ answer to the initial question posed, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” By sacrificing today, we inherit rewards in eternity. In other words, do you wish to find favor in God’s eyes? Do you want to receive an honorable inheritance in the world to come? Then Jesus says that God measures your inheritance in the world to come based on your ability to love sacrificially in this world.

Conclusion

Jesus’ commandment to love our neighbors and enemies alike (Matthew 5:43-48) is beautifully illustrated through the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan powerfully illustrated the concept of God’s justice. It challenges societal norms and prejudices by showcasing a Samaritan’s compassionate response to a victim of robbery who is neglected by two who represent religion. This parable transcends the conventional understanding of neighborly obligation, emphasizing that justice involves actively extending mercy and aid across cultural and social boundaries. By highlighting the Samaritan’s actions, Jesus teaches that justice is about doing what is right and compassionate, regardless of societal divisions, thereby setting a profound example of love in action.

Jesus’ teaching turns love from an abstract concept and a passive state into an active duty. It is about becoming someone who loves others freely and selflessly. “Go and do likewise” is not an encouragement but a command to radically transform how we interact with the world. Through the Good Samaritan, Jesus redefines who our neighbors are and calls us to be the good Samaritans our world desperately needs.

This paradigm shift requires a deep change in how we view and value others, urging us to respond with kindness and mercy even when it’s inconvenient or potentially dangerous. By living this way, we become living testimonies of the love and mercy God desires for all humanity, fulfilling the law of love that knows no bounds.

Thus, the story of the Good Samaritan remains a powerful call to action, challenging us to consider not “Who is my neighbor?” but “To whom can I be a neighbor today?” This approach compels us to actively engage in loving service to all we meet, just as the Samaritan did, drawing us closer to the heart of God, who is love itself.

What’s astonishing is that just as the man in the parable was stripped, beaten, and left to die, we also stripped Jesus—not only of his garments but also of his dignity. We mocked him and nailed him to a cross to die. The difference, however, is that in Jesus’ case, no one was righteous enough to stand by his side (Mark 14:50). Yet, Jesus’s life provides the quintessential example of the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus sacrificed his life for us—all of us—his neighbors, so we can now also sacrificially love our neighbors—everyone.


This article is from my new upcoming book, “The Theology of Love: Christianity’s Most Underrated Doctrine.

The Theology of Love
  1. Such as Rabbi Akiva’s interpretation on Leviticus 19:18. ↩︎
  2. See Numbers 18-20, Leviticus 21–24, Ezekiel 44:25. ↩︎

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Dr. Eitan Bar
Author, Theologian, Activist