Jesus loved to tell stories. It was a favorite method he used to get a salient point across. Often he spoke to people who struggle to understand what he was saying. Not because he was speaking a different language but because he was trying to explain a reality they had never encountered before. They were citizens of an empire where might made right and selfishness ruled. He was trying to communicate the principles of a kingdom where self-sacrifice ruled and gentleness defined greatness.
Not only was it a hard sell it was also difficult to describe. That's why Jesus used stories because they provided him with the tools he needed to convey his message clearly and succinctly.
Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan in response to a loaded question tossed at him by an ambitious young lawyer. "Teacher," he asked, addressing Jesus, "What shall I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus chose to answer the man's question with a question of his own. "What is written in the law? What is your reading of it?" he asked.
The young man parroted out the expected and well-rehearsed words without a second thought; “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself”
Agreeing with him Jesus responded “you have answered right; do this and you will live” With his answer, Jesus exposed the lawyer's questions for what it was; a trap to bait him into saying something unacceptable. But the lawyer refused to concede defeat. Scrambling to find purchase he countered "And who is my neighbor?"
Jesus recognized the question as an opportunity to school both the lawyer and the listening crowd on a few important truths. A prevailing Jewish conception at the time was that only healthy, wealthy, Jews were acceptable to God. Anyone who didn't fall into one of those three categories was both a spiritual and social outcast. Only healthy, wealthy, Jews were neighbors. No one else qualified.
Jesus used a story to clear up this misconception.
“A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho” he began “and fell among thieves” The road between Jerusalem and Jericho was a hot spot for brigands and looters. It was long enough and lonely enough to ensure that they would be able to carry out their purposes without being caught.
The unfortunate man was stripped of his clothing and valuables, beaten, and left for dead on the side of the road. Not long after the thieves had made their escape another man came down the same road. He was a priest making his way down to Jericho, perhaps after a rotation of serving at the temple.
When he saw the wounded man he scuttled across the road and hurried away terrified that the thieves who had lit into the half-dead man might come back and attack him. A short while after the priest had disappeared another man, a Levite, sauntered down the same road. When he saw the wounded man he too crossed the road and passed by on the other side not wanting to defile himself with a half-dead man.
Finally, a Samaritan came down the same road. His reaction to the man’s plight was completely contrary to the reactions of the two Jewish spiritual leaders who had passed him by. Sliding off his donkey, the Samaritan triaged the man’s wounds. Pulling out supplies from his pack he cleaned and disinfected the cuts with wine, treated them with oil, and bandaged them. He then hoisted the battered man onto his own donkey and took him to the nearest inn. The next day he paid the innkeeper enough money to ensure that the wounded man would be taken care of until he was ready to leave.
A strange hush would have fallen over the listening crowd as Jesus’ words sank in. Looking directly at the lawyer Jesus asked him “So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?” The lawyer blanched, stuttered, couldn’t bring himself to utter the word Samaritan and instead choked out “He who showed mercy on him.” Then Jesus said to him “Go and do likewise”
Speaking of the parable of the Good Samaritan Martin Luther King Jr once said “the first question the priest asked…was ‘if I stop to help this man what will happen to me?’ but then the Good Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question: ‘If I don’t stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”
The Samaritan's question mattered more to Jesus than the priest's.
We live in a world where our first thought is always to protect ourselves. God doesn't work that way. His first thought is always to protect others, regardless of the cost to himself. That's why Jesus left heaven to die for us. That's why God was willing to sacrifice His son to save a world that hated him. God is love and love doesn't stop to ask "how much is this going to cost me?" love only asks "what can I do to help?"
The punch line of the story is found in the four words Jesus spoke to the lawyer; "Go and do likewise"
Everyone who crosses your path in need of help is your neighbor. Are you asking the right questions when you stop to assess their needs? Are you willing to make the right choice?