Does Your Heart Break Like a Samaritan?

Over the last several days I have been haunted by the hateful thoughts and acts around me related to the different “other.” The question keeps ringing in my ears – what can I do, how can I help? I have contacted leaders in my area. I have tried to teach my children about Christian generosity and goodness. What else can I do?

Someone recently told me – Nijay, you are a teacher – teach! Well, this term I am teaching Biblical Greek, so I took the opportunity to teach my students about the Greek text of Luke 10:25-37 – the “Parable of the Good Samaritan.” I thought I would share these reflections.

10:25-26: The Torah Geek

A certain expert in Jewish religious law (νομικός – you might say a “Torah-geek”!) asked Jesus what the expectations are on Jews to inherit eternal life. Jesus turns the question back – What has been written in Torah? Jesus follows up with another question – literally, “How do you read it?” This means, “How do you interpret it?” (CEB). Such a fascinating question. Torah is not self-interpreting, it requires a certain theological insight to know what holds Torah together.

10:27-29: The Right Answer

The Torah-geek nails the answer: love God and love neighbor. Jesus commends him – “You answered correctly.” The Torah-geek now asks a follow-up question, but the way Luke explains the situation is important – the Jewish law-expert continued the dialogue in order “to justify himself (θέλων δικαιῶσαι ἑαυτὸν).” We are not sure exactly what this Torah-geek was after, but there is a sense of self-justification or self-vindication here, he wanted to appear clever and righteous (perhaps for the sake of honor or status). To ask, “who is my neighbor” might be to invite Jesus to say “Any Jew in need” – and the Torah-geek would have been ready to reply “Yes, I have done this blamelessly.”

10:30-32: As Luck Would Have It

In response, Jesus launches immediately into a story – some guy is traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. He falls prey to robbers (λῃσταῖς περιέπεσεν). The way Jesus tells this story, it is clear that this poor guy was not to blame, he wasn’t flaunting wealth, he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. He goes on to say that they beat him up and leave him for dead, but the Greek text is more vivid: they dress him down (of clothes) and dress him up with wounds, and then abandon him.

The way 10:31 begins is crucial – κατὰ συγκυρίαν – literally “according to chance,” that is as luck would have it… Jesus is leading the listener to believe that the victim is about to get some good news. As luck would have it, a priest was going just that direction.

Jesus makes a point to say that the priest saw the victim (ἰδὼν αὐτὸν) – what’s going to happen? The priest will take action, right? He does not. Rather ἀντιπαρῆλθεν – not just παρῆλθεν, he passes him by, but ἀντιπαρῆλθεν, he chooses (after seeing him) to cross way over there on the other side of the road. Ouch. Jesus goes on –the Levite is next, coming upon that same location, and he sees the victim as well (ἰδὼν), and again ἀντιπαρῆλθεν –  he goes out of his way to avoid the man.

10.33-35: Shaking Guts

By this time the listener is ready for a turn of fortune. But Jesus introduces Σαμαρίτης τις, “a certain Samaritan.” A Jew would have very low expectations for this sort of person. The pattern is similar – he is traveling and happens upon the incident. He sees (ἰδὼν) the victim just as the others. The listener waits, wincing in fear that this Samaritan too will run away. But next – ἐσπλαγχνίσθη – using modern vernacular we might translate this, “his heart was broken to bits” (literally it means “his guts shook”!). In comparison, the priest and Levite seem heartless.

The Samaritan takes quick action – he shows great care to bandage the man’s wounds and treat them with balms. He places him on his own donkey (that is the equivalent of giving him the keys to your car and following along in an Uber). Wait –there’s more! He takes the man to an inn.

Wait – there’s more! He continues to see to his care (10:34). Then the Samaritan left, right? Wrong. On the next day, he pulled out his wallet and gave enough money for room and board for several days (10:35). Furthermore the Samaritan hired the inn-keeper to see to the man’s care personally, with the promise that when he would return he could pay off any further debts. As we will see in a moment, this story is about pity, but what comes through strikingly in the Greek text (and a careful reading of the English) is the extravagance and depth of the Samaritan’s compassion. He did not do the equivalent of calling the police or an ambulance. He took on the burdens of the “other” as his own. The Samaritan took on the burdens of the 'other' as his own. Click To Tweet

10:36-37: The Merciful Samaritan

Jesus asks the question for which the answer is quite clear: Who do you think was the “neighbor” to that poor man who fell into the hands of robbers? Again, the Torah-geek knows the answer: “the merciful one.” In the Greek text, Luke makes it clear that “mercy” is not a gushy feeling, but an act (ὁ ποιήσας τὸ ἔλεος). Jesus follows up: go and do that just like my story.

One of the striking aspects of this parable is that the victim is described as neither good nor evil (nor do we know his ethnicity or origin). He is an entirely passive figure. The Samaritan, not knowing the situation, acts according to mercy. Jesus knows that the Samaritans don’t worship exactly right (hence, salvation is from the Jews; John 4:22). But Jesus points out that compassion and mercy ought to be human nature, the instinctual response to suffering. I have always thought a better title for this parable is “The Merciful Samaritan.”

Does Your Heart Break?

In recent months in America there have been extensive discussions of “America first,” “protecting our own,” and letting other people worry about foreigners who have fled for their lives and are hopelessly displaced. What strikes me about Jesus’ parable to the Torah-scholar is how he makes the message of the Scriptures, the message of Judaism and Christianity, about limitless mercy, reckless compassion, and love without borders. Jesus makes the message of the Scriptures about love without borders. Click To Tweet

We are in an important moment right now where we are confronted with many men, women, and children who are unfortunate victims of circumstance. We would feel justified in keeping our distance from possible sources of harm – just as the priest and Levite did. The priest and Levite presumably were “good” people. They tithed. They even had opportunities to work in the temple. They read and memorized Scripture. But the rub of the story is that a Samaritan of all people inadvertently provided the better example of godly mercy, true “love-of-neighbor” virtue.

I am neither a politician, nor the son of a politician, so I don’t have all the answers pertaining to borders, immigrants, and refugees. But I am willing to stand firmly by this: Jesus’ story has a pretty simple and clear question at its core: does your heart break like a Samaritan for the suffering stranger?