Seeing a need for Mercy

This coming Sunday our gospel is the well known story called the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). In yesterday’s post the parable begins to play out with the priest and Levite passing by the beaten man without rendering aid. And then along comes a Samaritan.

A Samaritan was the last person who might have been expected to help – actions which reveal more than simple help, but a great deal of compassion. He attended to the beaten man. Wine would have been used for cleaning the wounds (the alcohol in it would have had an antiseptic effect). Oil, i.e. olive oil, would have eased the pain. The two appear to have been widely used by both Jews and Greeks. Perhaps a touch of irony is included as oil and wine were commonly used in Temple sacrifice. The wounded man was too weak to walk, so the Samaritan set him on his own beast (which meant that he himself had to walk), and so brought him to an inn. There he took care of him. The Samaritan did not regard his duty as done when he had brought the man to shelter. He continued to look after him.

He gave the innkeeper two denarii on account, and instructed him to look after the man. Jeremias reports that such an amount would have covered room and board for two weeks. Moreover, whatever additional costs the innkeeper might incur, the Samaritan undertook to refund on his way back. The Samaritan did more than the minimum. He saw a man in need and did all he could as compassion commanded.

This story gives a vivid example of the fulfillment of the love commandment. The lawyer’s question implies that someone is not my neighbor. Jesus’ story replies that there is no one who is not my neighbor. “Neighbor” is not a matter of blood bonds or nationality or religious communion; it is determined by the attitude a person has toward others. The priest and the Levite were well-versed in the demands of God’s law and, like the scholar, would surely have been able to interpret it for others. But they missed its deepest purpose, while the Samaritan, by practicing love, showed that he understood the law.

“Go and do likewise.” Probably the most common understanding of this text is that we are to act like the Samaritan in the text, rather than the priest or the Levite. He “sees” and “has compassion” (splagchnizomai) on the needy man in the ditch. He “cares” (epimelo – v. 34) for the man in the ditch. He also asks the innkeeper to “care” (epimelo – v. 35). The Samaritan doesn’t provide all of the direct aid to the needy man. He is also described by the lawyer as the one “doing mercy” (poieo to eleos).

The verbs used with the Samaritan are worth emulating: to have compassion for others; to come (near) to others; to care for others; to do mercy to others. It is not enough just to know what the Law says, one must also do it. To put it another way, it is not enough just to talk about “what one believes,” but “what difference does it make in my life that I believe.”

In addition, the description of the robbers’ work on the dead man indicates that there would be no identifying marks about his status, his occupation, or his race. How would the scholar (or the Samaritan) know if this half-dead man was a neighbor or not? He is a person who needs a neighbor. Who will respond? Who will come near? (The basic meaning of “neighbor” is Greek is “to be near”)

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