2004, Vol. 1, No. 2
The Church as a Transformational
Agent in Society: The Parable of the Good Samaritan, Luke
D. Hernando, Ph.D.
Professor of New Testament at Assemblies
of God Theological Seminary
The story of the Good Samaritan is one of
the best-known and best-loved of Jesus’s parables. For many
it has become the story of the archetypal “good
guy” who unselfishly helps a stricken stranger.
What is more, he does so at great personal expense
and inconvenience and without the prospect of getting
anything in return. To be sure the above portrayal
is there, but the story is much more than that. In
fact, beneath the story is a paradigm of how God wants
those in His kingdom to affect their world.
A Lawyer’s Bold Question
New Testament scholars are quick to remind us that
the setting provides a key to understanding parables,
and this one is no exception. The parable is prompted
by a scribal expert in the law (Gk. nomikos)
who tests Jesus’s command of the Torah with a
bold question.1 “What
must I do to inherit eternal life?”2 is
not an unusual question for a rabbi to ask3 but
it betrays a debatable assumption. It assumes that
achieving eternal life is a matter of human responsibility.
Surprisingly, Jesus does not challenge this assumption.
Instead, he answers with two questions that target
the area of his expertise: “What is written in
the Law?” and “How do you read (it)?” Nothing
could have been more inviting for a scribe than to
be asked to answer his own question.
The Lawyer’s Astute Answer, But Hidden Motive
Without hesitation (I imagine), the lawyer quotes
two verses that summarize the heart of the Decalogue,
or Ten Commandments: “’You shall love the
Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your
soul and with all your strength, and with all your
mind’ [Deut. 6:5]; and, ‘Love your neighbor
as yourself’” [Lev. 19:17]. His answer
actually distills Israel’s covenantal responsibility
to two all-encompassing principles of the Torah, i.e.,
to love God supremely and to love your neighbor as
yourself. Jesus can hardly find fault with this answer.
After all, on another occasion, the Pharisees asked
Jesus to identify the greatest commandment in the Law,
and he answered with the same two Scriptures adding, “All
the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (See
Matt. 22: 37-40). Consequently, Jesus affirms the correctness
of his answer and says, “Do this and you will
the answer raises the fundamental dilemma for a Jew.
Under the Law, the covenant responsibility of loving
God is inseparable from loving ones neighbor as oneself.
Jewish teachers tended to identify “neighbor” with “fellow
countryman” (i.e., Israelite).5 However,
the broader context of Moses’s instruction was
given to all the congregation of Israel (Lev. 19:2)
and dealt with how they were to conduct themselves
as a “holy” people. This included how they
were to treat the “stranger” (v. 10) in
the land. The lawyer’s question, “Who is
my neighbor?” is really asking, “To whom
do I owe that covenantal love Moses spoke about?”
Jesus’ Parabolic Answer
Rather than answer the question directly, Jesus tells
a parable that expounds God’s love. One obvious
and inescapable truth is that there is no love of God
without the love of one’s neighbor.6 Nevertheless,
Jesus advances to challenge the lawyer’s application
of that principle: The circle of God’s love encompasses
not just Israel, but the alien and stranger (Cf. Lev.
19:9,10). To do this he tells a story/parable that
is both believable and incredible. It is believable
because the event was common in that day; incredible
because of the actions and roles of the main characters.
Through the parable, Jesus answers the lawyer’s
question and a more fundamental one: “What does
God’s love of neighbor look like?”
God’s Love Is Impartial and Without Prejudice
To make this point, Jesus chose a Samaritan as the “good
guy” who models what the Law taught about loving
one’s neighbor. No doubt there were smug looks
and nods as Jesus described the callous indifference
of both priest and Levite who passed by the helpless
victim. One can only imagine the gasps from the crowd,
however, when he added, “But a certain Samaritan,
who was on a journey, came upon him; and when he saw
him, he felt compassion” (v.33). The Samaritans,
despised as religiously apostate and an ethnically
impure race of “half-Jews,” had a long
history of opposition and treachery toward the Israelites.7 There
could not be a more unlikely hero for the Jews in Jesus’s
audience. Jesus has the Samaritan acting more like
a pious Law-keeping Jew than did the Jewish religious
God’s Love Has Compassion
The Samaritan shows the covenantal love and compassion
of Yahweh to his neighbor. He acts spontaneously,
without regard to social or religious prejudice, out
of pity for a fellow human being in need. Jesus thus
paints a picture of the true lover of God who has God’s
merciful heart toward the victims of sin in this world.
He reveals a loving heart of someone who stands in
solidarity with hurting humanity and has the capacity
to feel their pain.
God’s Love Shows Mercy
However, the lovers of God do more than feel or identify
with those hurting and in need; they act to bring relief.
Mercy that originates in God’s love intervenes
by coming to the aid of those in need and distress.
One cannot help but recall God’s deliverance
of Israel from Egyptian bondage. Moses tells us that
God “heard” the groanings and cries of
His people, took notice of their sufferings, and remembered
His covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Ex. 2:23-25).
When he reveals himself to Moses in the burning bush,
God states, “I have surely seen the afflictions
of my people who are in Egypt, and have given heed
to their cry because of their taskmasters, for I am
aware of their sufferings, So I have come down to deliver
them” (Ex. 3:7,8). The Samaritan who sees, feels
compassion and acts in mercy is so much like Yahweh.
God’s Love Practices Justice
As the story continues, we find the Samaritan practicing
a gracious form of justice. The Old Testament defined
justice in terms of God’s righteousness (Heb. tsedeqah).
Applied to man, it demanded a right rule or standard
of conduct; each person getting what is rightfully
due him.8 What
do those who walk in covenant relationship with God
owe every person in need and distress? Is it not His
compassionate love? When God’s righteous standards
are violated through an act of injustice, justice requires
an intervention that seeks correction.9 In
this parable, the Samaritan intervenes to right a wrong
done to a fellow human being and seeks to restore him.
If the Law commanded the love of neighbor, then this
Samaritan was giving his neighbor what he rightly deserved
as one of God’s covenant people: loving and merciful
intervention to correct an injustice. The graciousness
of his act is seen in the cost of such intervention,
which went beyond generosity to personal involvement
How does this parable instruct the church in becoming
a transformational agent in society? The answer surely
is coming into focus. In verse 36, Jesus inverts the
question. It is not “Who is the neighbor
I ought to love,” but “Who showed
the love of God and demonstrated he was a neighbor
to the stricken Jew?” From the parable, the character
of God’s love is clear. It requires a compassionate
heart, active benevolent action or intervention and
sacrificial involvement. This kind of love is expressed
by God’s covenant people toward all those who
fall victim to sin in all forms of injustice, exploitation
and oppression. It is due to all those in need of mercy.
The church that seeks to become a transformational
agent in society must commit itself to a spiritual,
social and even political engagement in the world in
the name of the Lord. It must have the love of God
as its motivation and bringing restoration and rectitude
to a world broken and torn by sin as its goal. What
better platform on which to stand and proclaim the
gospel than one that models in the flesh the redemptive
and compassionate love of God in Christ?
1. Given the challenges
and opposition Jesus faces from the religious leaders
in Luke’s Gospel up to this point, it also
possible that the question was offered as a way of
exposing some unorthodox teaching that could be condemned.
See 4:28-30; 5:21, 30:6:2, 7-10; 7:29-30, 36-39;
and especially all of chapter 11.
2. All biblical
citations are from the New International Version (NIV).
3. See Craig S.
Keener’s remarks in IVP Bible Background Commentary:
New Testament. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity
Press, 1993), 217.
4. Jesus words
are reminiscent of Lev. 18:5 which promises life to
those who keep the Law. But the life promised in the
Torah was a reference to a long life in the land of
their inheritance. Later Jewish interpretation expanded
this promise to eternal life, which is the same application
made by Jesus here. See Keener, Bible Background,
6. The New Testament
expansion of this principle can be found in 1 Jn 4:19-21, “We
love, because He first loved us. If someone says, “I
love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar;
for the one who does not love his brother whom he has
seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this
commandment we have from Him, that the one who loves
God should love his brother also.”
7. An example is
provided for us by Josephus who relates an incident
under the procurator Coponius (AD 6-9). He relates
how the Samaritans sneaked into the temple precincts
on the eve of the Passover and scattered the bones
and ashes of the dead in the outer courts. See Josephus, Antiquities,
8. Burton L. Goodard, “Justice,” in
the Baker’ Dictionary of Theology, ed.
E. F. Harrison (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1960),
9. R. Duane Thompson, “Justice,” in
the Beacon Dictionary of Theology, ed. R. S.
Taylor (Kansas City, Missouri: Beacon Hill Press, 1983),
Friday, June 16, 2006 10:22 AM