During these troublous times, we should take a long hard look at what it means to engage in justice. Christians like to emphasize that Jesus stated startling truths that shook His day. They champion their corner of truth without making clear what Jesus really stands for. We tend to be short on the details of what true religion looks like. Using Jesus to back our agendas to fix our neighborhoods through activism and community participation, we may ignore the offensive comments He made about those who consider themselves leaders of justice. Jesus cleansed the Temple from economic and religious oppression, but this is quite different from roving youths trashing and burning cities for social change. When Jesus overturned the tables, what were His motivations? His concern was injustice. Emulating Jesus’ embodiment of God’s vision for justice and peace does not include violent revolution, riot, or tirade. The religion of Jesus can’t be used as guise for destructive outrage or reinvented based on social change.
In His well-known parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:29–37), Jesus highlights justice and what it means to love one’s neighbor. In His story, we encounter a man traveling on a hot and dusty road from Jerusalem to Jericho. The man is traveling alone and is ambushed by robbers. It’s a horrible scene. Violently mugged, he is left to die on the barren road. Soon after, a priest passes but does not stop to offer assistance, avoiding the wounded man on the other side of the road. He knows the law of love and kindness calls him to save a life and is prioritized over every other law, but perhaps it’s his time to serve in the Temple and he faces ritual requirements to not touch a dead body. If he confirmed the man dead, he would have to be purified before entering the Temple. He also knows there are bandits on the road. Thinking it not worth the hassle, he sets aside his ethics in favor of self-preservation.
Next, a Levite passes. Following the same mindset as the priest, he too fails to help. Then Jesus mentions that a third person is traveling the Jericho road that day. With great expectation, the audience waits for Jesus to introduce the hero of the story—certain that it will be a God-fearing rabbi or perhaps a Pharisee who will show how compassionate and virtuous God’s chosen people are. Such people are expected to be hospitable and help those in need, but Jesus throws a curveball, thwarting His listeners’ expectations. He introduces a Samaritan—a member of a despised group (John 4:9). In fact, “Samaritan” is considered a derogatory term (John 8:48). In Jesus’ story, however, the Samaritan shows compassion while the priest and Levite don’t. The moral hero of Jesus’ lesson is of a despised race—His listeners’ enemy, not one of their own. The Samaritan has compassion because he knows he could have been victimized himself and is concerned about what will happen to this poor man if he does not act. He cares for the victim’s wounds and takes him to an inn.
Scholar Kenneth Bailey, who lived in the Middle East, explains that the Samaritan does for the victim everything that the priest and Levite should but don’t. What’s more, the Samaritan risks his life by transporting the wounded man to an inn within Jewish territory. He risks retaliation. He could be blamed for the crime though he is innocent. The risk of harm and violence is high, but he goes beyond what is expected, spending the night caring for the wounded man and then paying for continued care until he fully recovers. As he checks out of the inn he even promises to pay any additional costs upon his return (see Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, 2008, pp. 286, 295).
It is the Samaritan’s choice to become involved and to enlist the help of others. This act of injustice requires more than short-term care. Someone willing to go out of his way and then return to follow through—someone willing to travel into dangerous territory and spend his own resources—is someone who cares about the safety of sidewalks, roads, and residential areas. He is someone who strives to right wrongs to promote justice.
Though it includes doctrinal themes of kindness and compassion, the parable serves as a critique of our commitments and values. It castigates the racial attitudes and agendas of those in its audience. The story could have been set in Samaria, with a good Jew rescuing a wounded Samaritan or a good Jew rescuing one of his own countrymen. Instead, it presents a hated Samaritan rescuing a Jew. It is a divisive tale, directed at those claiming national and religious superiority. It addresses discrimination and prejudice—notions that one’s race or beliefs are better than those of others. Jesus’ parable speaks directly to those who see themselves as superior by presenting a person with the “wrong” religion and ethnicity as a role model and thus critiquing the political and economic agendas of those with privilege and power. Denouncing religious, racial, and ethnic animosity is at the heart of the story.
The lesson of Jesus’ parable is not to have compassion for society’s marginalized and suffering. The priest and the Levite are not devoid of pity. I am sure they feel empathy and engage in acts of charity, but they are afraid and do not want to get involved with this victim. Despite their religion, wealth, and status, they do not expand being a good neighbor to improving social conditions. Jesus denounces their attempts to justify their failure to help, but His emphasis remains on the Samaritan. The implication is that neither the priest nor Levite has true compassion, while the Samaritan does. Compassion is separate from religion, politics, and ethnicity. John, the beloved disciple of Jesus, conveys this clearly: “Whoever practices righteousness is righteous.” (1 John 3:7, ESV).
Regardless of what the Samaritan believes, his actions show he understands the value God places on human life. He is willing to go great lengths to help a victim who has been harmed and left with no resources. This is an unexpected self-sacrificial choice. The man revealed as most neighborly is the one who sets aside his ethnic, racial, and cultural prejudices. The good neighbor is not the priest or Levite but the enemy whose response brims with unexpected compassion. Beyond illustrating compassion, however, the parable’s message is spiritual, for Jesus says inheriting eternal life is related to being a good neighbor. We are told to love God supremely and our neighbor as ourselves (Leviticus 19:18; Deuteronomy 6:5). This does not suggest that inheriting eternal life is dependent on being a good neighbor, but it does suggest that living a life of love and service is constant with entering into life (Deuteronomy 30:6).
Escaped slave and prominent activist Frederick Douglass confessed that “any attempt to expose the inconsistencies of the religious organization of our land is the most painful undertaking.” (D.H. Dilbeck, Frederick Douglas: America’s Prophet, 2018, pp. 66). It pained Douglass to see American churches abandon Christ’s teachings and uphold prejudice. Yet, like Jesus, he did not shy from identifying cultural factors. In Jesus’ parable, the priest and Levite, who are among the religious elite, failed, while the Samaritan is the good neighbor. This makes the Samaritan—an ethnic and religious outsider—the agent of God’s justice.
True religion does not consist of institutions, systems, or creeds but is the practice of kindness, unselfish love, and genuine compassion. Douglass said, “I love the religion of our blessed Savior . . . I love that religion that is based upon the glorious principle, of love to God and love to man.” (Dilbeck, America’s Prophet, pp. 163). Could it be that current times are waking us to the divine perspective of justice and mercy? God is looking for people who are compassionate at home, at their jobs, and in their communities. At the end of the good Samaritan parable, Jesus turns to His audience and says, “Go and do likewise!”
A world where good Samaritans are found in every neighborhood and on every street corner is a world full of compassion. Those who exhibit such compassion have eternal life, but going to heaven instead of hell is not the full story. Inheriting eternal life is not just about the afterlife; it is about God’s people in the here and now. Divine love is manifested only by living a life consistent with the example given by Jesus. Therefore, in Christ, “The kingdom of God has come near to you” (Luke 10:9, NRSV).
The story’s sequel is about entering a life in which violence and oppression happen no longer. To experience the power and the presence of God, we must live in His compassion and be willing to learn from those considered Samaritans today, thus ensuring, in part, that people are no longer beaten or robbed on the road to Jericho, while looking forward to the day when the kingdom of God is on earth as it is in heaven.
Craig Ashton Jr.