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Transforming: The Church as Agent of Change in the Parable of the Good Samaritan


The shocking parable of the Good Samaritan provides an example of how the church can be an agent of transformation. In this story from Luke 10, a despised minority person demonstrates God’s love and shows today’s Christians the essence of authentic social transformation.


Image: Romary / Wikimedia Commons.

The story of the Good Samaritan is one of the best-known and best-loved of Jesus’ 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

The setting is key to understanding parables.

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’ 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 vv. 27-29

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 live.”4 Nevertheless, 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’ 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?”


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Category: Biblical Studies, Winter 2009

About the Author: James D. Hernando, Ph.D. (Drew University), is Professor of New Testament at the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary. He is author of Dictionary of Hermeneutics (Gospel Publishing House, 2005), the commentary on 2 Corinthians in the Full Life Bible Commentary to the New Testament (Zondervan, 1999), as well as numerous articles and papers.

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