Jesus knew how best to communicate his unique message of the Kingdom of God. His memorable parables conveyed profound messages in the simplest of way for all to grasp.
So, have you heard of Jesus’ Parable of the Good Enemy? The story is found in Luke 10:25–37. If you turn to most English translations, you will read this familiar title: The Parable of the Good Samaritan. While these traditional titles, added by translators, were intended to help modern readers, a few of these titles may actually cloud the thrust of the story.
The Good Samaritan is a common phrase that even those who have never read the Bible tend to think they know—that a kind stranger goes out of his way to help someone in dire need. But there is more to this parable than this usual interpretation.
Mind you, showing compassion towards a needy stranger is a creditable thing, but laying emphasis on kindness alone was not Jesus’ aim behind telling this parable.
Let’s look at the context of this parable again: Jesus is being ‘tested’ by a Jewish religious scholar who asks Him the question, ‘How do people get accepted by God’. Sensing the man’s combative attitude, Jesus throws back at him another question: ‘What is written in the law’. The man answers confidently—with a fine balance of Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18—‘Love God and love your neighbour’. Jesus says, ‘Good. Go, do it!’
But this man had not come to Jesus with an honest question. He already knew the answer. He had come to humiliate Jesus publicly. So he persisted, asking Jesus to define ‘neighbour’. (The word neighbour in Leviticus 19:18 referred to a fellow Israelite.)
Jesus saw through the man’s intentions. He probably shook his head, and thought: ‘Mr Lawman, you really want to know? You have come to test me, right? Now you will be tested—let’s see if you will pass this one’.
So, let’s take a fresh look at the parable: A Jewish man was travelling on a winding 30-km road from Jerusalem to Jericho. He became an easy target for highway robbers. They attacked him viciously, took everything and left him barely alive.
What happened next is sad, but commonplace. Two fellow Jewish travellers, a priest and then a Levite, passed him by on the road. Both were respectable members of the community. While they noticed the man in his desperate condition, they sadly, and for unexplained reasons, chose to hurry by.
Now came the twist in the tale! The listeners knew how often a story of this sort was recounted. Surely, the third person to pass by would have done something different, they presumed. Who was it going to be? They get the shock of their life—a Samaritan! Yes, a hate-worthy Samaritan.
AS MODERN READERS, WE OFTEN MISS THE POINT, MAINLY BECAUSE WE DON’T ADEQUATELY UNDERSTAND THE JEW-SAMARITAN DYNAMICS IN JESUS’ TIME
This Samaritan had compassion on the Jewish man and went out of his way to help save the man’s life. Apart from giving him first aid (oil and wine have cleansing and disinfecting properties), he carried the grievously wounded man on his own animal and brought him to an inn. Here he could be taken care of for some time, till he could recover. He provided money to cover costs, offering to pay more, later, if needed. Then, he disappeared from the scene.
The discomfort and shock among the listeners of this parable, including Jesus’ disciples, would have been palpable!
As modern readers, we often miss the point, mainly because we don’t adequately understand the Jew–Samaritan dynamics in Jesus’ time. For them, the past 700 years of history was full of conflict and hostility. Jews would rarely care for or have any respect for Samaritans. Rather, they considered Samaritans inferior, as those better dead than alive. You get a glimpse of this attitude in the previous passage (Luke 9:51–56). [Also, see my piece, ‘Shall We Bomb Them?’ in Christian Trends, Aug–Sept, 2018.] As a matter of fact, for the Jews, the word ‘Samaritan’ itself was an abuse, worse than ‘demon possessed’ (see John 8:48). So, obviously, ‘a good Samaritan’ would have sounded an oxymoron to most Jews.
After Jesus made a much-hated Samaritan outcast the hero of his story, the arrogant questioner now had to answer which of these three men was a neighbour to the wounded man. He answered, ‘The one who had mercy on him’—without mentioning the word Samaritan. Jesus looked him in the eye and said, ‘Go and do likewise!’
What was Jesus’ point? Does it mean the man would get eternal life if he helped strangers in need? Hardly! Jesus was challenging the man with the demands of his kingdom. His disciples would have no limits when it came to loving people (Matthew 5:43–48).
The Samaritan had unexpectedly chosen to care for a Jewish man on the road—something which would hardly be reciprocated. He stopped to help his enemy! The Jews had ridiculed his community for centuries; yet he chose to love unconditionally. This is the Parable of the Good and Gracious Enemy!
And has not Jesus himself done that for the world? Even though in agony on the cross, he pleaded, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing’. Paul said that God loved and reconciled us while we were his enemies (Rom 5:10). The way of life is the way of love. This love is freely poured into our lives by the Holy Spirit (Rom 5:5). And way of life without limits, eternal life, is the way of love without limits.
“I forgive,” said Gladys Staines with a broken heart but clear and gentle voice after her husband, Australian missionary Graham Staines and their two sons, were burnt to death in Odisha in January 1999 by those opposed to their faith.
Who is God asking you to forgive, love and serve? Someone who has hurt you badly—a relative, family member, colleague, or someone in your church. Kingdom people get to love even their enemies.
Let’s go and do likewise!