« Judaeo-Christian Religion in a Nutshell | Main | Anti-Materialism: The Rich Fool (Luke 12:13-21) »

Compassion: The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-35)

The ancient Greeks and Romans had a highly developed sense of justice and a thoroughly atrophied sense of compassion. Search as you may in the works of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, or Seneca you will not find compassion mentioned as a virtue. Indeed, they seem to have considered compassion, mercy, forgiveness, humility, and self-sacrificial love as signs of moral weakness rather than moral strength.

Not so in the Bible. Compassion and mercy, two synonyms, play a major role in both Old and New Testaments. The God of the Old Testament is portrayed far more often as a God of mercy than as a God of wrath. The references are too numerous to list (for example, Psalm 86:15; 111:3-5; 145:8; Nehemiah 9:19, 27, 28, 31). Likewise Jesus was a man of compassion (Matthew 15:32; 20:34; Luke 7:13) who repeatedly reminded his audience that God preferred mercy to sacrifice (Matthew 9:13; 12:7; 23:23).

The lawyer (that is, a scribe or an expert in the law of Moses) who asked Jesus, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" was apparently embarrassed by the elegant simplicity of Jesus' answer. Eager to prove that his question was profounder than the answer acknowledged, he adopts the Socratic method and asks a follow-up question, "And who is my neighbor?" Jesus replies this time with a parable that shifts the focus of the question.

It is certainly tempting to allegorize the parable of the Good Samaritan. One could say that the priest who made the temple sacrifices represents ritualistic yet emotionally empty religion and that the Levite who assisted the priests represents those who would substitute "church work" like cleaning the building for good works like ministering to the poor. It both cases, the point would be an attack on superficiality versus substance.

These are valid lessons, no doubt, because parables have multiple layers of meaning. But once you start to allegorize, it is difficult to know where to stop. What does the innkeeper represent? What do the two coins represent? What does the donkey represent? When you starting assigning a significance to each and every detail, it becomes difficult to isolate what Jesus really intended the main point of the parable to be.

In this story, Jesus teaches above all that loving our neighbor as ourselves requires us to show active compassion. The religious leaders who passed by may well have felt sorry for the man, but they did nothing. That is the point. Ironically, the despised Samaritan who put his compassion to work was the one who proved to be a true neighbor.

The lawyer had asked a passive question, "Who is my neighbor?" Jesus responds with a dynamic question, "Who became a neighbor to the man in need?" Jesus shifts the focus from who should be the object of our love (which implies "What are the limits of my responsibility to love?") to how we ourselves should approach showing love ("How can I help? Who needs me?").

Christians need to show more kindness and compassion without neglecting to engage in corporate worship and clean the church building (Matthew 23:23). Jesus isn't saying compassion and ritual/routine are mutually exclusive activities, only that the former has greater priority than the latter. Compassion is faith in action (James 2:8-18), something one does as opposed to something one merely feels. As such, God expects Christians to show compassion to their husbands, wives, and children as well as to the poor and oppressed. To compartmentalize compassion and apply it only to those (often rare) occasions when we deal with someone in need outside the family or church is to miss the point of the parable by applying it too literally and narrowly. Nowhere is compassion more necessary than in our most intimate relationships.

As Portia says in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, "The quality of mercy . . . droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven" because "it is an attribute to God himself" (IV.1.185,195). We show compassion because we want to be like God, not simply as a way to curry favor with him or to obey his law. The lawyer wanted to know how to inherit eternal life. The answer is simple yet profound, "Love God and show compassion."


1.Was the good Samaritan a great man of God or simply a warmhearted, generous person? What do you think is the difference? Compassion is often expressed by acts of generosity. What is the difference between compassion and generosity?

2.Is the Parable of the Good Samaritan a parable about the evils of racism and prejudice? Why did Jesus choose the Samaritan as his main character? Was Jesus telling the lawyer to look upon the Samaritan as his neighbor?

3.How would you rewrite this parable today? Who would be the priest, who the Levite, and who the Samaritan?

4.What are the most notable acts of compassion you personally have seen (as opposed to having heard of or read about)? Do you see yourself as compassionate?

5."Compassion," one writer said, "is Christianity in overalls." Do you agree that this is an adequate image? How would you describe Christian compassion?

6.How specifically can Christians show compassion on a regular basis (and not just at Thanksgiving or Christmas)? Do you think it is easier to get involved in "church work" than to do acts of compassion?


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on June 5, 2007 8:35 PM.

The previous post in this blog was Judaeo-Christian Religion in a Nutshell.

The next post in this blog is Anti-Materialism: The Rich Fool (Luke 12:13-21).

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

Powered by
Movable Type 3.35