“The Parable of the Good Samaritan” is one of Jesus’ most famous illustrations (Luke 10:25-37). The famed story, found only in Luke’s gospel, is told in response to an inquiry as to the definition of “neighbor” (Luke 10:29). The parable describes a highway robbery in which a traveler is brutally ambushed by brigands (Luke 10:30). After two respected members of the religious establishment pass the victim without helping a Samaritan goes out of his way to assist the fallen traveler (Luke 10:31-33). The fact that Jesus paints a Samaritan, a reviled race by Jews of his day, as the hero would have shocked the original audience. After unleashing this thinly veiled diatribe against prejudice and religious leadership, Jesus concludes the discourse by letting the audience determine who in the story is the neighbor (Luke 10:36).
A unique facet of this parable is that Jesus gives it a clearly defined real world setting: the traveler is attacked between Jerusalem to Jericho (Luke 10:30).
Jesus replied and said, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among robbers, and they stripped him and beat him, and went away leaving him half dead. (Luke 10:30 NASB)While the story is fictional, its landscape is not. This twist adds a heavy dose of realism to the parable.
This may be another incidence of Jesus finding a teachable moment based on his own physical location. Peter Rhea Jones (b. 1937) speculates:
It is possible that Jesus was standing on or near the Jericho road when he spoke the parable since Bethany is on the same road and the next pericopé centers there. Certainly the parables usually associated with Galilee are not peopled with priestly sorts, whereas this parable may well have been uttered in Judea, a region more related to the Temple. (Jones, Studying the Parables of Jesus, 295)Specifically the traveler is “going down” from Jerusalem to Jericho, situated east of Jerusalem in the Jordan valley (Luke 10:30). Encountering priests on this journey is not surprising.
Klyne Snodgrass (b. 1944) informs:
Jericho was such a popular residence for priests that estimates suggest that half of the twenty-four orders of priests (cf. I Chronicles 24:1-19) lived there, although this may be an exaggeration. Each order would serve in the Temple for one week. (cf. Luke 1:8). (Snodgrass, Stories With Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus, 345)From Christianity’s earliest days, the parable’s setting was interpreted allegorically. Marcion of Sinope (85-160) posed that the backdrop was appropriate because Jesus was the true Good Samaritan and he appeared for the first time in history between Jerusalem and Jericho.
Arland J. Hultgren (b. 1939) relays:
Why Jericho? Augustine [354-430] allegorized the parable, saying that the descent signified the loss of immortality as the man went from the heavenly city (Jerusalem) to one that signified mortality (Jericho). It is more likely, however, that Jesus chose Jericho as the destination because the road to it was known to be a treacherous and dangerous route. (Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary, 95)Though “road” is not explicitly in the text, the path taken can be definitively located as there were few alternate routes. In Scripture, one always goes “up” to Jerusalem and down from the Holy City and in this case the terminology was quite literal.
Joseph A. Fitzmyer (b. 1920) describes:
According to Josephus [37-100], Bellum Judaicum 4.8,3 § 474, this was a distance of 150 stadioi (about eighteen miles) through “desert and rocky” country. Reference would be to the Roman road through passes and the Wadi Qelt; one would descend over 2500 feet above sea level (Jerusalem) to 770 feet below it (Jericho)...Josephus also mentions it as the way taken by the Legio X Fretensis [41-40 BC] en route from Jericho for the siege of Jerusalem (Bellum Judaicum 5.2, 3 § 69-70). (Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke X-XXIV: Introduction, Translation, and Notes (The Anchor Bible), 886)Darrel L. Bock (b. 1953) adds:
Traveling the road from Jerusalem to Jericho (another journey going the other direction is found in II Chronicles 28:15), he would have gone through the Pass of Adummim (Joshua 18:17), a name that is related to the Hebrew word for blood. This journey had a reputation for being dangerous long before Jesus’ time...It was a rocky thoroughfare winding through the desert and surrounded by caves, which made good hideouts for robbers who laid in wait. Even centuries after Christ’s time, robbers continued to exploit travelers on this road. (Bock, Luke 9:51-24:53 (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), 1029)The road’s topography leant itself to treachery. It possessed a sharp, steep descent. Situated in wild, desolate country, its curved path limited a traveler’s line of sight.
I. Howard Marshall (b. 1934) summarizes:
The man was travelling (κατέβαινεν – imperfect) from Jerusalem to Jericho along a road which...runs through desert and rocky country, well suited for brigands (Josephus Bellum Judaicum 4:474; Strabo 16:2:41 describes how Pompey destroyed brigands here, and Jerome [347-420] (in Jeremiah 3:2) spoke of Arab robbers in his time). It is not surprising that on his journey the man encountered robbers. (Marshall, The Gospel of Luke (New International Greek Testament Commentary, 447)The road’s destination of Jericho also supplied ideal prey. Trent C. Butler (b. 1941) reports:
Herod [73-4 BC] had built New Testament Jericho as his winter palace on the same spot Hasmonean rulers had earlier built their palace. Herod included three palaces, a swimming pool, and a sunken garden. Thus, government officials frequently made the trip from Jerusalem to Jericho as did Jewish religious and political leaders. Criminals took advantage of the upper class’s need to travel this winding, crooked road through dangerous passes. They hid behind large rocks above narrow passes and preyed on travelers. (Butler, Luke (Holman Bible Commentary), 172)The road has long had a nefarious reputation. Josephus (37-100) characterized the road as dangerous (Bellum Judaicum 4.451-475) and notes how some commuters took weapons to protect themselves as they traveled this road and others like it (Bellum Judaicum 2.8.4 §125).
The road’s reputation persisted for centuries. William Barclay (1907-1978) researches:
There is an extant letter dated A.D. 171 in which a complaint is made to the government by two dealers in pigs. They too had fallen into the hands of brigands “who assaulted us with very many stripes, wounding Pasion, robbed us of a pig and carried off Pasion’s coat.” In the fifth century Jerome [347-420] tells us that it was still called “The Red or Bloody Way.” Even as late as the middle of the nineteenth century travellers had to pay safety money to the local Sheiks if they wished to be safe from the attacks of the Bedouin...The grim history of the road extends even to our own time. H.V. Morton [1892-1979] in his book In the Steps of the Master writes, “When I told a friend that I intended to run down to the Dead Sea for a day he said, “Well, be careful to get back before dark.’ ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘You might meet Abu Jildah...’ ‘Who is Abu Jildah?’ ‘He is a brigand who has shot several policemen. There is a price of £250 on his head, and he has a habit of building a wall of stones across the Jericho road, stopping cars, robbing you, and if you resist, shooting you. So take my tip and get back before dusk...’” Even in the early 1930's this very road was still a danger to spot for the unwary traveller. (Barclay, The Parables of Jesus, 79-80)Richard Gribble (b. 1952) adds:
In 1118, during the period of the Crusades, the Knight Order of Templars was formed to defend pilgrims on this path. As late as the nineteenth century, pilgrims received protection from Turkish soldiers along the way. (Gribble, The Parables of Jesus: Applications for Contemporary Life, Cycle C, 104)Even if the reader is unfamiliar with the road’s well-deserved reputation, it quickly reveals itself in the events that transpire.
Remnants of the road still exist today. Henry Wansbrough (b. 1934) relays:
The old path from Jerusalem to Jericho runs down the Wadi Qilt, a deep, twisting canyon with rocky sides and blistering heat, some four hours’ smart walk. Today you can round a corner and find yourself in the middle of a flock of goats, herded by a bedouin boy and his noisy dogs. Just as easily it could be the bandits of Jesus tale. (Wansbrough, Luke: A Guide for Reflection and Prayer (Daily Bible Commentary), 95)The old road, however, was even more menacing than the present one. It was considered especially dangerous even at a time when travel was customarily hazardous. Given this setting, the listener anticipates the story and is prepared for the violence that transpires. It is almost expected. There are modern equivalents.
N.T. Wright (b. 1948) relates:
Few Israelis today will travel from Galilee to Jerusalem by the direct route, because it will take them through the West Bank and risk violence. In exactly the same way, most first-century pilgrims making the same journey would prefer, as Jesus himself did, to travel down the Jordan valley to Jericho and then turn west up the hill to Jerusalem. It was much safer...But still not completely safe. The desert road from Jericho to Jerusalem had many turns and twists, and brigands could lurk out of sight in the nearby hills and valleys, ready to strike. A lonely traveller was an easy target. (Wright, Luke for Everyone, 127)Darrel L. Bock (b. 1953) compares:
The cultural equivalent today might be a trip through parts of the inner city in the middle of the night. This road was hazardous, as the man who falls among robbers finds out. Thieves took advantage of the caves that lined the road as it wound through the desert, jumping travelers as they passed through. (Bock, Luke (The NIV Application Commentary), 300)Given this reputation, some interpreters have viewed the traveler as irresponsible. William Barclay (1907-1978) indites:
The traveller...was obviously a reckless and foolhardy character. People seldom attempted the Jerusalem to Jericho road alone if they were carrying goods or valuables. Seeking safety in numbers, they travelled in convoys or caravans. This man had no one but himself to blame for the plight in which he found himself. (Barclay, The Gospel of Luke (Daily Study Bible Series), 165)It is worth mentioning that the story’s hero, the Samaritan, is not critiqued for being companionless. Neither is the priest nor the Levite.
Frank Stern (b. 1936) reminds:
One of the surprising aspects of the parable was that all the travelers journeyed alone. Usually, people traveled the highway in groups. When the Essenes passed through, they carried weapons to protect themselves from robbers. (Stern, A Rabbi Looks At Jesus’ Parables, 220)In fact, the traveler is completely nondescript. He may or may not have been reckless. Given his location, many have deduced that he is Jewish. This, however, is not stated. The only thing that can be stated conclusively about him is that he is in need of help. And for “good Samaritans” that is all that need be known.
Why does Jesus place his parable on a road synonymous with violence? How would the story change if set on an anonymous road? Does Jesus himself ever walk this path? Is the traveler in any way to blame for his predicament? If so, would he be less deserving of help? What is the modern-day equivalent of the road from Jerusalem to Jericho? Where do you feel uncomfortable walking alone? When have you been saddened but not shocked about events based upon where they occurred?
The setting prepares the reader for the story by eliciting an expectation for both violence and the presence of priests. These expectations also pave the road for the surprise: the startling answer to the question of “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29) The plot moves from the common occurrence of robbery to the uncommon help of the Samaritan. The story ends with the jarring charge to be the neighbor the Good Samaritan is: to help those in peril (Luke 10:37).
But even at the story’s conclusion, the road remains. Warren W. Wiersbe (b. 1929) critiques:
The road from Jerusalem down to Jericho was indeed a dangerous one. Since the temple workers used it so much, you would have thought the Jews or Romans would have taken steps to make it safe. It is much easier to maintain a religious system than it is to improve the neighborhood. (Wiersbe, Be Compassionate: Let the World Know That Jesus Cares (Luke 1-13), 115)Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) challenges:
On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be changed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth with righteous indignation. (King, “Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam,” speech delivered April 30, 1967; The Riverside Church, New York).Why was the road from Jerusalem to Jericho allowed to remain so vulnerable? What “road repair” needs to be done in your area? How can you help?
“Any revolution has to start with the transformation of the individual, otherwise individuals are corrupted by the power they get if their revolution succeeds.” - Wes “Scoop” Nisker (b. 1942)