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Jesus’ parables are timeless. But when a story becomes too familiar, you can lose your focus on its original intent. The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) serves as a good example of how divine wisdom can be taken for granted.

Jesus speaks the parable to a lawyer. Every daily interaction of Jewish society was governed by Moses’ laws. With priests and Levites overworked with their specific duties, there were often more questions than experts available to answer. The lawyer’s livelihood was to bridge that gap, counseling souls troubled over where they had fallen short in life.

With this in mind, the lawyer is not testing Jesus as did others. Genuinely honored by a tête-à-tête encounter with an obvious scholar, he goes for the big one: “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (verse 25)

Good Teacher that Jesus is, He draws out the lawyer’s own shorthand summary of God’s Word: “You shall love the L ord  your God with all your heart . . . and your neighbor as yourself.” (verse 27)

But since his business is easing the client’s burdened conscience— “wanting to justify himself” —he proceeds with a question he has wrestled with in countless cases: “And who is my neighbor?” (verse 29)

The parable is Jesus’ brilliant way of turning the question about. A key phrase is “by chance.” Nothing happens by luck. Jesus is presenting the lawyer with a series of hypothetical cases to give each his full attention in succession.

“Now by chance a certain priest came down that road. . . .” (verse 31) The lawyer immediately puts his “justifying” skills to use. Priests have divine work given no one else. To help the man by the side of the road would literally take him off course. The greater good would be for the priest to let another attend to the needs of the wounded man.

“Now let’s say a Levite comes along . . .” If others have passed by—and with more information—to stop and help might foolishly jeopardize his own safety along the thief-laden road.

But then comes the unexpected twist: the Samaritan. He lives nowhere near Jerusalem and has no personal connection to anyone travelling to or from the temple. Not only does this Samaritan have no business being there, according to the Law, were he in this sad condition, no Jew would touch him. Yet he chooses to sacrifice time, money, and personal safety to help a complete stranger.

Jesus then asked the lawyer which of the three was neighbor to the victim of thieves. When the lawyer correctly answered “He who showed mercy,” Jesus said “Go and do likewise.” (verse 37)

Each brush-stroke of the picture would have held the lawyer in suspense. With a parable carefully crafted to stump the legal mind of man, Jesus masterfully uses the Law to reveal how human reason at its best can only justify sin.

The lawyer departed. But those who remained in Jesus’ company would soon learn how the Son of God can truly justify the sinner.

A story almost too familiar, it is often reduced to a mere moral tale: “Be a good Samaritan.” But taking the time to hear a parable as if for the very first time reveals how divine wisdom transcends any shorthand summary.

It’s important to remember that none of the three sojourners were real people. In fact, no true “Good Samaritan” exists among us sinners. As with every parable, the key to the puzzle is the cross.

All you can do is pick and choose which Law serves you best. But the Gospel shows you a Savior Who chose to lay down His life to serve your eternal best.

Don’t let the timeless nature of Jesus’ parables keep you from digesting them with care. May the time you spend with each be as personal an encounter with Jesus and His kingdom as when He walked among us.

Timothy Daub is pastor of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Hecla, South Dakota.