Sometimes we don’t even recognize a friend.
We don’t care much about him. Even scholars barely glance his way. When we do acknowledge his presence in the parable, we view him as the victim, the problem to be solved, an anonymous prop whose purpose is to reveal the hearts of other, more prominent characters. He is simply the wounded Jew.*
If you’ve been a Christian for even a few years, you’re probably familiar with the story. This nameless man, traveling between Jerusalem and Jericho, is attacked by thieves. He is beaten, bloodied, stripped of his clothes, and left for dead. A priest and a Levite both see him there, but neither of these respected religious leaders stops to help. Finally, a Samaritan, traveling the road, sees the dying man. Moved with compassion, he bandages him, anoints him with oil and wine to soothe and cleanse his wounds, places him on his own donkey and pays in advance for his continued care at an inn. When Jesus finishes telling this parable, He highlights the neighborly love of the good Samaritan and tells His audience, “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37).
ANOTHER CAREFUL LOOK
We usually don’t pay much attention to the injured man. We are more likely to explore the history of the deep and sometimes deadly animosity between Jews and Samaritans. We lament the priest and Levite, the two religious figures who were either too afraid of thieves or too concerned with their own ritual purity to stop to help their fellow countryman. We may study maps and pictures of the barren landscape and muse about the dangers of the road between Jerusalem and Jericho.
Perhaps most of all, we highlight the good Samaritan as the undisputed center of the story. As a Samaritan, he would have been considered perpetually unclean by the Jews, who saw him as religiously, morally, racially, and culturally inferior. Yet in the parable Jesus presents him as the model of what it means to be a neighbor and as someone we are all to emulate.
So, lost in the shuffle of apparently more interesting historical details and a more noble character, the wounded man remains faceless, nameless, and thus forgotten. We pass him by. But this is a tragic mistake, the same mistake the priest and the Levite made. If they had known him—if they had seen him as an elder brother, a sister, a spouse, a friend—of course they would have rendered aid! But they didn’t recognize him. Neither do we.
WHO IS THE WOUNDED JEW?
The first clue to the identity of the wounded Jew is the road Jesus chose for the setting of the parable. In our typical discussions of the story, we tend to emphasize the barrenness of the landscape and the danger from thieves along the route. But this was a main thoroughfare, a well-traveled and well-built road. Even today we can trace the route and, in places, actually walk on the large paving stones that were there at the time of Jesus. Certainly there were other dangerous and even more desolate roads Jesus could have used as the setting for the story. Why did He specify this one in particular?
Jesus knew something. He knew that He would be traveling this same road between Jericho and Jerusalem on His way to the cross, and He tells the parable so that the wounded man by the side of the road foreshadows His own experience.
Once we realize this connection, we wonder how we could have missed it. The parallels are numerous and powerful.
The man in the parable began his journey on foot, but concluded his trip on the back of the Samaritan’s donkey. Jesus likewise headed for Jerusalem on foot, and with the triumphal entry He too ended his journey on the back of someone else’s donkey.
The man in the parable and Jesus are the only two people in the Gospels who were stripped of their clothes. Both were beaten, abandoned, and left for dead. Jesus also found Himself in the midst of thieves, one on His right and one on His left. Priests and other religious leaders who should have defended Him instead left Him to suffer and die.
But help arrived. The bruised and broken body was wrapped and anointed by unexpected hands. In the parable it was a Samaritan, but for Jesus it was a member of the Sanhedrin and some women from Galilee who acted with amazing compassion. In both the parable and Jesus’ own experience the tragic story becomes a story of restoration and even salvation. Death was cheated, and love won.
Yes, Jesus tells the parable so that the man by the side of the road prefigures His own experience. The wounded Jew is Jesus.
This may be true even today. As we journey through life, working to ensure our own comfort and busy with our own religious agenda, Jesus is the one who lies crumpled by the side of the road. Often He is abandoned, forgotten, and silent. He is the bruised and broken one, the stranger we pity and yet pass by. The “least of these” is Jesus, always Jesus.
When we recognize this, Jesus’ appeal at the end of the parable to “go and do likewise” suddenly means something more, something different. Rather than just a challenging word of instruction to be kind to strangers, it becomes a personal appeal. “Please,” Jesus is saying, “help Me.”
Forgive us, Jesus, for passing You by. And open our eyes so we can see.
* Respected New Testament scholar Darrell L. Bock summarizes the prevailing view nicely (albeit incorrectly!): “The victim is only minimally described since he is not the focus; those who react to him are.” See Darrell L. Bock, Luke 9:51-24:53, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), p. 1029.