TEXT: Luke 10:25-37
“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.” (Luke 10:30-31)
This is, of course, the beginning of Jesus’ “Parable of the Good Samaritan.” It’s about a traveller who is accosted on his journey, robbed, beaten, and left to die. Subsequent to that, two of the most respectable people in Jewish society—a priest, and a Levite—hurry past the poor fellow, doing nothing to help him. But then a Samaritan—a member of a race despised by the Jews—arrives on the scene. And he is the one who stops to rescue the injured man.
We all remember this parable. Jesus told the story to answer the question: “Who is my neighbour?” And—in Jesus’ mind—a neighbour is one who shows mercy. Even though the injured traveller was most likely a Jew—and therefore an enemy—the Samaritan behaved toward him as if he were a friend.
It reminds you of the biblical story of Esther, doesn’t it?
Right now, I’ll bet those of you who’ve read the Old Testament Book of Esther are thinking, “Huh? What?”
What does the Parable of the Good Samaritan have to do with the story of Esther, the Jewish girl who became Queen of Persia?
Bear with me for a moment. I’m guessing that most of you aren’t all that familiar with the story of Esther, whose Jewish name was Hadassah. So, I’ll try to give you a quick synopsis.
Hadassah was a Jewish orphan, raised by her cousin Mordecai in the Persian city of Susa. Hadassah grew up to be a beautiful young woman. The queen of Persia at this time was another beautiful woman, whose name was Vashti. Unfortunately for Vashti—and for reasons which are, well, kind of X-rated—she fell out of favour with her husband, King Ahasuerus. As a result, he deposed her as his queen—and an empire-wide beauty contest was staged to replace her.
To make a long story short, Hadassah entered the contest and she won! Ahasuerus married her, and she became the new Queen of Persia.
However, there was a bit of subterfuge involved here. Mordecai had advised his adopted daughter to hide the fact of her Jewish heritage. So she did. As part of her masquerade, she even changed her name from Hadassah to Esther—because “Esther” sounded more Persian.
For five years, Esther manages to keep her secret from the king. But then, something terrible happens. At the instigation of Haman, the king’s evil prime minister, an empire-wide pogrom is announced. About a year from the day of the announcement, all the Jews in Persia are to be rounded up and killed!
Now, Esther—ensconced in the royal court and shielded by her Persian disguise—ought to be quite safe from this persecution. However, when Mordecai begs for her help, she faces a dilemma. If she asks her husband to call off the pogrom, her Jewish identity will be revealed, and her own life will be in peril. In fact, her life would be in danger simply for approaching Ahasuerus without being invited.
He sounds like a dream husband, doesn’t he? But that was the protocol: no one—not even the queen—was allowed to just barge in on the king. Anyone who did that was liable to be executed—unless the king decided to show mercy … which I gather Ahasuerus seldom did.
If Esther did nothing, her entire race would be wiped out—including Mordecai, who raised her. But if she went to the king to plead the Jewish case, she might be killed just for asking. What would she do?
Stephen Davey—who has written an excellent study resource on the Book of Esther—calls this a “defining moment” in the life of Esther. Davey writes:
It may be a form of literary irony that, at the beginning of this story, Scripture gives us two names for this queen: Hadassah, (her Jewish name) and Esther (her Persian name). Now, at this juncture in the story, the queen would have to decide which name she was going to live out. Mordecai had confronted her with the question, “Just who are you … Hebrew or Persian?” 1
“Just who are you, anyway?”
Defining moments ask that very question. And how you respond to them not only reveals who you are at this moment, but also determines—in large measure—who you’re going to be from this moment on.
“Who are you, Esther? Who are you going to be? Will you be the queen who stood up for her people, or the coward who kept her mouth shut?”
Who are you? And who are you going to be? The characters in Jesus’ parable are facing those same questions, whether they know it or not.
Who are the characters in this story? First of all, there’s the traveller. He was the one who chose to make the journey from Jerusalem to Jericho. Then, there’s the priest—who represented the highest level of religious leadership among the Jews—and the Levite, who was the designated lay-associate of the priest. And finally, there’s the Samaritan—the foreigner who was not expected to show any sympathy for Jews; and yet, he was the one who was “moved with pity.”
Now, in Jesus’ day, the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was notorious for its danger and difficulty. In fact, it was known as the “Way of Blood” because robbers had murdered so many people there. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—in his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech—described the road as follows; he said:
I remember when Mrs. King and I were first in Jerusalem. We rented a car and drove from Jerusalem down to Jericho. And as soon as we got on that road I said to my wife, “I can see why Jesus used this as the setting for his parable.” It’s a winding, meandering road. It’s really conducive for ambushing. You start out in Jerusalem, which is about … 1,200 feet above sea level. And by the time you get down to Jericho 15 or 20 minutes later, you’re about 22 feet below sea level. That’s a dangerous road. In the days of Jesus it came to be known as the “Bloody Pass.” And you know, it’s possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it’s possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking, and he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt in order to seize them over there—lure them there for quick and easy seizure. And so the first question that the priest asked, the first question that the Levite asked was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” … But then the Good Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” 2
Defining moments. They are as much about the questions we ask ourselves as they are about the questions asked of us. And our answers do indeed define us. For 2,000 years now, this story has been told—about the priest and the Levite and the badly-beaten traveller … and the Samaritan. For 2,000 years now, we’ve been hearing about their defining moments.
The priest and the Levite—the good religious people, the fine, upstanding pillars of their society—chose to define themselves as men whose first concern was for themselves. We remember them because all they were worried about was themselves. They wanted to save their own skins. Or perhaps—even worse—they were simply in a hurry and did not want to be delayed by a dying man. Maybe the priest and the Levite were on their way to the same important meeting. Can you imagine their exchange once they arrived?
“Did you see that guy on the side of the road? I sure hope somebody helped him.”
“Maybe, if he’s still there when we’re going back … maybe we should do something. What do you think?”
What do I think? I think their schedules, and their personal safety, were more important to them than that poor man’s life. I think they both defined themselves as … Well, at best, they were callous.
The Samaritan, though … Whatever his own agenda was—whatever his plans were for that day—he set them aside to minister to this complete stranger who was in such dire need.
He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the inn-keeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend” (Luke 10:34-35).
Through his actions, he defined himself as—and has for 2,000 years been remembered as—the very picture of compassion. Or—as Jesus tells us—as the definition of what it means to be a neighbour.
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself” (see Deut. 6:4-5 and Lev. 19:18). That’s what the law of God requires—as the lawyer who questioned Jesus knew full well. But—wanting to define the limits of his duty—he asked, “Who is my neighbour?”
Jesus turned the question back on him, telling this story and then asking, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” And the lawyer was forced to spit out the obvious and inescapable answer, “The one who showed him mercy.”
Who is our neighbour? The one in need of mercy. The one who crosses our path—whoever that person is, and regardless of whether he or she is ugly or pretty, worthy or undeserving, polite or belligerent. And regardless of whether the service required of us is easy or inconvenient or even downright risky.
Like so much of Jesus’ teaching, this is a hard lesson. But the truth is: when the neighbour crosses our path—and it is about “when” and not about “if”—our response matters; because how we respond will define us. The question for us is: who will we choose to be?
As for Esther … in case you’re wondering, she chose to stand with her people. If you want to know what happened after that … Well, you’ll have to read the book! The important thing to remember, though—which God’s people have remembered now for much more than 2,000 years—is that Esther chose to define herself as a hero.
As Stephen Davey tells us, “The difference between a hero and another human being is the voice they listen to … A true hero listens to the voice of conscience … ultimately, the voice of Christ.” 3
The voice we listen to is the voice which defines us.
1 Stephen Davey, Esther(Wisdom Commentary Series). Apex, NC: Charity House, 2012, p. 73.
2 Martin Luther King, Jr.: “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”—delivered April 3, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee.
3 Davey, p. 78.
Illustration: Queen Esther (1879) by Edwin Long