Israel’s merciful physician: Recontextualizing the Parable of the Good Samaritan

*This post builds upon the literary connection between the Parable of the Good Samaritan and the story of the prophet Oded in 2 Chronicles 28. See my previous post here.*


Jesus offered two primary images in order to explain and justify his hospitable pursuit of Israel’s sinners. By inviting disreputable Jews to his celebratory suppers, Jesus was, on the one hand, like a shepherd (ποιμήν) seeking out lost sheep (Luke 15:1-7, cf. Matthew 15:24, Mark 6:34) and, on the other hand, like a physician (ἰατρός) binding up the injured (Mark 2:15-17, cf. Luke 4:23). By announcing the arrival of God’s kingdom among his dinner guests, Jesus was, figuratively speaking, recovering and restoring his traitorous countrymen: worn and wayward Israelites were repenting of their sins and reconciling with their ancestral God (cf. Mark 1:15).1 Such an unlikely turn of events was a cause for joy, not grumbling.

In casting out these two images in brief parabolic and aphoristic forms, moreover, Jesus also sought to shame his elite interlocutors—Pharisees, scribes, lawyers, and priests—for failing to tend God’s flock, the Jewish people, in accordance with mercy and justice. From Jesus’ prophetic vantage, such leaders were not only negligent shepherds and careless physicians, they were also architects of harm and disorder within Israel (cf. Mark 12:40, Matthew 9:13, 23:13). And so, in response to this mismanagement, Jesus ate with sinners in order to 1) rehabilitate God’s people and 2) humiliate Israel’s delinquent caretakers into repentance. Since the Jewish leaders had abandoned their post as guides to the blind, Jesus was now taking up the charge.

The Johannine good shepherd

The first of these symbols—that of the shepherd-ruler—occurs widely throughout Israelite prophetic literature (cf. Jeremiah 23:1-4, Zechariah 10-13). Yet the metaphor’s fullest expression appears in Ezekiel’s screed against Judah’s worthless shepherds. According to Ezekiel, the Judahite leaders neither fed nor searched out the sheep under their care (34:1-3, 5-10). Scattered and hungry, the sheep were subsequently consumed by greedy shepherds or wild animals.

The Johannine community substantially developed this shepherd-ruler symbol for its own purposes, building upon Jesus’ own pastoral words (e.g. the Parable of the Lost Sheep) with bricks provided by Ezekiel’s allegorical polemic. In John, therefore, Jesus is now the singular Davidic shepherd (John 10:11-18, cf. Ezekiel 34:23-24) while all other Jewish leaders have become “thieves” and “robbers” come to “steal, slaughter, and destroy” God’s flock (John 10:7-10, cf. Ezekiel 34:3, 10). The Galilean prophet who once called Israel’s shepherds to repentance has thus become Israel’s only legitimate ruler. Christianity and Judaism, as it were, have parted ways—the historical situation into which Jesus first spoke of sheep and shepherds (i.e. kingdom-meals with sinners) no longer remains relevant for the Johannine churches.2

The Lukan good physician

The second symbol present at the fountainhead of the table-fellowship Jesus-tradition—that of the physician-teacher—is not so readily apparent in Israel’s scriptures. While God is sometimes likened to a doctor (cf. Hosea 6:1-2, Isaiah 30:26), the prophets of old do not often ridicule their leaders as incompetent medics.

Embedded in Ezekiel’s wicked-shepherd oracle, however, we do find a compelling basis for Jesus’ use of the physician image. Although the term ἰατρός does not appear, Ezekiel condemns Israel’s shepherds for malfeasance of an explicitly medical sort: they have neither “strengthened the feeble,”3 nor “made well the sick,” nor “bound up the broken” (καταδέω) (Ezekiel 34:4). Instead, Israel’s teachers have treated their patients with “force” and “cruelty.” LXX Jeremiah 6:13-14 echoes the point: Judah’s prophets and priests have “healed (ἰάομαι) the [moral] wound of [God’s] people contemptibly.”

Interestingly, these and other ancient Mediterranean medical motifs resurface in the Lukan parable of the Good Samaritan. In this parable Jesus’ iatrical sayings have at last been given narrative form.4 Like a typical physician of Antiquity, the proverbial Samaritan “binds up” (καταδέω) the wounds of the “half-dead” man and applies oil and wine so as to cleanse and soothe his lesions (Luke 10:34, cf. Isaiah 1:6, Ezekiel 16:9, Jeremiah 8:22, 2 Chronicles 28:15). Such a treatment conforms to Hippocrates’ advice: “apply [to the ulcer] a thin, clean piece of cloth wetted in wine and oil.”5 The Samaritan, as such, like Jesus tending to Israel’s sinners at table, is a compassionate physician who acts in accordance with God’s preference for “mercy” toward neighbor over ritual purity vis-à-vis the Temple (Luke 10:37): “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:12-13, cf. Hosea 6:6).6

You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin

This recontextualization of the Parable of the Good Samaritan in light of the physician-rhetoric preserved in Mark 2:15-17 has important interpretive implications. If we are to understand the parable as an apology for Jesus’ table-fellowship among sick Jews, the lost sheep of the house of Israel—just as other parables are commonly understood (e.g. Lost Coin, Prodigal Son, Laborers in the Vineyard, etc.)—the conventional reading of the pericope as a critique of Jewish ethnocentrism becomes less tenable. The situation that stands behind the lawyer’s question “Who is my neighbor?” is not, accordingly, Jew-Gentile conflict—nor, indeed, the rivalry between Jews and Samaritans. It is rather Jesus’ carousing with his unsavory Jewish kinsmen.7 While the Lukan lawyer prides himself in “shunning” (ἀντιπαρέρχομαι) such evildoers—and thus no longer deems them worthy of the designation “neighbor”—the Lukan Jesus “draws near” (προσέρχομαι) to his countrymen in compassion as a good shepherd searching for his wayward sheep and as a good physician caring for his wounded patients. We might imagine that, confronted mid-supper by skeptical Jerusalemite scribes, Jesus tells a parable about just such a physician, a man who, though lacking in terms of ritual purity (e.g. a Samaritan), shows mercy to his neighbor so as to rid him of his infirmity. This Samaritan, an Israelite who serves God at an unlawful cultic site,8 shames the Jewish priests, meticulous ministers in God’s true temple though they are. The ritually-contaminated man proves faithful to the Law and the Prophets while the ritually-pure men neglect one of the commandments upon which the Law and the Prophets hang (i.e. love of neighbor). The grumbling scribes, henceforth christened heartless spectators of the dying, are thus silenced.

Contrary to the expectations of his opponents then, Jesus does not eat with sinners because he is himself a sinner. He does not associate with the sick because he is also sick. Like the Samaritan, rather, he is a physician who comes near to the injured in order to bring healing. By dining with Jewish sinners, moreover, Jesus claims to fulfill the Levitical laws of neighborly love (cf. Luke 10:36-27). Unlike his callous opponents, Jesus rejects “hateful” and “vengeful” impulses against “any of [his] kin” or “any of [his] people” and instead “loves [his] neighbor as [himself].” Rather than “harboring a grudge” against Law-breakers, as do Israel’s so-called shepherds and teachers, Jesus “reproves” his fellow at supper, turning him away from his destructive course out of brotherly affection (Leviticus 19:17-18).

I desire mercy, not sacrifice

Understood in accordance with this particular Sitz-im-Leben, the point of the parable, I would propose, is not that the Jewish people ought to treat non-Jews as if they were their neighbors,9 but rather that the Jewish leaders ought to act in a neighborly fashion toward their sinful Israelite brothers, regarding them as members of their household in need of help and guidance.

More precisely, when read in its historical situation the parable functions to juxtapose Jesus’ highly successful ministry of reconciliation among sinful Jews with the establishment’s utter failure to reform sinners. While Jesus gets results in his dealings with Israel’s evildoers—formerly disobedient Israelites now ready for the coming of God’s kingdom—the religious elite are like those who go out of their way to avoid mangled men, leaving them to perish on the side of the road. Such leaders are responsible for the sorry state of Israel’s sinners while Jesus—the one who comes near to the reprobate—is responsible for their reconstitution.

The parable is thus an accusatorial invitation: as long as the lawyer and his company continue to spurn Israel’s sinners and disparage Jesus’ medical prowess among the “half-dead” Jews seated around his dinner table (i.e. “mercy”)—whether they do so in pursuit of ritual purity or not (i.e. “sacrifice”)—they will be excluded from life in the age to come.


Appendix: An entangled tradition

A strange convergence of details shared between John’s Good Shepherd Discourse and Luke’s parable of the Good Samaritan suggests that the two compositions may have developed in tandem.

  • Both evangelists designate their respective material as parabolic. John characterizes the Good Shepherd Discourse as a “figure of speech” (παροιμία, John 10:6) and the tale of the Good Samaritan is plainly a Lukan parable. John’s composition, with its cast of characters and pastoral tropes, also hints at the existence of underlying parabolic narratives (i.e. shepherd & doorkeeper vs. thieves, shepherd & hired-hand vs. wolf).
  • Each text addresses the attainment of life in the age to come. In Luke, the parable answers the lawyer’s question regarding “eternal life” (Luke 10:25) and in John Jesus’ discourse assures the sheep that abundant [eternal] life comes under the guidance of their faithful shepherd (John 10:10-11). For the Lukan Jesus, the lawyer will receive eschatological life if he loves his neighbor as himself (Luke 10:23, 36-37). For the Johannine Jesus, the sheep will receive eschatological life if they know and trust the true shepherd over and against the Jewish leaders (John 10:4, 9, 14).
  • “Thieves” (λῃσταί) play a prominent role in both parables. For John, these are the false shepherds who oppose Jesus (i.e. “the Jews”) and thus rob Israel’s sheep of life (John 10:7-10).10 For Luke, the thieves set the stage for the priests’ indifference—while the priest and the Levite are not themselves robbers, as they would be in John, neither are they physicians who mend their wounded kinsman. These priestly characters are, in this way, equivalent to John’s “hired hands” who do not care for the sheep and so fearfully abandon them when the wolf comes (10:12-13).11 Luke’s λῃσταί, in turn, correspond to John’s λύκος (“wolf”)—both of which are presented as natural deleterious forces that either take advantage of weak leadership (i.e. the wolf) or require redress (i.e. the thieves).
  • A controversial figure emerges as Israel’s true shepherd or true physician, respectively. In Luke, Israel’s good physician is an Israelite who worships the one God at a fraudulent cultic site, Mount Gerizim. In John, Israel’s good shepherd is someone outside of and opposed by the Jewish religious classes, a man considered by many to be insane and demon-possessed, even perhaps a Samaritan (John 10:20, 8:48).
  • The unlikely hero draws the imperiled away from danger (John 10:3-10, Luke 10:34) and recruits the help of others to varying effects (John 10:3, 12-13, Luke 10:35).

Born of the same crisis, these twin metaphors, the Lukan and the Johannine, grew up together before they went their separate ways. There remains, therefore, evidence of their common paternity.


1—Repentance entailed a recommitment to Moses’ law. Like many of the other prophets, Jesus taught that righteousness was found in love of the Israelite God (Mark 12:29-30, cf. Deuteronomy 6:4-5), love of the Israelite neighbor (Mark 12:31-34, cf. Leviticus 19:17-18), and observance of the Decalogue (Mark 10:17-20, cf. 7:10-11). Summed up even further, Jesus expected his kinsmen to practice “faithfulness” toward God, “mercy” toward neighbor, and “right judgement” at the gate (Matthew 23:23).

2—The Johannine community has exchanged Jesus’ generosity toward Israel’s sinners with Jesus’ love for his own, Christian believers. (A line from John 10:16—”I have other sheep that do not come from this sheepfold.”—conceivably originates in the table-fellowship controversy.) Matthew too has separated Jesus’ shepherd rhetoric from its historical context, placing the Parable of the Lost Sheep in the context of the Christian assembly (18:6-35).

3—The term ἀσθενέω in LXX Ezekiel 34:4 translated here as “feeble” connotes weakness obtained through disease, not hunger or exertion (cf. Mark 6:56, Matthew 10:8, John 4:46).

4—Whereas the Johannine Good Shepherd Discourse is the product of early Christian rumination, the Parable of the Good Samaritan may go back to Jesus in some primitive form. 

5—Hippocrates, On Ulcers chapter 4. Translated by Francis Adams.

6—Matthew appends Hosea’s ethical dictum regarding mercy and sacrifice to the controversy surrounding Jesus’ table-ministry with sinners. The Parable of the Good Samaritan embodies Hosea’s word in the form of a story by pitting the compassion of the Samaritan against the sacrificial concerns of the priest and Levite (cf. Numbers 19:11, Leviticus 21:11).

7—The repentance of Jewish sinners through table-fellowship is of special importance to Luke (cf. 7:36-50, 19:1-10).

8—Two recent articles have called into question the popular framing of Samaritans as non-Jewish outsiders in Luke-Acts generally and in the parable specifically: Rethinking Luke 10: The Parable of the Good Samaritan Israelite, Matthew Chalmers (2020) and The Parable of the Good Samaritan and the Narrative Portrayal of Samaritans in Luke-Acts, Jeanine Brown & Kazuhiko Yamazaki-Ransom (2021).

9—Interpreters tend to characterize the story’s moral in this way: Jews should love Samaritans (i.e. hated foreigners).

10—The Johannine Jesus claims these thieving shepherds “sacrifice” (θύω) the sheep. This term suggests a priestly opponent may lie at the beginning of the tradition (cf. Hosea 6:9).

11—The Lukan Jesus affords Israel’s clerical class an opportunity to prove worthy of their pastoral station while the Johannine Jesus unequivocally condemns the Jewish establishment as intractably corrupt.

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