The Good Samaritan and the Physician’s Oath

A message delivered to a Christian fellowship of physicians, 6 March 2021, online platform.

Based on Luke 10:25-37

Familiarity proceeds from experience. Familiarity is an important component of our bedrock of knowledge that gives us courage and allows us to move forward into unknown territory. You know this: as physicians you each have a vast storehouse of knowledge and experience that gives you the courage, the competence and the skill to find the best way forward for your patients – to help them and to care for them.

Familiarity is indeed our friend. But sometimes, familiarity can also be our enemy.

Familiarity is indeed our friend. But sometimes, familiarity can also be our enemy.

Sometimes, familiarity urges us to move on rapidly and prematurely. Sometimes, familiarity hides from us those interesting little details that could be critical to fully understanding the whole picture, those details that could for example give us further insight into the depth of meaning of a great poem, the delicious intricacies of a well-crafted story, the full impact of a work of art, the joy of scientific discovery that could lead to exciting novel paradigms.

For this reason I chose to bring to you the story of the Good Samaritan.

  • First, it is because as physicians this is so naturally close to your hearts.
  • Second, I would like to share with you my own journey of re-reading and re-thinking this parable, my realisation that my familiarity with this story had blinded me to the subtle details in the text, details that opened up to me a fuller understanding of the profound words of Christ embodied in the story.

My hope is that like me, you will find these discoveries not just intellectually stimulating, but also encouraging and heart-warming as you begin to more fully see yourselves affirmed by Christ in what you do as doctors, in how you live the oath you have taken as physicians.

First we will rebuild the necessary foundation, the springboard from which we will begin to engage the text.

A productive method in reading the Gospels is to assume the role of the listener hearing the words of Christ for the very first time. We must understand however that getting into the role of the listener requires that we also understand the culture of the time. Allow me to briefly summarise that which is critical to this story.

The ancient Mediterranean peoples were collectivist. They still are today. In fact, the majority of world’s societies are collectivist; only the peoples of North America, the UK and Northern Europe are truly individualistic.

In collectivist societies, the identity of any person is defined by the characteristics of the community. Either you belong to the community, an insider or “one of us”, or you are an outsider, an outcast.

As collectivist communities, the Samaritans and the Jews hated each other’s guts. Indeed there are numerous historical accounts of violence between the two nations, outside and inside Biblical text. We are talking massacres, political intrigue, stereotyping, etc.

What might seem strange is that both Samaritans and Jews claim ancestry from Abraham. Both peoples believe in the same God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Both peoples have their own versions of the Torah – the revelation of God to His people – God’s commands. For example, both peoples practiced circumcision of their males – this is significant to the story.

The story begins when a lawyer asked Jesus what he, the lawyer must do in order to gain eternal life.

The lawyer’s words in the original language actually carried more meaning than our English word “asked.” In the original language, the lawyer actually “challenged” Jesus in that Mediterranean public contest of “challenge and response.” The object of this contest was to demonstrate the inferiority of the opponent – in this case, the lawyer’s intention was to humiliate Jesus in front of a huge crowd.

Jesus counters with the standard rules of the “challenge-response” game by throwing a question back to his adversary. Jesus asked: “What does the law say?” With this reply, Jesus forced the lawyer to quote the Law of Moses in Deuteronomy 6 and Leviticus 19. For lack of time, we will not go to those passages. For our purposes however, it is important to recall that Leviticus 19 commanded the Israelites, freshly delivered from slavery in Egypt, to “Love your neighbour as yourself.”

The lawyer by quoting the Law probably thought he was winning the contest by demonstrating his mastery of the Torah. But Jesus counters with a cutting reply: “Do this and you will live.”

This could have been the end of the contest, the lawyer defeated. But not yet. The lawyer had one last trick question: “Who then is my neighbour?”

Now we need to see this as a perilous and loaded question. Why?

We must understand that God’s commands in the Torah (what we might call the Pentateuch) were originally given only to the Israelites on their way from Egypt to the Promised Land. Originally, the command in Leviticus 19 only referred to Israelites, the chosen people of God. The Israelites understood this to mean that anyone outside of their community (remember the rules of collectivist communities) was not a neighbour. This interpretation has has all sorts of serious implications. It meant that an Israelite was commanded to help fellow Israelites in need. However, an Israelite was not under any obligation to help an outsider. If an Israelite killed a fellow Israelite, he was himself subject to capital punishment. In contrast, if an Israelite killed an outsider, he was exempt from punishment. The word “neighbour” in “love your neighbour” in Leviticus was understood by the Israelites at the time to be exclusionary – it only applied to those within their own community.

In effect, the lawyer was really asking Jesus: “Where is the line between insider and outsider, between friend and enemy?”

In Christ’s time the Jews considered themselves as the only remaining true and pure descendants of the Israelites. All others were outsiders. The lawyer expected that Jesus would say that your neighbour whom you are to love is your fellow Jew. In effect, the lawyer was really asking Jesus: “Where is the line between insider and outsider, between friend and enemy?”

Once again, I think the lawyer probably thought he could compel Jesus to say that only fellow Jews deserved to be the neighbours he is commanded to love as himself, while the Samaritans and all others were enemies.

Early on I had asked you to imagine that you were part of the listening crowd, a mix of Jews and all other peoples. Now think about this: If you were a non-Jew in that crowd, you would probably be waiting eagerly for Jesus was about to say. Are you an insider in the eyes of Jesus? Or are you an outsider?

It was at this point that Jesus began the story of the Good Samaritan.

A man was on his way down from Jerusalem.

In the New Testament “going up” always meant going to Jerusalem while “going down” always meant going away from Jerusalem.

It is important to read in the text that Jesus didn’t say that the man was a Jew, or a Samaritan or some other nationality. All sorts of people, Jews and non-Jews alike, would occasionally travel to Jerusalem. After all, Jerusalem was also a centre of commerce.

On the way down, the man was attacked by thieves. They stole his clothes, beat him up and left him for dead. They stole his clothes meaning that the thieves left the victim naked. This is significant to the story. Why? It is because any passerby will have been able to tell if the man was circumcised or not. If he was not circumcised, then according to the Law, a Jew would not be obligated to help an uncircumcised non-Jew. The uncircumcised were outsiders. On the other hand, if the victim was circumcised, then a Jewish passerby will have to decide whether the man was Jew or Samaritan, neighbour or not (Samaritans were also circumcised).

A priest passes by, sees the victim and ignores him. The text says the priest was “going down” meaning he had just finished his duties at the temple in Jerusalem. The priest decides that the victim was not worthy of help. Perhaps he told himself that the victim was probably not a Jew anyway so he could be excused from helping.

Next, a Levite passes by. He also ignores the victim. Perhaps the Levite thought exactly like the priest.

At this point let me explain that the Israelites divided themselves into 3 groups of classes: The priests were of the highest class; the Levites were second class below the priests, and all others were the 3rd class people – the bottom.

Now I’m sure you have you heard of the expression “the third time is a charm”? Notice that Jesus appears to have structured this story following the pattern “the third time is a charm” which if so could potentially serve as a rebuke to the snobbish upper class, the priests and the Levites. The crowd could have been expecting that the third passerby would be an ordinary Jew, the hero – third time charm, the lowest class person who saves the day.

But Jesus throws a twist: the third passerby is a Samaritan! How unexpected! Let that sink in for a bit.

But Jesus throws a twist: the third passerby is a Samaritan! How unexpected! Let that sink in for a bit.

You know what the Samaritan did. He did not hesitate to help the poor victim. We the listeners are not told whether the Samaritan checked if the victim was a Jew, a fellow Samaritan or someone else different. It didn’t the matter to the Samaritan. All he saw was a man who needed help. Without regard to whether the victim was friend or enemy, his companion for a fellow human being compelled him to stop and give care. The Samaritan tended to the wounds of the victim, brought him to an inn, and pre-paid the cost of his care with the promise to pay more if necessary.

With this stroke of genius in the story, Jesus expanded the exclusionary law in Leviticus 19 to all people regardless of ethnicity. He demolished the barriers that divide one community from the other. From now on our neighbour whom we love will not just be the members of our in-group. Instead, compassion is to be extended to beyond the walls we put up that separate us from others. Compassion for a fellow human no matter what is what God meant in Leviticus 19 “love your neighbour…”

Compassion for a fellow human no matter what is what God meant in Leviticus 19 “love your neighbour…”

In the end, the lawyer had to admit defeat. After the story of the good Samaritan, he was compelled to answer his own question: that the true neighbour is the one who extends help to a fellow human being no matter who that person in need might be.

You are all physicians. You all have affirmed the physician’s oath, modelled after that of Hippocrates. I am certain that all of you have set out to be like the Good Samaritan, the neighbour who cares for those in need no matter what. In your practice of medicine, you generously and unconditionally use your healing skills, your knowledge, your compassion, your love for your fellow human being – to care for those who come to you for help. This is a great and heavy responsibility that you have taken on. Please know that in so doing, in your faithfulness to your oath as a physician, you are indeed following in the footsteps of Christ himself.

May God bless you all.


by Victor C. Gavino

Leave a Reply