The Good Samaritan
The Parable of the Good Samaritan
25 And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” 27 And he answered, “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 neighbor as yourself.” 28 And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”
29 But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. 34 He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”
Go, and Do Likewise
Luke 10:25-37 contains two conversations. The first occurs in verses 25-28. The lawyer asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus responds with his own question. “Lawyer, what does the law say you must do?” The lawyer answers with God’s word from Deuteronomy 6:5. Jesus responds, “Do this, and you will live.” These questions are both about what one must do to inherit life.
The second conversation takes place in verses 29-37, and it expands on the first. The lawyer asks Jesus another question. “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds, once again, with a question, “Which of these proved to be a neighbor?” The question is set up by the parable. The lawyer answers, “the one who showed mercy proved to be the neighbor.” Jesus responds, “You go, and do likewise.” In other words, to inherit eternal life (by the way, how can one inherit anything? Inheritance is given, not gained) all the lawyer must do is love God and his neighbor without fail for the entirety of his life. Go, and do that, Jesus says.
Of course, the lawyer can’t do this. No one can. The Bible says our sinful heart is inherited, and therefore the only path out of sin is through Jesus Christ, the new Adam (Romans 5:12-21). If we are to inherit eternal life, it can’t be anything that we do. It must be done for us. Try as we may, we can never attain the righteousness required to reach everlasting life.
Is Jesus contradicting that teaching? Is he saying if we do good deeds we will gain heaven? Hardly. He’s reinforcing the teaching. The lawyer should see that he could never live up to such a high standard. But instead of falling on his knees before Christ and asking for mercy, he rises once again to ask another question. “Fine. I see the requirement. Who then is my neighbor that I must love? Let’s settle that, and I’ll be on my way.”
This question was one of self-justification. Luke tells us as much in verse 29, “But he, desiring to justify himself…” Justification is the entryway into eternal life. The lawyer knew he couldn’t stand before God in his sin. So if his sin is shed and justification achieved through loving God, which he obviously does, then all he has to do is love his neighbor as himself, which he probably does. Then, he can waltz into everlasting life like he owns the place.
Or can he?
A few Old Testament texts would have given the lawyer an idea of who this neighbor may be. Leviticus 19:18 says, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” So, is the neighbor the one “among your people?” Leviticus 19:33-34 says, “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” Is he the stranger come in among God’s people? He could be either. And this lawyer knows that, and he’s loved both of those people.
So when Jesus answers the lawyer with the parable of the good Samaritan, it is not only a surprise, it’s a scandal. The Samaritans and Jews did not get along. They were not sons of Israel or strangers dwelling among them. They were outsiders, made that way by their own doing. They were people of Israelite and foreign descent. Therefore, the Jews saw them as disobedient to God’s law and condemned. And the Samaritans had no love in their heart for the Jew either. They used a different Pentateuch as their Bible. They worshipped on a different mountain. They had not only ethnics lines, but religious as well.
So, the lawyer was surprised, and probably a little confused. Go and love my neighbor who may be my enemy? The lawyer may have thought, “Wait, what about God’s word in Psalm 139:21-22? ‘Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies.’ Aren’t there some lines, Jesus?”
Lines, yes, of course. We draw them all the time. But what we draw in permanent marker is erasable in God’s hand. For whom did Jesus come? For his friends or his enemies? The answer provides the insight.
Who Is My Neighbor
The lawyer, seeking to justify himself, asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” He was attempting to limit his love. Jesus aimed to broaden it. And so, he told a story.
There was a man going down from Jerusalem who fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and left. We don’t know who this man is, but traditionally, it has been assumed he is a Jew. That would make sense given Jesus’s radical intent. It wasn’t uncommon for violence to spring up on the Jericho road. It was one of the most dangerous roads in the history of the world. But it was a direct route to Jerusalem, so it was often traveled. And here goes this man, probably Jewish, down this dangerous road, and he falls among robbers. Robbers didn’t make it a habit of beating people who didn’t resist. Most likely, this man resisted the robbery. Thus, he was beaten and left for dead.
Then, along comes a priest.
The priest would have been coming from Jerusalem, his priestly duties finished for the time being. God’s law forbade him from touching a dead man. It would make him unclean and require a week-long process of ceremonial purification—no doubt an unwelcome prospect to a tired man longing for home.
It would have been the priest’s duty to care for this Jewish man. But as it was, he could not determine his ethnicity. He was stripped and beaten. So, instead of reaching down to help, he refused to touch him at all, passing instead to the other side of the road. He saw and did nothing. For the priest, the risk versus the reward was too high.
Then, along comes a Levite.
The Levite is in the same boat as the priest, although to a lesser degree. They functioned, basically, as assistants to the priests. Kenneth Bailey, in his book, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, says perhaps the Levite was merely following the priest’s precedent.
This particular Levite probably knew that a priest was ahead of him on the road and may have been an assistant to that same priest. Since the priest had set a precedent, the Levite could pass by with an easy conscience. Should a mere Levite upstage a priest? Did the Levite think he understood the law better than the priest? Furthermore, the Levite might have to face that same priest in Jericho that night. Could the Levite ride into Jericho with a wounded man whom the priest, in obedience to his understanding of the law, had opted to ignore? Such an act would be an insult to the priest!
Instead of doing the right thing, the Levite followed his priestly leader in doing the wrong thing. It is never a good idea to ignore the opportunity to love that God sets before us just because others have passed by. But the Levite saw, and did nothing, passing to the other side.
Then, along comes a Samaritan.
It’s not the priest or the Levite who stops to help the fallen man. It is a Samaritan. We don’t understand the shock value of this because we simply don’t have a group of people we hate as much as the Jews hated the Samaritans. Everyone listening would have expected the third man to be a Jewish layman. A Jew helping a Jew made perfect sense if he could tell he was a Jew. But Jesus doesn’t say that. Instead, he includes a Samaritan—so shocking that the audience probably gasped.
The Samaritan’s cost was high. He had to use all his available resources. Oil and wine were often used together for medicinal purposes, but they were not cheap. He used his own clothes to wash him and bind him—cloth, no doubt, to be used for other things. He set him on his own animal, meaning he’d have to walk slowly through the most dangerous road in the world. It was slow, energy-zapping, and resource-draining.
But he didn’t stop there. He carries the wounded man into a village, to an inn, where other Jews would have seen him. What must they have thought as he walked beside his beast holding a wounded Jew? Upon his arrival at the inn, he gave the innkeeper a promise to repay any expense related to the wounded man. Who knows how long it would take to heal? It could mean he’d lose everything. Helping required much, yet he did all he could, doing what the priest and the Levite should have. He undoes the robbery of the thieves by spending his own money on his restoration. Why? He had compassion. The Samaritan doesn’t merely love his neighbor; he loves his enemy.
The lawyer wants self-justification. “Fine,” Jesus says, “Go, and do likewise. Do this, and you’ll live.”
But can he do it? Can we?
Our Jericho Road
Each of us is traveling down some road. It may not be the dangerous way to Jericho. If it is, then you can feel the need. Every person along the way needs something. But most of us don’t travel down treacherous paths. We travel instead down newly paved streets with cool air conditioner blowing in our face. We drive into our garages and walk into our homes much of world would find astonishing. We sit down on our couch at the end of the day and let the images of consumeristic propaganda tell us the lies that more stuff will lead to more joy. We fall to sleep from the light of our smartphone as we allow the enemy to sing the demented lullaby that world isn’t ok, but it’s out there, not in here. We become like Hezekiah, sleeping easily. “Why not, if there will be peace and security in my days?” (1 Kings 20:19)
We are more like the priest than we want to believe. We serve God during the day, in the light of the temple, and on the way home with our private thoughts, we focus our love on ourselves. We have as many reasons for not stopping as the priest did. It’s been a long day. We need the rest. It will put us off course. And so on.
We are the Levite, too. Seeing the failures of others but not recognizing them as such. The norm of our leaders becomes to us the way of our life. We feel no guilt because there is no guilt to be felt—not from above, anyway, and isn’t that what really matters?
And too often, we are not the good Samaritan. We pass by the other side instead of bending down low to raise up high. We want to love, but we haven’t yet put ourselves in the place where love is the only path forward. Ignoring need, or even helping from afar is not the way to love, it’s the veneer of love, ready to crack at the slightest unpredictable movement. Love can only be real when it becomes part of the foundation—steady, constant, upholding, immovable.
So, what is our path forward? Why did Jesus tell such a parable? Well, he told it because a lawyer wanted self-justification, and used his opportunity with Jesus to get it. But Jesus doesn’t use this opportunity with this man to ease his conscience. He troubles it instead. A troubled conscience can be a gift from God, cracking the veneer of love to show the truth behind the wall. Do we love the people God loves? Do we serve the “least of these,” or do we pass by the other side? It will cost us. Are we willing to pay the cost? The Scottish pastor of the 1800s, Robert Murray M’Cheyne, puts it bluntly.
“I fear there are some Christians among you to whom Christ cannot say ‘Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you.’ Your haughty dwelling arises in the midst of thousands who have scarce a fire to warm themselves at and have but little clothing to keep out the biting frost, and yet you never darkened their door. You heave a sigh perhaps at a distance, but you do not visit them. Ah my dear friends, I am concerned for the poor, but more for you. I know not what Christ will say to you on the great day. You seem to be Christians, and yet you care not for his poor. Oh, what a change will pass upon you as you enter the gates of heaven! You will be saved, but that will be all. There will be no abundant entrance for you. ‘He that soweth sparingly shall reap sparingly.’
And I fear that there may be many hearing me who may know well that they are not Christians, because they do not love to give. To give largely and liberally, not grudging at all, requires a new heart. An old heart would rather part with its life-blood than its money. Oh my friends, enjoy your money. Make the most of it. Give none of it away. Enjoy it quickly, for I can tell you, you will be beggars throughout eternity.”
The True Good Samaritan
Many have wondered (and you may have as well) why Jesus didn’t refer to himself in his answer to the lawyer. After all, Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). When the lawyer asked how to inherit eternal life, why would Jesus not say, “Come to me”?
This lawyer was not a civil lawyer. He was a theological lawyer. He knew God’s law. And he came to Jesus with a test, not a request. His motives were not pure. He tried to bring Jesus down. And in his attempt to lower Jesus, Jesus set the bar of righteousness higher.
Jesus asked him a question the lawyer would know the answer to. Jesus had summarized the law in Matthew 22:37-39 the same way. Perhaps this lawyer knew that. At any rate, Jesus affirms the lawyer’s answer from Deuteronomy 6:5 and then tells him, do this, and you’ll live. The lawyer answers Jesus with the law of God. Jesus didn’t point to himself directly in his response to the lawyer because the lawyer wasn’t trying to point to Jesus in his question. He was trying to trap Jesus. So, Jesus traps the lawyer. He affirms his checklist of righteousness and adds to it an overwhelming requirement: love this much. Jesus drives the lawyer beyond the simple answer into the heart of God’s true answer—the law is not what we can do. Rather, it is what only God can do in us by his Spirit. Jesus didn’t point to himself as the way to eternal life because the lawyer wasn’t looking for the way of the Messiah. He was looking for the way of the theologically precise rule follower.
But of course, if we have eyes to see, Jesus did, in fact, point to himself. He did it indirectly. He calls the lawyer to self-sacrificial love, and in doing so, calls him to himself, for only in Christ can such sacrificial love take root and grow.
In this parable, who is the good Samaritan?
The lawyer isn’t.
He didn’t pass us by. He couldn’t pass us by. He looked upon a dying world and not only stopped to help us as he was passing through, he passed through for the very reason of saving us. Without his passage, there is no hope. Without the blessed Savior bending down and pouring oil and wine on us, putting us on his back, carrying us to an inn where we are provided for and paying the full cost of our healing, we are left for dead in the ditch, and no one else is coming by. He’s the Great Helper. He’s the one with great Compassion. He’s the Great Binder of Wounds. He’s the Great Healer. He’s the Great Provider. He’s our Great God. He’s everything we needed when we were wounded by our own sin, lying in a pool of our own blood completely unconscious of what our true state was. He came. He helped. He lifted us up and placed us in the Great Inn of his Father because he is the Great Neighbor. Because Jesus went and did likewise, we can now come and be healed by his love.
And through his mercy and grace, in the power he provides, we can go and do likewise. But we cannot do it on our own. We cannot do anything to inherit eternal life. All we can do is die to the life of doing so that we may rise with Christ to the life of love. Most love isn’t the doing of anything. Most love is about presence, not action. It’s about being with, not doing for. And until we’ve seen the great work of Christ and realize his presence with us by his Spirit, we will never have the love for our neighbor to be the good Samaritan. We will always count the cost, always weigh the options, always pass to the other side, because we cannot bear the call. But when we come to Christ with our wounds, and he binds us up, we have a new power within, giving us new eyes to see real needs. And we press on with the Spirit-given love where we can “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).
Without Christ, the true good Samaritan, we have no hope. Without him, we can do nothing. Without him, we cannot go and do likewise. We must have him, and he must come to us.
Jesus’s work doesn’t remove this call to go and do likewise; it frees us from the condemnation of failing to do it, and gives us the power to go. Jesus Christ is the engine behind all true acts of mercy. We see that we do this because the Lord our God has shown mercy to us. The gospel tells us that Jesus has saved us from our wretchedness. He's saved us from our selfishness and sent us out into the good works that he’s prepared beforehand (Ephesians 2:10). In Christ, we are propelled into a new world that isn’t like the old. It’s full of mercy and grace, and we have the privilege of serving the least of these. Let us no longer do it out of a sense of duty or obligation. That never drives us to true service. Only love can. And love has come down to us in Christ. In the fullness of his joy, then, and to the praise of the glory of his grace, let us go and do likewise.