One of the biggest challenges for Christians who have grown up in the church and have been raised on Bible stories from infancy is to hear them in the way the original audience did. Many Bible accounts are so familiar to us, that we never really stop to think them through. Jesus’ parable of The Good Samaritan is a case in point. The term “Good Samaritan” has found its way into the English language as a way to refer to someone who helps strangers without being asked and with no desire for reward. We might come a little closer to the mark if we think of a “Good Samaritan” as someone who sees everyone as their neighbour.
But, even then, we have scarcely begun to understand this parable and its radical message. So, what was Jesus’ point in this parable and how does he want us to live in response to it? In order to understand this parable (Luke 10:25-37), we need to understand the context in which Jesus told it. The parable was prompted by two questions asked of Jesus by an expert in Jewish law. The first was aimed at testing Jesus’ orthodoxy – “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus, always less concerned with winning the argument and more concerned with winning the heart, turned the question back on him “You’re the expert in the law, what do you think?” In response, the lawyer, to his credit, gets right to the heart of the matter by going to the two greatest commandments “Love the Lord with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” and “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Jesus’ response is straightforward, “You’re right. Do that and you will live.” Jesus is not avoiding the lawyer’s question. The lawyer has asked for a way to earn entry into eternal life and Jesus has given it to him “All you need to do is love God wholeheartedly and perfectly and love your neighbour as much as you love yourself.” No problem!
The lawyer feels the impossibility of such an all-encompassing command and immediately seeks to do what we do – to interpret the command in a way which makes it achievable. God wouldn’t ask The Good Samaritan – a journey from law to grace exegeticaltools.com Faith in Focus Volume 45/5 June 2018 3 us to do the impossible so there must be some limits, mustn’t there? Interestingly, the lawyer does not seek to limit the first and more searching of the two commands. He likely assumed that keeping the OT laws and ceremonies meant that he could put a tick next to that one. So, he asked a second question designed to limit the second command – “And who is my neighbour?”
It is this second question which prompts Jesus to tell the parable of the Good Samaritan. The story is deceptively simple. A man was travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho – a dangerous road notorious for the thieves who would waylay unsuspecting people travelling alone. Sure enough, this traveller is robbed, stripped of his clothes and left for dead. We do not know whether this man was a Jew or not and neither can those who come after him tell from the bloodied form lying on the road. That is part of Jesus’ point – the man is a nobody with no discernible ties to anyone. Sometime after, first a priest and then a Levite (we might say a pastor and a deacon) pass.
It seems that these men apply the lawyer’s “who is my neighbour?” test and, finding the man wanting, continue on their way. It is worth pausing at this point in the parable because this is an easy trap for us to fall into. It is easy to come up with lots of plausible reasons for not stepping outside of our comfort zone to help people: “I don’t know them from a bar of soap. They could take me for a ride.” “They knew the risks, they should have been more careful.” “Aren’t we supposed to do good to fellow believers first? There must be a needy believer somewhere ….” “They look a bit devious and shady to me, better to ‘bless them and pass them by.’” “Someone like that could be a bad influence on my children. It’d be better for someone else to help them.” “I wouldn’t even know where to start with someone like that. Better give them a miss.” “They probably hate Christians anyway ….” Like these religious leaders (those in this lawyer’s circle of friends), we often look for ways not to help rather than ways to engage. Like many of Jesus’ parables, the story takes a surprising turn at this point.
Jesus’ listeners would be expecting a third person to come down the road and help, probably a regular Jew (or even an expert in the law?) The last thing they would expect would be a Samaritan. The hostility between Jews and Samaritans was such that a self-respecting Jew would probably rather die than be helped by a Samaritan! Not only is the man a Samaritan, but he comes to the aid of a man who is more than likely a sworn enemy of the Samaritans (he was coming from Jerusalem after all.) Even before he crosses the road, we are told that “he took pity on the man.” Instead of looking for reasons to avoid him, his heart goes out to him with care and compassion. Heedless of the risk to himself (the robbers might be lurking nearby), he crosses the road and tends to the man. He pours precious oil and wine on the man’s wounds, binds them with bandages made from his own clothing (the man had none), places the man on his own donkey and takes him to an inn where he personally tends to him throughout the night. Then he pays enough to cover the man’s accommodation for a couple of months and promises to pay more if that is not enough. This is extravagant care at great personal inconvenience and cost! Notice that Jesus answers the lawyer’s question “Who is my neighbour?” by showing what it means to be a neighbour (“Which of these was a neighbour to the man?”) – to love your neighbour as yourself. But the parable also answers his question directly by showing that my neighbour is anyone God places on my path (sometimes literally!) I am my brother’s keeper! Jesus finishes by saying to the lawyer “Go and do likewise.”
You can almost hear him respond “But that’s impossible! Who can love as recklessly, indiscriminately and sacrificially as that? Jesus, you have just made the law impossible to keep!” And that really is Jesus’ point. God’s law is impossible to keep. There is nothing we can do to inherit eternal life. No one can meet God’s perfect standard. No one can love him with all their heart and soul or love their neighbour as they love themselves. We are the man lying on the road, caked in our own blood, hopeless and helpless – desperately in need of a good Samaritan who will pour himself out for our sake. Jesus is the good Samaritan – hated by those he came to save (John 8:48; Romans 5:10) – who laid down his life for us.
There is nothing we can do to inherit eternal life. The only way to obtain it is as a free gift of grace purchased in Jesus’ blood. Loving God and loving our neighbour are a response to the way that God has first loved us. They are not a way to earn eternal life but a fruit of having received it. Only those who have experienced God’s grace in Jesus can begin to show that grace to others. That is what it means for us to be good Samaritans – to be agents of God’s grace to those he places on our paths – whoever they are (no excuses!). Those who have received God’s grace become channels through whom that grace flows to others. His grace moves us to “take pity” on others, made in his image, whoever they may be and to give ourselves for them. Rev. Andre Holtslag’s article has some great thoughts on where to start but let me leave you with some questions. Who has God placed on your path that you have disqualified as a neighbour? Another way to say this might be, “Who has God placed on your path that you find it hard / impossible to love?” How might you begin to be an instrument of God’s grace to them? How would Jesus, the Good Samaritan, respond to them? (Luke 15:1-7 might be helpful here.) Ask God to help you love them as he has loved you.