The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37)
[July 5, 2009] We are all familiar with the story of the Good Samaritan almost entirely through the last line: “Go, and you do likewise” (10:37). Of course, it means that we should be like the Good Samaritan who helped the wounded man on the side of the road, and not like the priest and the Levite who left him there. The Samaritan is an example for us all, even though he is despised by the Jews.
We would not disagree with this lesson. Obviously all good people everywhere should act with compassion and care to help the helpless. Everyone whether they are a Christian or not would agree. It might be a bit imperialistic to insist that the person who acts like this is being a Christian (they may not want this label), even though all Christians should act that way.
The problem with this interpretation, however, is that it ignores the frame of the story. For example, the commandment says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Since the question the lawyer asks is, “Who is my neighbor?” most people assume that Jesus’ answer is that the neighbor is the man who fell among the robbers. Whom should I love? The helpless man whom everyone else ignores!
But this ignores the answer which Jesus in fact gave. The helpless man does not even enter into the answer. Jesus asks, “Which of these three—the priest, the Levite, or the Samaritan—has become a neighbor to him who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The answer is, “The one who showed mercy to him.” Who is the neighbor? The Samaritan is. This goes along the line of being “neighborly.” How do you be a neighbor? By acting like the Samaritan. The person who stops to help the helpless is being neighborly.
That might confuse us at first. The command says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” and the lawyer’s question is then, who is the neighbor whom I should love? The answer Jesus gives is: the neighbor is the Good Samaritan, who helped the man who fell among the robbers. If you were the man who fell among the robbers and was left half dead, you should love the Samaritan who helps you.
That is not the answer we expect, and it is not the one we are used to. Yet it is the strange answer that Jesus gives. If the question is, who is MY neighbor? Then in Jesus’ answer, I am the man who fell among the robbers.
The interpretation that seems to be universal nowadays is based on a careless reading of text. The early interpreters of this text were not so careless. They realized that the Good Samaritan is a picture of Jesus and the man who fell among the robbers is the one who posed the question, the lawyer. In other words, the story of the Good Samaritan is actually a parable, nor a mere example.
Why is the lawyer the man who fell among the robbers? That could raise some alarm because we would rather be the one doing good works than simply the one receiving help. We want to think of ourselves as good people, not beaten up and left to die. What a terribly sad way to think of oneself. We want to justify ourselves and so we resist interpreting the story Jesus tells as a parable about ourselves. Yet this impulse of ours, this impulse to prove ourselves good people, is the very reason the lawyer is the man who fell among the robbers. For the man is concerned with: “What should I do to inherit eternal life?” And the reason he asks Jesus to clarify His answer is that he “wanted to justify himself.” This is the whole point.
The lawyer is a scribe of the Pharisees, someone who studied the Torah and sought to hear and obey the Word of God revealed to Moses. As Paul says, “The Torah is holy, and the commandment holy and righteous and good,” “the Torah is spiritual,” and “I delight in the Torah of God according to the inner man” (Romans 7:12, 14, 22). But rather than hearing this Word in the right way and allowing it to expose him by its light, and humble himself so that he put himself at the mercy of God, he sought instead to use the Word to justify himself. “Just show me what works I am supposed to do so that I can win approval or justification.” He did not grasp what Paul also knew, “that a man is not justified by works of Torah … because by works of Torah no flesh will be justified” (Galatians 2:16). He fell into the trap of religion. Starting with the Word, he began from “Jerusalem” (the city of God) but ended up on his way to “Jericho” (the city cursed by God).
This seems to be a universal temptation, to try to justify ourselves using religion (or morality or an ideology). But to do that is to miss the real light that is in the Word of God. For this light exposes us as sinners who resist God and are unwilling to comply, and it exposes our urge to justify ourselves as an attempt to avoid the devastating light of God. Our urge to justify ourselves makes us sinners because it is our means to avoid the light that exposes us.
When we “try to be good Christians” we have fallen into this trap. We have fallen into the hands of robbers, and then we are left half dead. Unfortunately, we are often left to die. The lawyer in our story found that both priest and Levite (Israel’s hereditary clergy), who should have been able to help him, passed him by, unwilling to help and ignoring his need. They missed the point of their calling.
Help comes to us in the unexpected form of a Samaritan, someone who was despised by the Jews. Jesus felt that he was rejected, and even today, though all people admire, Jesus only Christians take him seriously. The intellectual world has had a bent against Jesus since the eighteenth century, and the common people, when they are not using him to justify themselves, consider his words weak and impractical. Even if the imaginary picture of Jesus is not despised, the Gospel certainly is, even though the abuse of the “Gospel” has earned much of the vehemence that it has aroused.
Once we understand the parable this far, the rest is easy to understand. Jesus is our Savior who binds up our wounds and pours on them oil and wine. He carries us and places us in the care of His disciples—the church—until His coming again.
Jesus is the neighbor whom we are to love. If you know Jesus as your Savior, if He has been your neighbor, then a natural impulse will arise in you, a spontaneous urge which you are to follow, to go and do likewise. It is not about finding another neighbor, Jesus is enough; it is about becoming a neighbor to others. Our heart ought to be like His.
The Story of Martha and Mary (10:38-42)
If the parable of the Good Samaritan is about help for the one who “wants to justify himself,” then the story of Martha and Mary is about help for the believer. In the Gospel according to John, Martha and Mary and their brother Lazarus live in the village of Bethany outside of Jerusalem and Jesus is very close to them. He loves to stay with them, and in their home He is taken care of. Martha’s home is a picture of the small local church. A church should be like this home.
Martha served while Mary sat at Jesus’ feet listening to His Word. Jesus says that Mary has chosen the good part. Let us explore this.
The problem is not that Martha served. She was “being drawn about with much serving” and was “anxious and troubled about many things.” Jesus says, “There is need of one thing,” perhaps meaning that Martha was doing too much. “There is need of one thing”—in other words, keep hospitality simple. One dish is good enough. Do not make it complicated or more difficult than it needs to be. As a result of Martha’s anxiety about trying to please her guest, she even got angry with her sister who refused to get caught up in Martha’s way of looking at things. Jealousy and envy among Christians can also be misplaced for the same reason. “We have played the flute to you, and you did not dance” (Luke 7:32). We are trying to please the Lord with our much activity, and we cannot understand why others are not doing the same thing. We say they lack commitment, but maybe we are the ones who are distracted.
“Mary has chosen the good part.” This is the other meaning of “there is need of one thing.” The one thing that really matters is whether we sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to His Word. The Lord desires our attention more than our activity and projects. This is when a building and an organization gets in the way. These things enable us to keep ourselves busy serving, but they also keep us “anxious and troubled about many things.” The kind of activity that Jesus calls for is different than all that. All that can keep us away from Jesus. What Jesus wants first is our ear. When we humble ourselves enough to sit at His feet, then after we become transformed by beholding His face with our face (2 Corinthians 3:18), by “listening to His Word” and spending time in His company, then maybe we will hear and understand His call to activity, or—more likely—we will simply begin to engage in the right kind of activity naturally, without all the anxiety and distraction.
This text has always been understood to emphasize the importance of meditation on the Scriptures, where we behold the face of Jesus, and contemplation where we remain in His presence. This holy “inactivity” should take priority in our lives—as difficult as that may be for us Americans who are obsessed with practical utilitarianism and productive activity. Just sit still and be quiet. Spiritual work must proceed from God’s work on the inside.
Paul’s Concern for the Colossians (Colossians 1:27—2:7)
Not surprisingly, we discover that Paul has the same concern for the new converts among the Gentiles in Colossae and Laodicea. He was active in Ephesus, and at the time he wrote his letter, he had managed to get himself in trouble with the authorities and was in prison. In the “School of Tyrannus,” a hall he had rented, he had trained workers to go out to the neighboring towns to bring the Gospel. One such worker was Philemon in Laodicea and another was Epaphras in Colossae. Paul had not been to these towns himself.
Paul says that he labored, struggling according to the energy of Christ that operated in him, to announce Christ to people, and to make known the mystery of “Christ in you” so that by the work of admonishing and teaching, “we might present every man full-grown in Christ.” In Christ are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, and so He becomes an unending feast for us to enjoy. By “being knit together in love” we provide a place for this to take place: we become the house in Bethany where Jesus may make Himself at home. Our faith into (literally) Christ is our solid basis, and our love for one another (not our organization) creates our order. Then we can feast on “all the riches of the full assurance of understanding” until we come into “the full knowledge of the mystery of God, which is Christ.” This is sitting at the feet of Jesus.
Thus by believing into Christ, we receive Christ. Then we need to be rooted and built up in Him so that we can be established in the faith. Thereafter we can walk (conduct our lives) in Him, abounding in thanks-giving. The activity of our lives flows out of our feasting on Christ.