[July 14, 2013] The Parable of the Good Samaritan is (or used to be) well known, and its meaning is usually taken for granted. We are to act like the Good Samaritan and help the helpless. Our neighbor is the man on the side of the road whom others pass by. Perhaps people even notice that the Samaritans, whom the ancient Jews typically despised, can sometimes be good people, even better than Jews (in this case, the priest and the Levite), and so this parable also warns us against racial prejudice, where we assume the worst in people according to our stereotypes. This interpretation makes the parable a teaching on ethics, and therefore easily grasped by the practical person without any recourse to those “otherworldly” notions of spirituality or faith in Christ. Everyone loves this parable, believer and atheist, religious and secularist. It teaches us how to be good people, and picks a bone with religious hypocrites. The only problem is that this is not what the parable is about.
Of course, society needs a lesson such as this. When Leviticus 19:18 says, “Love your neighbor as yourself; I am YHWH,” the neighbor is “the sons of your people” in the same verse, or “your fellow countryman” in the previous verse. When Jesus says, “Go and do likewise,” He is extending the meaning of neighbor beyond our own people. Jews and Samaritans are neighbors. The helpless person in need of our assistance, no matter whether she is our own countryman or a stranger, is to be the object of our love and assistance. Even though we are on a journey of our own, we should stop and render aid. I hope we do not disagree about this. The only problem is that it is not what Jesus is teaching.
I think most of Jesus’ fellow Jews would have been as appalled by the behavior of the priest and Levite in the story as we are. They would have known that helping the injured man was the right thing to do. What they would have been surprised at is Jesus’ choice of the Samaritan as the exemplar of right behavior, since they might have expected a Samaritan not to care about someone who probably despised him. But the lesson itself as an example of proper behavior would not have been strikingly new. The new thing would have been to consider the Samaritans in a different light; maybe give them the benefit of the doubt; maybe to see in them our common humanity. Perhaps by using the Samaritan as an example Jesus was driving home the point that if a Samaritan can do this for a Jew (who probably despises him), then you Jews can do this for a Samaritan (so Matthew Henry).
But as much as I agree with these lessons, I would be quite surprised if Jesus were teaching social ethics, or at least if this were being recorded in the Gospel as such, and not as part of something bigger (such as the kingdom of God), because there are no other examples of Jesus doing this. Though many people see Jesus doing just this, since it takes away the offense of the Gospel, it seems clear—at least in the narrative of the text—that Jesus was not a teacher of social ethics.
He would never have called the Samaritan the “good” Samaritan since He well knew that no one is good but God alone. One does not justify oneself by trying to be good. This was what the lawyer was trying to do. Luke tells us, “Wishing to justify himself, [the lawyer] said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor.” What did Luke mean by the man’s wishing to justify himself?
Like the Pharisee in Luke 7:40, this lawyer recognized Jesus as a revered teacher, but Luke tells us that his question, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” was intended to put Jesus “to the test.” Let us see what this Teacher says, he probably thought. To what school does He belong? The man may have wanted no more than to hear what Jesus had to say on this important question, out of curiosity. Or he may have already been already intent on dismissing whatever Jesus had to say.
Since the man was a lawyer (a teacher of the Torah, or more specifically, the prescriptions in the Torah, what is called the “walk” or halakha), Jesus asks him, “What is written in the Torah? How does it read to you?” The man answers the same as Jesus will do when asked in Matthew 22:36, “Which is the great commandment in the Law?” He quotes the Sh’ma in Deuteronomy 6:5 and adds Leviticus 19:18, thus summarizing the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments). Since the man gives the same answer Jesus will give, we are not surprised when Jesus says, “You have answered correctly.”
However, the question was not “Which is the great commandment?” but “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” So Jesus says further, “Do this and you shall live,” quoting Leviticus 18:5; Nehemiah 9:29 and Ezekiel 20:11. We immediately think of James who tells us that we must not be hearers only but doers of the Word. But Jesus’ words go further; they have to do with life: “you shall live,” or as in the original question, you shall “inherit eternal life.”
On the surface, it seems as though Jesus is saying that if we simply obey the commandments, properly summarized here, we shall inherit eternal life. But a question is buried in the mandate, “Do this,” that is supposed to probe deeper than our external conformity. And the lawyer’s wishing to justify himself gets to the heart of it.
Either the lawyer is wishing to justify why he asked Jesus the question in the first place, that is, to justify his testing of Jesus, or Luke means us to take this in a deeper sense: he wished to justify (dikaioō) himself in terms of these two commandments, that is, in the sight of God. In the Gospel according to Luke, the later issue is a concern. In 16:15a, Jesus says to some Pharisees, “You are those who justify (dikaioō) yourselves in the sight of men, but God knows your hearts.” In 18:9-14 Jesus told a parable “to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous (dikaios), and viewed others with contempt,” about a Pharisee and a tax collector in the temple and said that the tax collector “went to his house justified (dikaioō: declared righteous) rather than the other.” In this case, the lawyer in chapter 10 wants to reassure himself (and others, or even God) that he is “doing” what it takes to inherit eternal life.
This raises the very important question. How does one “do” the requirements of the Torah? What is the “faithfulness” required of the covenant people? Certainly it is to obey God. But is this simply by mechanically doing what the Halakha requires, by following all the rules? If this is the case, it would be nice if the rules did not require anything terribly difficult. And thus the man asks the question, “And who is my neighbor?” If my neighbor is the opposite of my enemy; if my neighbor is my fellow countryman who is also kind to me (and presumably would defend me, if I needed him to), this makes the Halakha much more accessible to me. After all, as Jesus says, “If you love those who love you … do not even the tax collectors do the same?” (Matthew 5:46).
“Do this” is more than that, however. One fulfills the Law not by conforming to all the rules but by faithfulness to God. We are not good people. We are broken by our sin (our willful alienation from God). No amount of external conformity is going to fix us. We are not saved by the “Law of works” but by the “Law of faith” (Romans 3:27); and this has always been the case. The righteous one shall live by faith, the prophet Habakkuk tells us, just as Abraham was justified (accounted righteous) by his faith. It is our adherence to God, our faithfulness to God irrespective—that is, our faithfulness to God whether it is when God’s wrath is against us or when God’s mercy and grace are toward us—and not by our external conformity to rules, that justifies us. It was always this way in the Old Testament; not just in the New. Repentance always began with our faithful adherence to God even in God’s judgment against us, our loving acknowledgment that God is right in God’s condemnation of us and wrath against us. This, after all, is how Jesus went to the cross, bearing God’s judgment against us as something right, and loving God in it, and humbly submitting to God as the One who is in the right. “Do this” means to love God and the neighbor is this deeper, fuller sense.
So when the lawyer asks, “And who is my neighbor,” wishing to assure himself that he will, or can, inherit eternal life, Jesus uses this as an opportunity to win him over.
The question is “Who is my neighbor,” and at the end of the parable Jesus asks, “Which of these three do you think became (ginomai) a neighbor to the man who fell into the robbers’ hands?” People seem to automatically think that the neighbor (whom we are supposed to love) is “the man who fell into the robbers’ hands” but that is not the point that Jesus is making at all. He wants to say who is this man’s neighbor? It is “the one who showed mercy toward him.” So the answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” is “the one who shows mercy toward me.” That is not the answer most people expect. For this very reason, we ought to pay more attention to it.
First of all, according to this answer, which seems irrefutable, if my neighbor is the one who shows me mercy, then I must be the man who has fallen into the robber’s hands. Perhaps this is even more surprising. For if the lawyer is wanting to justify himself, he is assuming that he is more or less intact, that he is in fact at least capable of justifying himself. But if we are half-dead on the side of the road (however we pretend to be), and are quite unable and without the strength to help ourselves, this puts us in quite a different position. The priest and the Levite who pass me by are overlooking my situation. Perhaps they write me off as dead already, and they do not bother with me because I will make them “unclean.” Or they are inhuman and cannot be bothered with me, because of all the inconvenience I would cause them (and no doubt their families and appointments), all the while keeping the ritual aspects of the Torah, rendering them thereby quite meaningless. I go to church and the preacher tells me how to be “good” but does not address my broken condition. All that “goodness” is irrelevant if I am stripped, beaten up and left half-dead on the side of the road. If I go to church and pretend to fit in, if I am not insensitive, I feel my hypocrisy or at least the incompatibility of my situation. I am not one of the “righteous,” though I now pretend to be.
“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho.” Jerusalem is the city of God (Psalm 48:2; Matthew 5:35); Jericho is the city put under a curse (Joshua 6:26; 1 Kings 16:34). I came into the world in a Jerusalem, the creation of God, indeed, designed to be the image of God for creation to look at and behold. But what I became as I was socialized, is the Adam of the primeval story. The world around me was in rebellion against creation, against God really, and this world was raising me and I willingly took part in that rebellion. My sin is this collective rebellion. I inherited it but I also willingly add my part to it. And now I cannot extract myself from it. I am racing on ahead to “Jericho.”
And this is where I am stripped and beaten up by robbers. This is no surprise. Indeed, how can it be any other way? Yet it is in its own way a blessing, for unless I was stopped, I would have arrived at my “Jericho.” When we live within our own souls, in rebellion against the reality of God and creation, the world beats us up over and over and by the time we are adults (and often enough well before); we are ruined as human beings, and the love that is the expression of our createdness is tarnished and wary and weary, often causing pain to others even as we want to do them good. And maybe for many, love is even lost sight of. We are merely trying to survive (or acquire esteem or just an advantage) and we see others only as aides to this endeavor. Moreover, we have been hurt by our grief (without hope), and by the cruelty of others. We have so many wounds, we are sore all over. This is being half-dead. In relation to God we are dead, though—unbeknown to us—God is not dead with respect to us.
If we are the fallen man, then the Samaritan who comes to our aid is none other than the despised Lord Jesus. He was not a Samaritan but a Jew, and in conversation with a Samaritan woman He insisted that “salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22). Nevertheless, in John 8:48 He was accused of being a Samaritan. The Samaritans were considered by the Jews as heretical because they rejected the Davidic covenant. A whole school of Pharisees (the followers of Shammai) considered Jesus a heretic and despised Him for His association with the “sinful.”
But this despised One who associated with sinners—and was Himself “on a journey” to the “far country” of the prodigal (see Luke 15:13)—took it upon Himself to come to the aid of this fallen man. Jesus saw him, felt compassion for him, came to him, bandaged his wounds, poured oil and wine (rife with symbolism) on the wounds, and put the man on his own beast, and brought him to an inn and took care of him.
So Jesus sees you (do you know that Jesus truly sees you, in your woundedness), has compassion for you, and comes to you in the form of the Gospel. He takes your body and bandages your wounds, pouring oil and wine on your wounds. The wounds do not instantly go away, but He is tending to them, caring for us. Oil symbolizes the Holy Spirit (and thus new life), wine symbolizes His shed blood (the blood of forgiveness and redemption), and wine also symbolizes joy of life and happiness. In any case, the oil and wine cleanse and disinfect and are a salve to our wounds. And then Jesus carries us on His own beast, His body—broken for us on the cross (He bore us in His body on the cross; see 1 Peter 2:24) and also fecund for us in His resurrection. His body has become the church.
This is another part that does not make a lot of sense if the story is only an ethical lesson. What is with the inn? The inn makes sense if it is another image of the church, the household of believers. “Go and do the same” is the commandment given to the church. We are to care for each other as broken sinners. Jesus supplies us with two denarii to pay our costs, and when He returns He will repay us “whatever more [we] spend.” As the saying goes, the church is not a museum for saints but a hospital for sinners. This is true as long as we remember that we are only sinners coming to the aid of others like us. The difference, of course, is that we are no longer on the side of the road half-dead. We are able to come to each other’s aid.
When Jesus says to the lawyer, “Go and do the same,” He means we are to do the same as the Samaritan, which we can only do if we have been recovered by the Samaritan. In one sense, it means to take on the role of the innkeeper and care for the spiritually injured. It also means to “see” the one on the side of the road and to come to their aid. Following on the sending and return of the seventy-two, it makes sense that the primary meaning of this entire passage is that we should become a “Samaritan” (a despised follower of Christ), and come to the aid of the spiritually robbed and fallen and bring them to the “inn.”
These words, however, have not only to do with those who are spiritually injured (which is everyone), but with all who are helpless in any manner of need. In other words, we are to be compassionate.
Now we can understand this teaching within the larger context of the Gospel according to Luke. When Jesus sent out the seventy-two, it indicated a new beginning. They were to announce that the kingdom of God has drawn near (10:1-24). Here a lawyer asks, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” The kingdom of God draws near to us in the Gospel, that is, in the coming of Christ. He has come to give us life. What then shall I do that I may inherit eternal life? (10:25-37.) When this question is settled, we see Mary choosing the better part, sitting at the feet of Jesus, “listening to His word,” in a house in a certain village (10:38-42). It is a picture of life within the local church. Following this, Jesus teaches on prayer (11:1-13). These lessons are all foundational to the apostolate and the movement of the church.