And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” 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.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”
But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 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. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. 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. 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.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”
People love the parable of the Good Samaritan. In fact, the parable of the Good Samaritan is part of our cultural consciousness. When a stranger shows up to help someone change a tire he is dubbed a “Good Samaritan.” Various states now have what are called “Good Samaritan Laws” which make it a crime to stand by and fail to render reasonable assistance to someone in trouble. Even people who don’t claim to be Christian often times know at least parts of the story – An outsider helping a stranger while the insiders pass by unconcerned.
People are impressed with the morals portrayed in Jesus’ story. But this is also how so many have misunderstood the parable. For instance, some who hold to a version of the social gospel often point to this parable as THE sum and substance of Christianity – “Christianity is all about helping others and making the world a better place.” They say, “Christianity isn’t about the Bible, it’s not about what you believe, it’s not about seeking conversions. Being a Christian is all about helping people and this parable proves it.”
But the Parable of the Good Samaritan does not appear out of nowhere. Jesus did not proclaim this parable simply to give us all a way to make the world a better place. Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan in a specific context to address a specific theological and ethical issue.
What becomes clear is that Jesus is using the parable of the Good Samaritan to carry some major theological freight. This parable is challenge to consider what it is that fits men and women for the presence of God. Or, more simply put, what is it that makes sinners okay with God?
The ethical dimension of the parable presses Christians to consider their faithfulness to the command to love our neighbor as ourselves. But if you miss what Jesus is doing in the theological here then the ethical application will be worthless.
By the time Jesus delivered the Parable of the Good Samaritan the enthusiasm that characterized the earlier stages of his ministry had peaked and he had become the target of growing hostility, especially from the Jewish religious leadership. The passage is introduced by the appearance of an expert in the law, who came with the intention of catching the Lord in some controversial or erroneous statement that could become the basis of an accusation against him.
Luke tells us that expert in God’s law sought to put Jesus “to the test.” In other words, he was not seeking truth but an opportunity to accuse our Lord. The question is one which was asked Jesus frequently: “what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Of course Jesus had the luxury of knowing the man’s heart. So he answered the legal expert’s question in a way that would expose his errant assumptions about sin and salvation.
It may be fairly said that the Parable of the Good Samaritan has two central purposes: 1) To expose sinners to the demands of God’s law and 2) To teach God’s people how to live lives of love.
For sinners, like the legal expert in Luke’s account, who believe they can justify themselves, God’s law expounded in the parable reveals the overwhelming requirement of self-forgetful, risk taking, sacrificial love for neighbor. It is the recognition of this extraordinary demand of God’s law that leads the sinner to realize that he cannot gain eternal life by keeping the commandments of God. The standard of God’s law is too great for any sinner to be justified by it. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” was the wrong question.
For the people of God – those who have been justified by the merits of Christ – the law of God is a means by which they learn to live lives worthy of the gospel. The salvation of God is both the free gift of Christ’s righteousness to the unrighteous and the transformation of our lives into ones of loving obedience. And how do we sum up obedience to God’s law? To obey the law of God means to love Him with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Ernest Gordon was a British army officer in World War 2. He had been captured by the Japanese and confined to the infamous prison camp on the River Kwai. Late in the war, as Gordon and other prisoners of war traveled through the jungles of Asia, they happened upon a train full of wounded Japanese soldiers who were close to death.
Out of love for Christ Gordon and many of his fellow British officers began to administer aid to these enemy soldiers. One of the fellow officers was deeply offended by the efforts to help. He said, “What bloody fools you all are! Don’t you realize that those are the enemy?”
Those helping the wounded certainly did realize it. But in response Gordon tried to explain their actions by referring to the parable of the Good Samaritan. The protesting officer said – “That’s different! That’s in the Bible. These are the swine who’ve starved us and beaten us. They’ve murdered our comrades. These are our enemies.” To which Ernest Gordon replied, “Who is mine enemy? Isn’t he my neighbor?...Mine enemy is my neighbor.”