Text: Luke 10:25-37
The parable of the Good Samaritan is one the most famous passages of Scripture in the whole bible. It gives us the immortal illustration of what it means to be a “good neighbor” and has provided the name for countless charities and mercy ministries. But there is more to this story than only the call to take care of those in need. Jesus is here pointing out the futility of all attempts at self-justification through works while also highlighting what it truly means to keep the law of God.
This portion of scripture is organized around two exchanges between Jesus and the lawyer. There is the initial question and Jesus’ answer, followed by a second question and a second answer. The “lawyer,” meaning an expert in torah, asks Jesus this question, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” This sets up the whole conversation. It shows us the main issue. The question is actually a sincere question. He is not necessarily trying to trick Jesus, but he is a legalist. He believes, as did most of the Jews of his day, that eternal life is something obtained by law-keeping. Surely the Jews would say that it was “inherited” because of God’s gracious covenant, but still, within those parameters, the keeping of the law was what decided one’s eternal outcome. The precise wording makes this clear, “What shall I do?”
What shall I do?
Now, this lawyer is putting Jesus “to the test,” so to speak, in that he wants to see if Jesus will affirm this theology of law-keeping or break with it, and thus be perceived as standing outside the prevalent Jewish teaching of the day. This was, in a way, a test of orthodoxy. But Jesus took this occasion to uphold the teaching of the torah while also subverting the typical understanding of its intent and nature. To answer the lawyer’s question, Jesus points back to the law itself. “What is written in the law? What is your reading of it?” The lawyer is trained in these things, and so Jesus turns the tables and asks him for the orthodox answer.
The lawyer gives the standard orthodox answer. He quotes from both Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,’ and ‘your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus says that this is correct. After all, it is the same answer which he had himself given at another time (Matt. 22:34-40). These are the two greatest commandments.
Jesus answered, “You have answered rightly; do this and you will live.” This is curious, viewed form our perspective today. Shouldn’t Jesus have told the lawyer to repent, to be humble, and find faith in God’s grace? Jesus is actually doing more than this. He is using the law to teach the lawyer, or perhaps better, to get the lawyer to teach himself. He wants the lawyer to see the full implications of the law. If you love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and if you love your neighbor as yourself, then you will inherit eternal life. But who could do this, and how?
By letting the lawyer’s answer stick out, Jesus seems to be making the point that perfect law-keeping is a very lofty thing indeed, an impossible task. One should strive to keep the law, of course, and Jesus never once says that you should break the law, but Jesus’ law-keeping looks very different from the typical form. For Jesus, law-keeping means remaining humble and seeking mercy and grace. In fact, if you claim to have kept the law perfectly, then you are deceiving yourself and therefore sinning. You are not actually keeping the law.
The reason I have framed Jesus’ answer in this way is because verse 29 seems to indicate that, at this point, the lawyer felt a tinge of conscience. It says that he wanted to justify himself. He knew that the correct answer sure looked like it condemned him, and so he asked one of those deep theological questions. He asked for further clarification, for distinctions to be made, for nuance. “And who is my neighbor?”
Now we should say that it is possible that the lawyer had no such qualms about the possibility of perfect law-keeping. We tend to assume that everyone admits their faults, at least on a personal level. But it might be the case that this man thought that he was a good law-keeper. He may have had a theologically-refined understanding, one which allowed him to avoid loving all sorts of people. This was a real issue at the time. For instance, the twelfth chapter of the intertestamental book Ben Sira says that you don’t have to do good to all men, “give to the godly man and help not a sinner.” It taught that you should only love the righteous. Another rabbinical saying was “that heretics, informers, and renegades ‘should be pushed into the ditch and not pulled out.’” And in a Jewish commentary on the book of Ruth, we are explicitly told that not everyone is a neighbor:
“The gentiles… if there be any danger of death, we are not bound to deliver them; e.g., if any of them fall into the sea you shall not need to take them out: for it is said, ‘Thou shalt not rise up against the blood of thy neighbor'; but such a one is not thy neighbor.”
And so the lawyer might be fully sincere in this second question. But either way, the result is the same. Legalism has to reduce the law’s demand, to limit its force so as to make it appear possible. And that means, according to the teaching of Jesus, that legalists are actually law-breakers. They always try to take away the force of the law so as to avoid coming under condemnation themselves. In reality, the person with the highest view of the law is the person who knows how often he violates it.
Who is my neighbor?
This second exchange of question and answer highlights Jesus’ teaching on the true nature of the law. To the question, “Who is my neighbor?” he answers with a parable. This is once again an attempt to get the lawyer to see the truth for himself, to get him to see the point and confess the truth on his own.
Now, this parable is not an allegory. That’s a popular way to treat it, to see the Good Samaritan as Jesus, the victim as each of us, and the priest and Levite as false religious teachers. But that doesn’t quite work. For one thing, Jesus wants his immediate audience to see themselves, not in the victim, but in the priest and the Levite. And while we can’t help but see parallels between Christ and the Good Samaritan, it is actually the case that the Good Samaritan is meant to be an example of a righteous law-keeper, someone to whom each of us should model our own religious lives. This will be clear when we look at the story in more detail.
“A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.” This man starts off the story, but he is not actually the focus. He is not described in further detail, and we have no idea if he was a good man or a bad man. He is simply an example of anyone in need. “Now by chance a certain priest came down that road. And when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite, when he arrived at the place, came and looked, and passed by on the other side.” These two characters are examples of religious people who fail to do what is right. The priest saw the man in need and instead passed by on the other side. The Levite, Jesus says, actually came and looked at the beaten man, but then left without helping. These men are hypocrites and phonies. They are not keeping the law of God.
Now these men are identified in a specific way, both as Jewish religious offices. This means that the priest and the Levite are representative of the Jewish religious establishment. They are the “orthodoxy” of the day, and Jesus says that they are frauds. Even more, these men are meant to be representative of the lawyer himself, those people who attempt to keep the law without really loving their neighbor. They find a way to keep up an appearance of religion while breaking the law in its essential demand.
And then, following on this very controversial move, Jesus goes even further. He makes his virtuous law-keeper to be a Samaritan. This was religiously and racially explosive. The Samaritans were hated by the Jews of this time. They were thought to be half-breed mongrels and religious heretics. One Jewish saying was, “He that eats the bread of the Samaritans is like to one that eats the flesh of swine.” That means that to associate with a Samaritan, even a living one, was thought to make you ritually unclean. As one commentator describes the sectarianism of the 1st century, “The Samaritans were publicly cursed in the synagogues; and a petition was daily offered up praying to God that the Samaritans might not be partakers of eternal life.”
Yet in this story, the Samaritan is the one who truly keeps the law! He is the good guy. Notice what he does. He goes out of his way to help.
But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was. And when he saw him, he had compassion. So he went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; and he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.
And he went further than this. He spent the night at the inn, he paid two-days’ worth of wages for the man’s room and board, and he even offered something of a blank check. “Whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you.” And consider, he doesn’t even really know this man. He has no idea if this man was up to no good when he got into trouble or whether or not he is a trustworthy fellow worth helping out. The Good Samaritan simply loves this man as a neighbor, with true compassion.
And so Jesus gets the lawyer to see the moral of the story for himself. “So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?” The answer was obvious. “He who showed mercy on him.” This means that every man is your neighbor. But still further, it means that loving your neighbor requires going above and beyond any mere positive command. It means having love and compassion for them, giving to all men as they have need, and doing this freely and out of a sense of mercy. This is not legalism, but it is what the law demands.
Go and do likewise
“Then Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’” Once again we have Jesus teaching in a provocative way. The lawyer has not been keeping the commandments of God. He has not been loving God with his whole being, nor his neighbor as himself. Legalism is quite literally unlawful, as the true law-keeper knows the need for mercy, both to show it and to receive it. “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”
But when need to point out what should be obvious. Jesus is not only teaching us the need for grace and mercy. Many popular treatments of this theme tend to stop too early. They have Jesus pointing out the sinner’s inability to save himself, to truly keep the law, and they point you to the cross, appropriately, to the grace of God which is the only thing which can take away our sins. But there’s one more point here, and that is that Jesus actually expects his audience to hear this and to do this. He wants the lawyer (and us) to “go and do likewise.”
This is because love is the fulfillment of the law. This is the revolutionary teaching of Jesus, as well as the rest of the New Testament. Love is free charity, carried out by faith in the power of the Holy Spirit. And in so doing, believers do in fact keep the law, even as they are delivered from its curse and condemnation. Even as they fail to keep the law perfectly and as they sin from day to day, even as they are always in need of grace and forgiveness– still there is a way in which they fulfill the law. They do not do it carnally, but spiritually. Love is both law and not-law. It is beyond law and yet it is the essence of law.
Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not bear false witness,” “You shall not covet,” and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. (Rom. 13:8-10)
For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Gal. 5:13-14)
If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you do well; but if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all. For He who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery, but you do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment. (James 2:8-13)
This is the true way of righteousness. The law of love is the internalization of the torah, to have understood both justice and mercy and to freely resolve to live out both at all times and to all men. Who is your neighbor? Everyone is your neighbor. This is the law of Christ. Go and do likewise.
[As this was written as a sermon, I did not cite my sources within the body. All historical quotes and commentary excerpts were taken from Kenneth E. Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes.]