The Good Samaritan
The parable of the Good Samaritan is one of the most familiar stories of the New Testament. Even people who know little or nothing about the Bible have at least an inkling of what the phrase “Good Samaritan” means. Homeless shelters are named after him. The name of Franklin Graham’s charity, Samaritan’s Purse, is derived from the parable. There are even “Good Samaritan” laws that are designed to protect people from liability if they attempt to help a person in great need.
Our reading from Luke 10 contains the parable. Jesus tells the story in response to two questions posed to him by an expert in the law of Moses. What must I do to inherit eternal life? Who is my neighbor? These are fundamental questions for anyone who believes in and seeks to follow the God of the Bible.
The lawyer’s motivations in posing the questions seem less than sincere. The lawyer wanted to test Jesus. Was he orthodox or heretical? The lawyer was determined to set boundaries and draw lines in the sand. This is a basic negative impulse of organized religion. The lawyer also wanted to justify himself. He already knew the answers to both his questions, but he wanted to prove he was right.
Nonetheless, both questions are critically important to a life with God and neighbor. And so, the lawyer asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answers the lawyer’s question with a question of his own. Jesus asked, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” The lawyer responds by quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. “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” (vs. 27). These two verses are what have been termed the “double love command.” Love God; love neighbor. They are a summary of the law and the prophets and even the New Testament. Jesus responds to the lawyer’s answer by affirming the truthfulness of his conclusion. “You have given the right answer; do this and you will live” (vs. 28).
At first reading, we might conclude that Jesus is proclaiming salvation by doing the works of the law. But we must remember that loving God with our whole existence entails faith. To love God is to trust in the God who is “slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and forgiving iniquity and transgression” (Numbers 14:18). The singular love of God produces faith that works through love of one’s neighbor. We inherit eternal life by God’s free grace, appropriated by faith and expressed through love. That is the Gospel.
An ancient way of interpreting the parable of the Good Samaritan powerfully expresses the good news of Jesus Christ. This way of interpreting the parable is allegorical and Christological, that is metaphorical and Christ-centered. The hapless traveler represents the fallen human race. The robbers represent the sin and death and evil that are constantly assailing us. The priest and the Levite represent the law and the prophets that are unable to save us. Jesus is the Good Samaritan! He comes to us when we are nearly dead. He pours in the oil and wine of the Holy Spirit on our wounded souls and bandages our sins with his grace. He carries us when we are helpless. He places us in the Church, where we can heal. He spares no expense, paying the full price for our sins, and promising to return for us.
Jesus is the one who enables us to inherit eternal life. Our salvation is totally dependent on his action, on his grace and mercy. He is the good neighbor who is always there for us. Saved, restored, and forgiven, we begin the arduous task of emulating him by loving others the same way he loved us. We go and do as the Samaritan did.
Now, let us return to the second question again to explore it in more detail. Who is my neighbor? The lawyer certainly thought he knew the answer to the question. Who is my neighbor? I suspect he thought of other Jews, people who are part of the covenant community, people like himself.
Jesus upends this understanding of the neighbor by making the Samaritan the protagonist of the parable. Jews and Samaritans hated each other. If you recall our text from Ash Wednesday (Luke 9:51-62), when Jesus and his disciples sought hospitality from a Samaritan village, they were denied. James and John were so angered by the Samaritans' rejection that they begged Jesus to call down fire from heaven to destroy them. One would take such drastic action only against mortal enemies. Animosity had existed between the Jews and the Samaritans for centuries. The Northern Kingdom of Israel, with its capital and temple in Samaria, was conquered by the Assyrian empire. The Assyrians deported half the population and replaced them with other citizens from the empire. Over time, the remaining Jews intermarried with the new Gentile population. Eventually they established their own religion and built their own temple on Mount Gerizim. From the vantage point of the Jews, Samaritans were heretical half-breeds. The Samaritans for their part harbored similar distaste for the Jews.
The parable must have been shocking to the lawyer and to all who heard it. Just substitute a person you hold in contempt for the Samaritan. Then, read the parable, and you will get a sense of its shock value. Furthermore, the priest and the Levite are portrayed in an unflattering manner. In their defense, they were probably afraid that if they stopped to help, a similar fate might befall them. The robbers might still be lurking in the rocky landscape, or perhaps the stricken man was part of a ruse to catch unsuspecting travelers by playing on their sympathy.
But the Samaritan was not intimidated by such prospects. He placed himself in potential danger and extravagantly used his own resources to rescue the hapless fellow. Not only did he administer first aid, but he brought the man to an inn and took care of him personally. He even paid the inn keeper two days' wages (probably enough to put him up for a week) and promised to pay any other expenses that might accrue.
Interestingly, Jesus does not answer the lawyer’s question. In verse 36, Jesus asked the lawyer another question. “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The lawyer was forced to acknowledge that the one who showed mercy was a good neighbor. You see, the question is not, “Who is my neighbor?” but “Am I a good neighbor?” That is the enormously important question.
Jesus said to the lawyer, and he says to us, “Go and do likewise.” Brothers and sisters, friends, Jesus is the Good Samaritan who is always there for us. Jesus is the way we inherit eternal life. He can bind up our wounds with the wine and the oil of the Holy Spirit. He can carry us when we are half-dead. He can place us in his church for us to heal. He paid the price necessary for our salvation by dying and rising again for us. The question for us is not, “Who is my neighbor?” Do not fall into that trap of setting boundaries and creating divisions. The real question is, “Am I a good neighbor?”
By God’s grace and power, we can become Good Samaritans. As Jesus was and is, so we are in this world of sin, suffering, and death. Our destiny is to inherit eternal life and to be a neighbor to the needy God places in our paths. This is our hope and our calling.
To God be the glory. Indeed, great things he hath done. God loved the world so much that he gave us his son. Let us in turn give ourselves for the life of this broken and hurting world.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.