The parable of the Good Samaritan is generally understood to be an ethical teaching of Jesus that challenges us to love our neighbor better. Most teachings on the parable are moralistic, leaving the impression that the imperative to “go and do likewise” is the sole aim of what Jesus is attempting to accomplish in telling the story.
But have we missed the greater lesson of what Jesus is impressing upon the hearer in this well-known story? Is the parable simply intended to press upon us the responsibility to love better? To answer this question, there is required a careful reflection of the context into which this parable comes. The parable is a surprising response to someone who understood well the demand of the law to love, but had failed to see how far he missed the mark of love in his own life.
An Issue of Justification
Luke 10:25-37 records for us that a certain lawyer approached Jesus to test him about how one can obtain eternal life. The lawyer specifically asks Jesus what he must “do to inherit eternal life.” When Jesus answers specific questions posed to him in the synoptic gospels, it is important to reflect carefully on the question that is being asked of Jesus. If the question being posed is not understood, the exegesis that follows will be faulty.
In this case, the lawyer asks the very same question of the rich young ruler, “what must I do to inherit eternal life”—two verbs. This is an entirely different question than those who asked Jesus for mercy, as with blind Bartimaeus, or others who, as in the book of Acts, asked what they must do to be saved. Humble approaches to Jesus by those who asked for mercy and deliverance from sin received compassionate responses. This lawyer, however, was asking Jesus how, through his own efforts, he could achieve eternal life, not salvation.
The lawyer bypassed the question of his own need for deliverance, a detail that is obviously so important to Luke that he adds, for proper interpretive purposes, that he was “attempting to justify (δικαιῶσαι) himself (Lk. 10:29).” When standing before the only one who supplies the righteousness that comes from God, any attempt to justify oneself was immediately met with the full weight of the laws demands.
Upon asking for eternal life, Jesus poses as question of his own: “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” The lawyer responds by citing Deut.6:5, the great Shema, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart will all your soul, with all your strength and with all your mind and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus responds from Leviticus 18:5 with a perennial blow that should have made any Israelite tremble: “do this and you will live.”
Jesus’ use of Leviticus 18:5 in this context is a direct response to lawyer attempting to justify himself in asking Jesus for eternal life based his own merits. This demonstrates that any attempt to self-justify oneself before God to achieve eternal life is always met with the divine standard of perfect and complete obedience. Jesus was not mincing words, he answered the lawyer by saying “if you do this, you will have the eternal life that you are seeking.”
Jesus Tells a Story
The glaring omission in the dialogue, unlike that of the rich young ruler who openly said he obeyed the law, is the silence of the lawyer with regard to his own performance of love. The problem, as much of the rabbinic tradition evidences, is that a neighbor was only understood to be a fellow Jew. The question is whether Leviticus 19:8, in its command to love one’s neighbor, only intended love to be exercised for a fellow Israelite, as the Rabbinic writings indicate, or did it demand love for all peoples. To answer this question, Jesus now tells the parable of the Good Samaritan.
Jesus tells the story of a Jewish man from Israel who was beaten by a bunch of thugs and left for dead on the side of the road. First, a priest walks by, then a Levite, both of whom were set apart in the service of the Lord to minister to the needs of the people. Both pass by refusing to love the beaten man. The surprise of the parable is that the one who showed love was a Samaritan. Jesus says that he went to the man, “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.”
It is well known that Jews and Samaritans hated one another. Yet, it was the Samaritan who welled up with compassion for the afflicted Jew, showing true love for his broken condition, as he helped him, even promising to return to him. Jesus then asks a crucial question, “Which of these do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers? (Lk 10:36).”
It is generally assumed that the neighbor is the man beaten by the side of the road who we are being challenged by Jesus to love. But this is not what Jesus asks as he presses the lawyer with the question of who proved to be the neighbor to the beaten man. Who is the neighbor, Jesus asks? The lawyer answers correctly; the neighbor is the Good Samaritan who showed mercy. The Samaritan loved, bandaged, and promised to return to the man, when everyone else had passed him by. What a remarkable moment, it was the Samaritan who loved the Jew fulfilling the intent of the law to love one’s neighbor.
The Identity of the Good Samaritan
If eternal life is achieved based on the performance of love, Jesus’ parable has eliminated this possibility for the lawyer. What is clear is that Jewish expressed hatred for Samaritans was a direct violation of the law which demanded love for all peoples, even one’s enemies. Strangely bypassed in the lawyer’s question, however, is the first and greatest commandment that one should love God with all his heart. The first commandment is entirely sidestepped in this exchange by the lawyer, but not by Jesus.
Here a much bigger problem has arisen for the lawyer when asking how the Jews were treating Jesus himself. We read in John’s gospel that the Jewish leaders were constantly attacking Jesus as having a demon, and derogatorily labeling him as a Samaritan. “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon (Jn. 8:48). “
With this understanding, the overall picture becomes clear. The pejorative label of Samaritan that was given to Jesus is something that Jesus employs to press on them the question as to whether they are truly loving God and neighbor. The very one they are hating and labeling as a Samaritan, is the one demonstrating true love and is fulfilling the law. And who is this one they have hated and would murder themselves? It was God himself who came to broken, needy sinners as he bandaged, helped, loved them, and then promised to come back to take them to himself.
The story has exposed that the religious leaders in Israel have failed to love God and neighbor for eternal life. In fact, all of us are under this indictment, for as Peter preached on Pentecost, we took this “Good Samaritan” and we beat him leaving him dead by the side of the road, or using Peter’s words, “we crucified and killed Jesus by the hands of lawless men (Acts 2:23).”
We have not loved God and neighbor when faced with the great demand of love to inherit eternal life. The remarkable good news of the parable is that a savior has come to us who demonstrated true love for broken people who were dead in trespasses and sins by the side of the road. It is Jesus himself in binding up the broken who promises to come again and receive us to himself.
Its only when we are saved by the grace of God, having been banged and delivered, that then, and only then, as the love of God is poured out into our hearts, justified by his grace, and raised up brand new, that sincere love can flow from our hearts to God and neighbor. Then, we “go and do likewise.” And, just as Jesus said, in feeding and clothing the broken as those who are redeemed, we are actually doing it unto him (see Matt. 25). Sincere and true love of God and neighbor naturally flows out of a redeemed heart in gratitude for the love that has been received from God in Christ.
Eternal life on our own merits is impossible for a people who by nature hate God and neighbor. Salvation is brought to us by a Good Samaritan who showed us mercy and promises to return for us to take us into eternal life. We demonstrate that we are right with God, not in trying to justify ourselves, but when we love God and neighbor with this kind of humility, recognizing with great awe that we were the ones beat up and left for dead because of sin, and that it was Jesus himself who crossed the road from heaven to save us.