In today’s reading from the gospel of Luke we heard one of the best known stories of the Bible. In fact the story is so well know that some countries actually refer to certain laws about helping others as ‘Good Samaritan’ laws.
People who are not Christians understand what it means when you say to them that we should be like the Good Samaritan. From our childhood days in Sunday School this story is used to indoctrinate us with the message about helping others and preacher after preacher will buy into the myth of the Good Samaritan.
All of this means that you and I have our work cut out for us this morning as we sit under God’s Word on this day and seek to listen to what this story is really about. We have our work cut out for us because today we are going to unlearn the myth of altruism attached to the parable and listen for what the Bible and Jesus are actually saying.
The story from Luke does not begin with Jesus randomly telling a story to his disciples, rather we hear that a lawyer comes to test Jesus. We are told this from the outset. The motivation of the lawyer, most likely a Pharisee, is probably to bring Jesus down. He asks, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Notice the question implies that he thinks that he has it within his power to inherit eternal life.
This questioning of the lawyer sets up a legal debate. The lawyer is Jesus’ adversary. Those of you who know your Old Testament well may also know that the legal word in the Hebrew translated as ‘adversary’ is also the word from which we derive Satan. This may or may not have been implied but it is certainly an interesting footnote.
The other thing which might be making an avid New Testament reader squirm is that in the story of Jesus’ temptations found in Luke 3 Jesus’ declares, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ If we as readers of the story understand that Jesus is truly God then the lawyer is indeed taking the place of God’s adversary. He is putting God in Jesus to the test. This simple story is looking as if there may be a lot more to it.
Jesus knows the lawyer’s game. He responds to the question with one of his own. “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” The lawyer answers, “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 neighbour as yourself.” No problems here this is what the law teaches. Deuteronomy 6:5 says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” Whilst Leviticus 19:18 gives the instruction, “Love your neighbour as yourself.”
As an aside we as Christians also know that Jesus summarises the law with these two commandments in both Matthew and Mark. This is a poignant moment for us as listeners and students of the Bible. Just being able to parrot the passage does not mean that we have comprehension. And, may I say like the lawyer we have a tendency to misinterpret the meaning to suit our own ends just as the lawyer does.
Jesus instructs him, “do this and you will live.”
The lawyer knows that he has not bested Jesus in the way he sought so he seeks to justify himself. To be justified means to be made right in God’s eyes. Thus, the lawyer asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?”
From his perspective the lawyer probably knew whom his neighbours were - Israelites. In Leviticus 19:18 the term used for neighbour is a synonym for brother. Who is my brother - none other than those who share my blood - other Jews! The development of the Jewish laws that arose from the Torah reflected this ideal. The neighbour is my fellow Jew, and to some extent those others who live among us and with us.
This is the point at which Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan. At the heart of the story lies the answer to the lawyer’s question about his neighbour. This question ultimately has come from his question about being right with God.
So Jesus tells this parable.
A man, undoubtedly a Jew, is travelling the road from
Jericho to and is attacked. He is left broken and bleeding beside the
road. Unless help arrives we can assume
he will die. Jerusalem
A man comes travelling past, he is a priest, and seeing this fellow Jew bludgeoned and bleeding on the ground he skirts by on the other side. It is possible that this has to do with purification laws and the priest keeping himself clean according to the law. But remember this man will probably die unless he gets help. The behaviour of the priest is highly questionable.
Likewise a Levite, also a holy man, travels by and when he came to the place the man was he passed by on the other side too. The very laws that Jesus affirmed at the beginning may in fact also be the laws that are holding back these fellow Jews from helping the man.
The story could have got predictable then. What the audience might have expected to come over the hill was an ordinary Jew. This would have made Jesus’ story an attack on the religious leaders and the legalism that had developed within Judaism. But here comes the surprise over the hill coming down the road is a Samaritan, technically a dire enemy to the Jewish people.
To give you some context of the feeling that was being evoked here, just pause for a moment and consider who you may have been taught to hate as a child. Who were told not to hang around with? Who generates the most fear for you? Whoever you have a secret hatred or dislike for, your deepest fears and loathing’s about, that is who is coming over the hill – the enemy!
The Samaritan helped the man. He was moved with pity. He bandaged the man. He put oil on his wounds. He placed him on his donkey. He took him to an inn. He placed him there and paid for him. And not only that, he promised to pay whatever it cost so that the man would be fully healed. He promised to pay whatever it cost so that the man could be fully healed!
“Who is the neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” Jesus asks the lawyer. The answer is obvious, the answer is the Samaritan. The one, who is the enemy, or adversary, is the neighbour to the one in need. Remember the lawyer’s question was ‘who is my neighbour?’ Jesus is clearly identifying the lawyer with the man who was robbed. Jesus associates the lawyer with the one who was helpless, the one who needed mercy and could not save himself. Jesus is subtly pointing out that the lawyer is not justified by his actions but is in need of mercy from the one that he is treating as his adversary.
Jesus is the Good Samaritan. Jesus is the one who comes to bring help to this broken and battered and bruised man who cannot help himself. The very language of the parable confirms this possibility. The use of the Greek word which we have translated as ‘pity’ is elsewhere only used in the scriptures to described Jesus or God’s compassion.
What can the lawyer do to inherit eternal life? Jesus’ parable reveals that the lawyer can do nothing to inherit eternal life; rather he must rely on God’s mercy. Jesus reveals that the lawyer, despite his knowledge of the law of loving God and loving the neighbour, still sees God as his adversary and stands in need of God’s mercy. This is the heart of the story, we cannot earn our way into eternal life it is a gift of God’s grace. As Christians the only person that we can fully identify with in the story is the lawyer, the one who sees Jesus as his adversary.
We behave like the lawyer. We ask the same questions for our own ends. How will I get into heaven? Am I doing the right things? Do I help the right people? Can I do it myself? In these questions we seek to justify ourselves. And, like the other men in the story, we walk past people in great need everyday. All of us do. We participate in a culture that encourages us to see those in need as deserving their predicament. As much as we think we are friends of Jesus’ and that we love God our love is marred by our sin and we cannot alter that situation through what we do, we are helpless.
Like the lawyer most of us think that we are good people and that we do not need to be helped by the neighbour, Jesus. In this we treat Jesus as our adversary. The promise of God is that the Samaritan has come down to us and helped us. Jesus gets down into the gutter of our existence for our sake. He emptied himself taking the form of a slave to bring healing to our broken and bleeding lives. He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. Not only does Jesus come, like the Samaritan, as our helper he also experiences what it means to be the man in the ditch as he gives his life for our sake.
This is God’s mercy and it is because of this mercy that we can come into God’s presence giving thanks and praise. The story of the lawyer and his question shows to us that despite our perceived goodness we are in desperate need of God’s love and mercy.
Jesus’ final direction to the lawyer is somewhat ambiguous. He says go and do likewise. Does he mean by this go loving your neighbour? This would mean go loving Jesus rather than treating him as an adversary. Does he mean, go showing mercy with a new understanding of who is neighbours are? This would mean go realising your own need of mercy and use that as the yardstick for whom you recognise as your neighbour. Or does he mean, go with the understanding that there is nothing that he can do to inherit eternal life? This would mean go trusting in God’s grace. There appears to be elements of all of these meanings in Jesus’ instruction.
Ultimately we cannot ‘do’ something to inherit eternal life, and most of us hate this lack of control, yet we have still been invited to enter into God’s eternity and live lives shaped by what has been done for us. Essentially the parable answers a question about righteousness with the promise of grace.
Through centuries this understanding of the parable that we have heard today has been lost and superseded. As one commentator suggests, “Better to champion the Samaritan as our ethical exemplar than to admit our vulnerability and need of grace to restore our capacity to continue a long and treacherous journey.” This story isn’t about making you feel guilty about who you help and who you don’t. This story is about God’s love for even those who would test God and be God’s adversaries, lawyers, listeners, everyday people, you and I, Satan. If it changes the way we live knowing of God’s love and mercy for us then this is to the glory of the one who saves us from our self-righteous imprisonment. Take a few moments to contemplate God’s word to you this day.