The Gospel of Luke chapter 10 verses 25 to 37. English Standard Version*
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 neighbour 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 neighbour?” 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 neighbour 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.”
*The Holy Bible, English Standard Version copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
The parable of the Good Samaritan © Parva Press
The key to this parable, which is only recorded by Luke, is to note that it is wrapped in a conversation – and that a question during that conversation caused the Lord Jesus to tell it. If we look at the parable apart from the conversation we will only learn to, ’go and do good, like the Samaritan.’ There are greater depths to it than that! So, may I invite you to look at the first part of the conversation, the parable, the concluding conversation and pictures from the parable?
First, the conversation
The conversation opens with the lawyer courteously and apparently innocently asking what he must do, or rather ‘must have done,’ to inherit eternal life; to please God here and hereafter. Actually, the question was a cunning test put by an expert representing the religious leaders, to see if the Lord Jesus was challenging their teaching. They taught that eternal life was to be obtained by the detailed keeping of the Law as expanded and defined in their traditions. If he was bringing any different teaching, the lawyer’s question would lay it bare and they could charge him with heresy. If he was teaching what was already well recognised, his teaching could be exposed as needless.
The underlying assumption of the lawyer and his fellow religious leaders was that, by ‘religious observance,’ they could make themselves righteous. They could make themselves acceptable before Almighty God and so ‘deserve’ eternal life; the life that is pleasing to God here and now and that not even death can snatch away.
At a genuinely spiritual level, his question, ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ was a most important question and one which we each need to ask. But we will never tremble and do so, until the Holy Spirit opens our eyes to see that our very breath is in the hand of Almighty God; that we are answerable to him and that we desperately do need to be right with him. Until then, we will think nothing of it and carry on living in God’s world as if there were no God to whom we are accountable; a recipe for disaster.
Sadly, the question on the lips of the lawyer completely lost any spiritual value as it was asked not for his own learning and eternal well-being but to tempt and trap the Lord Jesus. In the same way, if we reduce serious spiritual questions, to malicious or casual debating points, we must not be surprised if we empty the gospel of God of its power to help and rescue us.
The Lord Jesus replied, in effect, ‘You are the specialist’ and invited the lawyer to answer his own question. Not by asking for his considered opinion, nor by asking for the teaching of ‘the church’: his religious contemporaries, but by asking, ‘In regard to this, what has the Lord God caused to be written?’ If we would truly lay hold of eternal life on God’s terms, and avoid a sea of competing human traditions and opinions, all claiming equal validity, this is the question we must ask. ‘What has the Lord God himself caused to be written?’ The Bible was written ‘for our learning’ so that by reading or hearing its message, we might lay hold of everlasting life.
Intellectually, the lawyer gave an excellent answer. He offered the two greatest principles of the Law which carry all the rest of the laws with them and put them in their rightful priority and place. The first great principle, from Deuteronomy, is to enthrone the Lord God, not ourselves, in key position, pole position in our lives; submitting all to him; mind, heart and will – our decisions, our work and our career, our money and our leisure. The second, from Leviticus, is to care about those around us in the way that we so easily and naturally care for ourselves; to wish well to all and ill to none; like our Lord, to go about doing good not hurt, to be as generous and forgiving of others as we naturally are of ourselves.
The lawyer came to tempt and yet what he said was excellent and our Lord acknowledged it and indeed quoted the same two passages when he was challenged to define the greatest commandment in the Law.
If we re-define ‘love for God’ as an occasional nod in his direction, maybe on Sundays, and re-define ‘neighbour’ as those nice people next door, it is not difficult to keep these principles. Although extreme, this is how the religious leaders worked. The traditional teaching defined ‘love toward God’ as ritual observance of the law, and ‘love toward neighbour’ as concerning only certain limited groups. The great principles, as God gave them, had no such boundaries.
The challenge to the lawyer came in the next breath. It was not intellectual but personal. ‘Do this and you will live’; a command to actually do it, not just to know the great principles but in practice to love the Lord God with all of his being and to love his neighbour, whoever he may be, continuously and life-long in the way in which he loved himself.
Not surprisingly, the lawyer did not like it. It was much too personal and direct. He wanted to escape such a personal challenge, as many of us do. Like the lawyer, when our lives are put under the searchlight of God, we all fall very far short. Only the perfect Son of God could, and actually did, live these principles to the full. The challenge to the lawyer, and to each one of us, should drive us to cry to the Lord God for mercy. The challenge to continuously and completely love God and neighbour plainly shows us that we can never merit eternal life; it is the gift given by the mercy and kindness of Almighty God.
Seeing that he might be forced to admit his failure and seek God’s way of forgiveness, the lawyer swiftly changed the subject. ‘But wishing to justify himself he asked, ‘’Who is my neighbour?’’ . . .’ Look to your own heart. Do we not much prefer to justify ourselves than admit our need of forgiveness?
Over the centuries, the religious leaders had worked on this, debating, ‘Who should be pulled out of a ditch and who not,’ and made their traditional definition of neighbour relatively neat, narrow and easy to keep. You only needed to regard as neighbour a fellow member of God’s ancient people and even then not if he was a sinner or heretic. So, should you come across a gentile on the point of death there was no obligation to help to save his life; it was expendable because he was not one of God’s chosen ones. Here was a terribly perverted, false conclusion derived from wonderful truth. It grew out of God’s ancient people keeping holy, separate, but it grew into a horrid national pride. God chooses whom he will. In every age God’s people are called to be holy, but that does not make them superior or lessen their responsibility to care for those about them also made in the image of God.
So to the parable itself
The Lord Jesus answered the lawyer’s question, not with a list of those he must care about and those he could ignore, as the lawyer was expecting, but with a parable which swept aside such limiting interpretation of the great principle. The scene could very easily be pictured as there were constant incidents – a man on the road to Jericho, a notorious, bandit-ridden route, suddenly surrounded by a band of thugs, mugged, robbed, stripped, wounded and left for dead.
Along came a priest, ’by chance;’ I love that, it only occurs here in the gospels, a coincidence under the sovereign hand of God as are so many of our God-given appointments and opportunities. Apparently this road from Jerusalem was constantly used by the priests and Levites as they came on and off duty at the temple. Along came first a priest then a Levite, returning home to Jericho. These were men who taught others the great principles spelled out by the lawyer. Men who theoretically knew the principles very well and could have put them into practice by helping the wounded man – but each of them failed to do so. Their traditional teaching excused them; was he one of them, was he a sinner? Stripped and unconscious, there was no telling.
The priest, a man of character and social standing, would hardly have been on foot or alone for the 17 mile, 3,000 ft descent through very dangerous territory. In a similar manner a priest’s assistant a Levite passed, he had more freedom under the rules and took a closer look, but also passed by. Basically the two men in the Lord’s parable did not want to know, did not want to get involved and could undoubtedly have supplied many good, practical and religious reasons why they should not. For example, the man was unknown, there were robbers about, they had business to attend to, and as Kenneth Bailey points out, they must not defile themselves or they would be unable to perform their religious role and would alienate themselves from their supporting community of fellow clergy. Personally, ridding themselves of any ceremonial defilement would prove costly. However, their ‘rule-book religion’ had overturned the great principle. The great principle needs to govern the lesser ones not the other way round, as it must for us. For example if our small house rules state that we must not get our shoes muddy, that must not stop us from rescuing a little child stuck in a mire if we are safely able to do so.
These men, although very religious, had no heart for the ordinary man in trouble even when they could help. Here in the Lord’s parable was a stinging reflection on the lawyer; an arrow to his heart as he was, of course, a member of the same clerical class. And maybe a challenge to ourselves; is there a unity and a continuity, between our ‘religious life and words’ and the way we actually treat people Monday to Saturday?
Alexander Mclaren points out that if the description of the two heartless religious leaders was offensive, how much more the next scene!
If there was one group of people the religious leaders absolutely despised, it was the Samaritans. As they rejected and despised the Lord himself, they cast the slur at him that he was one. Yet following the dramatic failure of the priest and Levite, here is a Samaritan pictured as ‘a man after God’s own heart’; filled with love for God and love for his fellow human beings. The Samaritan when he saw the half-dead victim was moved with compassion – as was our Lord himself over the ordinary people left like sheep without a shepherd and later over Jerusalem destined, by its wilful rejection of him, to be destroyed. We would say, ‘he was cut to the heart’. The ancients said, ‘cut to the bowels,’ his was gut-wrenching compassion, he was churned up inside at the sight of a man in such great trouble. His compassion expressed itself not just in kind words or ‘a promise to pray for him’ but with practical, costly and time-consuming help. His business had to wait while he attended to the needs of this stranger in such trouble. He himself was a prime target for robbers, yet he stopped, cleaned, disinfected, sealed and bound-up the man’s wounds, set him on his own beast and brought him to a place of safety. At the inn he personally cared for him. Maybe of necessity, for inns were not always good places to be. When he left next morning, as if the man was his own son, he paid for his care till the man was well enough to be on his way, making sure he was not trapped as a debtor for, having been robbed, he had no means to pay. Should his stay need to be longer there was the promise of settlement of any outstanding charges.
The conversation concluded and the parable applied
In the conversation that follows the parable, the Lord Jesus reshapes the lawyer’s question, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ to, ‘To whom am I to be neighbour?’ and draws the answer to from the lawyer’s own lips. Somewhat uncomfortably and grudgingly to the question of our Lord, ‘Who proved neighbour?’ He answers, ‘The one who showed mercy.’ He could just not bring himself to say, ‘the Samaritan,’ but he had to accept the challenge to go and do likewise . . . even if that meant helping a despised Samaritan should he find one in desperate need.
The compassion pictured in the parable knows no bounds, it is not restricted by our busyness or the cost or the rules of ‘our community’. Here is a foretaste of the kingdom of heaven, godly loving concern for one another, with every human barrier removed.
The lawyer who, with his great knowledge, came to test the Lord Jesus Christ is caused to learn from a despised Samaritan! Before the One with whom we have to deal, the pride of man is brought very low.
Pictures from the parable
We do not know to what extent the Lord intended to reveal his own heart and purpose to this unfriendly lawyer, who might never-the-less, in later years, reflect on the encounter. But we do know that Christian eyes throughout the running centuries have seen, in the compassion and costly care freely given by the Good Samaritan, a picture of the Lord Jesus himself. Although some interpreters have pressed this far too far, there are many parallels.
The Lord lived as he taught others to do. As he taught the lawyer compassion through this parable, so he showed compassion again and again throughout his earthly ministry. So we are justified in noting parallels between the compassion of the Samaritan and that of the Lord in order to stir us to gratitude for what he has done for us.
When, like the wounded victim on the road, we come to the end of our own self-help and, maybe to our horror, find formal, legalistic religion an absolute failure, then and only then will we cast ourselves on the Living God. Gasping to God, our last and only hope, for help and mercy then, and only then, the Lord Jesus draws near. He sees us in our helpless extremity and has compassion on us. He personally rescues us. The rescue is very costly and all at his expense; his own life laid down for us. Finally, taking us into his safe care, he continues to make provision for us and to care for us as a father would for his own son.
Reflections like these can drive us to wonder and amazement. Why did the very Son of God bother with me? Why did he not pass me by? Why did he choose me and with such costly love make me one of his precious rescued people, a child of the living God?
How can I love him enough in return? How can I serve him with every breath and all the energy I have? How can I spend my remaining days poured out in gratitude to him?
Says Leon Morris, ‘This kind of love is our response to God’s love for us, not the cause of his acceptance of us.’ How very different it is from the lawyer’s route of detailed religious observance in order to earn eternal life; his striving to earn God’s favour – a desperately empty and ultimately fruitless religious quest – yet still pursued by countless people many of whom who would count themselves to be followers of Jesus.
The out-pouring of the heart in overwhelming gratitude is the hallmark of every true Christian believer. It is to be inwardly driven and enabled by the Holy Spirit to begin to love God with all our heart and mind and strength and to be awakened to begin to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. As the apostle Paul puts it, it is, ’the love of God shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who is given to us;’ an awareness of God’s love for us, a love for him in response and a love for those around us. Here are the two great principles quoted by the lawyer, joyfully fulfilled out of an overwhelming sense of gratitude and by the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives. Love like this toward God and neighbour is a foretaste of the kingdom of heaven.
Heavenly Father set our hearts and minds and lives ablaze with love for you. By your Holy Spirit, give us eyes to see, ears to hear and hearts to respond to the secret cries of those you would have us help. Cause your kingdom to come, your will to be done, beginning in our hearts and lives.
Love toward God, Deuteronomy, 6:5
Love toward neighbour, Leviticus 19:18
The greatest commandment, Matthew 22:36, Mark 12:28
This people honours me, Isaiah 29:13
A man after God’s own heart, 1 Samuel 13:14
Sheep without a shepherd, Matthew 9:36
Compassion for Jerusalem, Luke 19:41-44
Love of God shed abroad or poured into our hearts, Romans 5:5
Questions for discussion
- Is it possible to be sincere and earnest in religious observance without any evidence of vital love toward the Lord God or other people?
- Why do we need the Holy Spirit to open our eyes before we will genuinely ask the lawyer’s question?
- How can we discern true godliness from the great variety of opinions and church teachings around us?
- Do we, like the lawyer, set limits to make these great principles of God’s Law ‘manageable’?
- Are we willing to face the direct challenges of Scripture?
- Do we prefer to deflect the challenges of the Bible; justify ourselves and change the subject?
- Can even being a child of God feed human pride and cause people to look down on others?
- To whom are we to be neighbours? Is that always going to be comfortable?
- What would the world be like if the two principles the lawyer quoted were practised by all of us?
- Can you identify with the picture of the Lord Jesus himself as the Good Samaritan?