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Like a good neighbor, Jesus is there.
Getting the right context for the Good Samaritan story.
Of the many things that derail Christ-followers in their pursuit of God, perhaps the most devastating and defeating is to incessantly read the Scriptures as if they’re all about you. I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating — The Bible is not about you! Yes, the Bible is for you, but it’s not about you. All of Scripture is about Jesus — the perfect manifestation of God’s grace and love and redemption. Every page whispers the name of Christ, and, indeed, serves as a beautiful portrait of the Christ, the Great Deliverer and Rescuer of dead and lost souls.
What derails believers in their quest to become more like God’s Son is to see every figure in the Bible as one whom they should emulate or “worship.” Too often, the characters and figures in the Scriptures become “heroes of the faith,” and are idolized way above and beyond their proper place. In reality, the people of Scripture are included in the canon to point us to Jesus, for he is the true and better version of every figure in the Bible. The climax of every theme in the Bible is Jesus Christ and the gospel of inexhaustible grace that he effectually secured on the cross. Thus, in your reading of Scripture, if you don’t come away amazed by God’s grace or worshiping his Son’s love, you’ve probably interpreted the passage incorrectly. And this is precisely what we have commonly done with such a passage as Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan.
But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 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 neighbor 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.” (Luke 10:29–37)
The persistent interpretation of this story is for us to see ourselves as the kind and generous and merciful Samaritan, and if we’re not measuring up to his kindness and generosity, then we’re failing. “Be like the Good Samaritan!” Sunday School teachers everywhere declare. “Be nice to your neighbors, just like he was, and then you’ll be a good Christian.” This sort of moralization of this story (and numerous others like it) is dangerous and detrimental to believers at any stage of spiritual growth.
The larger story.
In a vacuum, reading this parable and coming away with “Be like the Good Samaritan” would be okay, honorable even, if the passage was isolated to just those few referenced verses. However, just like in real estate, where the three most important words are “Location! Location! Location!” the three most important words to remember when interpreting Scripture are, “Context! Context! Context!” That’s Hermeneutics 101 (scholarly word for interpreting the Bible). It’s important not to come to any portion of Scripture with any preconceived notions as to what that particular passage might be saying, but rather, to just let it say what it says. This might sound rudimentary, but too often we get trapped in a particular hermeneutic that essentially puts God in a box. Any passage that aligns with that interpretation is expounded and praised, while all others that seem uncomfortable or conflicting are avoided. The context of this parable is crucial. What drove Jesus to tell this story? Because it’s not merely the lawyer’s question, “And who’s my neighbor?” We have to go to the previous exchange between Christ and this lawyer in the preceding verses.
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 neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” (Luke 10:25–28)
As was always the case, the scribes and Pharisees desired to “test” Jesus and his interpretation of the law, inferring that if he rejected one tenet of it that they could discredit his ministry and Messianic claims. They were always seeking to deconstruct Jesus’s views of the law, primarily because his message of grace was so radical. But over and over again, Jesus placated to their “tests” and left them dumbfounded, speechless. The same holds true here, where a lawyer wishing “to test Jesus” stands and asks Christ, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” This is not a new question, as he’s been confronted with it on numerous occasions (Matt. 19:16–22; Luke 18:18–23; John 3:1–15). And, similarly, Jesus turns the question around and drives the inquirer back to the law. “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” I think Jesus was amused by such an inquiry concerning the law coming from one who was a supposed “expert” on it. This lawyer responds correctly, though, citing from Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18, as to the summary of the Mosaic Law. And Jesus affirms his response, stating, “do this and you will live.”
But the lawyer persists, and instead of responding to such an overwhelming answer with “How can I do this? I’m not able to love like that — I need help,” he retorts with, “And who’s my neighbor?” By this, he was attempting to defend himself, “justify himself,” as the text says. The implications of Jesus’s words is that to “inherit eternal life,” you have to be perfect. You have to love God perfectly, and love your neighbors perfectly, not thinking of yourself at all. Moreover, not only must your actions be perfect, but your motivations too! Your love for God and others must be motivated, not out of something you can get for yourself, but only that which you can give for them. It’s the summary of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48).
The crux of the story.
It’s the audacity of this lawyer that sparks Jesus to tell the parable of the good Samaritan. Much like the audacity of the rich young ruler, who asked the same question of Jesus (Luke 18:18–23), and was, likewise, met with the same response (“Keep the law and keep it perfectly”), when he says, “All these I have kept from my youth” (Luke 18:21) — “I’ve done all that, I’ve obeyed these commands since I was a boy.” It’s a gross disservice of God’s Word to come away from it and think, “Yeah, I’ve got this.” We’re perverting the law of God if we think, as this lawyer did, and as did the rich young ruler, that we can keep it, that we can do it. The point of this story isn’t to show you how you can become like the Good Samaritan, it’s to show you just how far from being the Good Samaritan you actually are.
The application of this parable isn’t a horizontal one, but a vertical one — it’s not dealing with our sanctification, but our justification. For, wasn’t that the lawyer’s question, as he sought to “justify himself”? Therefore, we aren’t to see ourselves as the Good Samaritan, nor even as the priest and the Levite, but as the traveler, who’s beaten, bruised, stripped, and left for dead. That’s us — we’re bloodied and battered, crushed by sin, and left helpless, lying in our own filth, bereft of hope and life. Because of sin and our rebellion against God and rejection of the Son, we’re utterly and completely powerless. We’re destitute and desperate, paralyzed by unbelief, impotent to attain any merit for ourselves. We’re incapable of saving or justifying or rescuing ourselves. No amount of law-keeping or religious-following can deliver us. If you’re depending on these pillars of piety and religiosity, you will fall, and when you come to end of days, God will greet you with those solemn words, “I never knew you; depart from me” (Matt. 7:21–23).
The better Good Samaritan.
You see, Jesus is the Good Samaritan — he’s the only One who can save us, heal us, restore us, deliver us, and rescue us. By his relentless grace, he comes to those who need him most: the lost, the broken, the weary, the tired, the spent (Ezek. 34:11, 16; Luke 19:10; Matt. 9:12–13). God sees us, in a mess, in shambles, in the mayhem that we’ve created, and he comes to us! Jesus comes and invites us, not to work to ascend to God, but only that we’d fall on his grace. He comes down, not to the clean, but to the dirty; not to the healthy, but to the sick; not to the righteous, but to the unrighteous.
While we incessantly seek to save and justify ourselves by some sort of merit we think we can earn, Jesus perpetually shows us that our shoddy attempts to do so will never measure up. Like the lawyer, we think that our pursuit of perfection is what saves us. That we can achieve the standard of the law by our own strength and effort and labor. That the law of God is attainable and keepable. But the good news of this story, and the good news of Scripture, is that we don’t measure up. And we never can. We aren’t like the Good Samaritan, but Jesus is. We can’t keep the law perfectly, but Jesus did. We can’t love like that, but Jesus does! And that’s what makes Christianity so special — it’s all about a Person. “The prerogative of our Christian faith,” proclaims Richard Trench, “the secret of its strength is, that all which it has, and all which it offers, is laid up in a living person . . . oh, how great the difference between submitting ourselves to a complex of rules, and casting ourselves upon a beating heart, between accepting a system and cleaving to a person!” (222). Christian, cleave not unto rules or creeds or regulations, but to a Person! A living, breathing, real Person who eternally loves us and who showers us infinitely in a fathomless grace.
Hope in condescension.
Our hope lies not in our ascension, but in God’s condescension. The good news of this parable, and the good news of the Bible is this cascading redemption, a salvation and rescue that comes earthward, to us. The story of the Bible is a “story of grace,” a story of God “meeting our rebellion with his rescue, our sin with his salvation, our guilt with his grace, our badness with his goodness. The overwhelming focus of the Bible is not the work of the redeemed but the work of the Redeemer” (Tchividjian, 31). So, while we may get distracted with our own self-salvation and self-justification endeavors, Jesus never loses grip on us. Never once does his love waver, nor is it hesitant. It comes one-way, with no red tape, no strings attached.
They may have lost sight of him, but not he of them. He sends out his grace in search of them. The Son of his bosom comes down in quest of them. He shrinks not from entering the place of exile. He becomes a banished man for them. He lives an exile’s life; he endures an exile’s shame; he dies an exile’s death; he is buried in an exile’s tomb. All for us, the outcasts, the exiles! He takes our place of banishment, that we may take his place in his Father’s many mansions. He stoops to our place of shame, that we may rise to his place of honour and glory. All that kept us in banishment, and that made it needful for God to banish us, he takes upon himself. (Bonar, 112–13)
Dear reader, cast yourself upon this Person, who took your place and demonstrated the perfect love and grace of the Father. Cling to he who is your Savior and Redeemer, the Hope of the Nations, the Gracious Samaritan, who’s come to us. For, there you’ll find the deliverance and rescue that you so long for.
Horatius Bonar, The Story of Grace (New York: Robert Carter & Bros., 1857).
Tullian Tchividjian, One Way Love: Inexhaustible Grace for an Exhausted World (Colorado Springs, Co: David C Cook, 2013).
Richard Trench, The Hulsean Lectures for 1845 and 1846 (London: MacMillan & Co., 1880).