Speaker : John Johnstone
We all know what a ‘good Samaritan’ is in our culture – someone who goes out of their way to help someone else. It’s someone who is caring and charitable. When we read through this parable, we might feel comfortable, or we might feel uncomfortable, or we might even feel challenged. I hope none of us feels too comfortable, thinking we are ‘really good’ at going out of our way to help others. Where do you place yourself in this story? Which one of the 3 men are you? This passage is about far more than being kind to people.
First, to the context. The expert in the law of God is asking Jesus about the way we can receive eternal life in Heaven. This is the hugely important context within which the parable is set. We need to think about how we can be right in the sight of God. Is it by living a good life? Is it by being a good Samaritan? Absolutely not!
I think one of the best ways to really understand the discussion between Jesus and the teacher of the law is to think about the 10 commandments. What do I mean by that? Well, this whole story is about God’s law. It’s crucial for us to understand that God’s law has more than one purpose, or function. For example, the law ‘do not murder’ has at least 3 different functions. It sets us all a standard, a moral standard, as to how we should live in a God-pleasing way. It also guides society as to how we should interact with one another. The sanctity of life ought to be very important in society. In this sense, God’s law helps to restrain evil in the world. Finally, God’s law shows us our sin, and should send us to Jesus the Saviour, as we begin to realise that we cannot keep it.
So, most of us have never murdered someone outwardly. However, Jesus says that if we are angry with one another (Matthew 5:22) we’ve broken this command in our hearts. The law is like an x-ray, showing all humans that there is something wrong with our hearts. They don’t work properly. When Paul says, ‘Husbands love your wives as Christ loved the church.’ (Ephesians 5:25) this tells me the way I ought to live, but it should also convict me of sin, and cause me to turn to Jesus for forgiveness and help.
In a nutshell, the law of God not only shows us how we should live, it also highlights the sin in our lives and our need of forgiveness, which in turn ought to send us to Jesus. Let me be blunt, every time we hear about God’s laws, we should become aware of our own wrongdoing. When I read the 1st command,’Have no other God before the Lord’, I ought to understand that I have broken that rule. Sometimes, other things take 1st place in my heart, the place God ought to have. When I read the 5th command, ‘Honour your parents” I need to see I’ve broken that one too. When I read the 10th command, ‘Don’t covet what others have’, that underlines the brokenness in my own heart.
The Bible makes it crystal clear that no one will receive eternal life from God by keeping the law really well. You cannot earn your way into Heaven. You cannot justify yourself before God.
‘Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.’ (Romans 3:20)
‘Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because ‘the righteous will live by faith.’ (Galatians 3:11)
1. An excellent question
In verse 25, we read of the teacher of the law asking Jesus a great question: ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ I wish more people in Fife asked this question today. In fact, I can’t think of a more important question in all that world to give our attention to. This life in the here-and-now is relatively short, but eternity is long. We want to make sure we have a right standing with God so we can enter Heaven, and not be left outside.
Sadly, the man seems to think there is something he can do to earn his place in Heaven. He says: ‘What must I do?’ Verse 25 also tells us why he asks the question – in order to test Jesus. It doesn’t seem as if he’s troubled by his own failings, or doubts that he’s a good person. I think this man wrongly believes he is a good man, and deserves a place in Heaven. We’re also told his motive for asking the question is so that he can ‘test’ Jesus (verse 25). He might think he’s testing Jesus, but Jesus will test him.
2. A surprising answer
Surprisingly, at one level, Jesus sends this man to the law of God. But haven’t we just read in Romans 3 and Galatians 3 that we cannot get to Heaven that way? Yes, we have. So why does Jesus do this? Jesus asks the teacher what the law says and the man accurately summarises God’s law by saying it’s about loving God and loving our neighbour. That is, indeed, a great summary. The first 4 commandments teach us how we should love God, and the next 6 teach us how we should love our neighbours. ‘You have answered correctly,’ Jesus replied. ‘Do this and you will live.’ (Verse 28)
Jesus’ answer is hypothetical. It is impossible love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and it is impossible to love our neighbours as ourselves. We cannot even do this for 1 day, far less for our whole lives. So, Jesus, speaking to this self-righteous man, tells him that to get to Heaven you need to completely and utterly, every day, love God and love your neighbour. Jesus says this is necessary, but he does not say it is possible.
Jesus, as he so often does when speaking to a self-righteous person, doesn’t begin by showing him the way to Heaven, but by showing him his great need of God’s forgiveness. How should the man have responded when he heard Jesus say ‘Do this and you shall live’? He ought to have fallen at Jesus feet, and said ‘I can’t do this Lord. I’m a sinner! My motives are always all over the place. I’ve had many idols in my life. I’m full of pride.’ But he doesn’t say any of these things.
Jesus’ words should have alarmed him as they underline his great need of forgiveness, but the man remains deceived. He is deceived because he thinks he’s a good man. ‘But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ (Verse 29)
What is going on here? Perhaps, the man is feeling a little guilty when he hears that we have to love our neighbours. If he’s able to keep the definition of neighbour as narrow as possible, then perhaps this law might seem more manageable, and more doable. For example, we need to love fellow pious Jews, and then we can get into Heaven. But Jesus is having none of it. Jesus tells this parable to show the man his sin and need of God’s grace.
3 A story helping us to see ourselves
This is one of the best-known parables in all the Bible. Jerusalem is 2700 ft above sea level and Jericho is 820 ft below sea level, so this is a 17 mile downhill journey, well known as a dangerous road where bandits would prey on passers-by. Many priests and Levites worked in Jerusalem in the temple but lived in Jericho, and so would regularly make this journey. A man has been attacked and is in urgent need of help.
The priest comes along, sees the injured man, but rather than helping him, passes by on the other side. He doesn’t want to get involved. He lacks the compassion and love and mercy to help. Perhaps he’s worried about becoming ceremonially unclean. Perhaps he’s worried he’ll be attacked too. But these are just excuses. He’s just come from the temple, where he’s been offering sacrifices to the Lord, and representing the people before the Lord, but when it comes down to it, he’s a hypocrite. His heart is cold. He does nothing to help.
The Levite responds in a similar way. He sees the man in desperate need. But he is indifferent. Both these religious men knew the law of God, and knew they ought to ‘love their neighbour as themselves’ (Lev 19 v18), but they fail to act.
You might think the next person to pass by would be an ordinary Jewish man, not part of the religious establishment. But Jesus shocks the hearers by bringing a despised Samaritan into the story. Jews considered Samaritans as half-breeds who had polluted the true worship of God. They were despised.
And yet, it was the Samaritan who is the hero in the story. He is the one who has true compassion. He is the one willing to sacrifice his own time and money to help someone in need. He is willing to be a neighbour to someone who despises him. Remember Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount: ‘43 ‘You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you….’ The Samaritan does just that.
When I read this parable, surely, I need to acknowledge that so often I have acted like the priest and the Levite. Oftentimes, I have not got involved and walked by on the other side. The same can be said of you. That’s the whole point of the story. This story is an acted parable of God’s law, showing us how far we have fallen short of God’s standards of love. Lord forgive me, that so often I have walked past those in all kinds of need. I have been too absorbed in myself. I have not loved my neighbour as myself.
How does the expert in the law respond to the story? I’m not sure what the long-term impact of Jesus’ teaching was in his heart – we’re not told that. But Jesus has certainly exposed his need of forgiveness, and ours too for that matter. This is a parable which ought to show us our sin and send us to the Saviour begging for pardon.
4. An example to follow
This parable has 2 functions. It’s not just to show us our sinfulness, though it does that very well. It also gives Christians a wonderful example to follow, that of the Samaritan. Jesus shifts the focus from ‘Who is my neighbour?’ to ‘Which of you has acted as a neighbour?’ and that is really challenging.
For those who aren’t Christians yet, I pray this parable will help you see your need of God’s forgiveness and for him to change your heart. For those who are trusting in Christ, we have, in this Samaritan, a model to follow. He didn’t say ‘anything for a quiet life’ or ‘someone else can do it’ and walk on by. He was willing to come off his own donkey and put someone else on it. He was willing to embrace the time, expense and hassle to show love to one in need. We need to pray for God’s Holy Spirit to help us to live like this. One thing is for sure, without God’s help we cannot love like this.
Loving our neighbour doesn’t just mean loving our own children, or people in the church, or people we like and get on well with, or people we think deserve it and our ‘worthy’ of our help. The locus is much wider than that. We must help anyone who is needy, as and when we are able.
Terry Johnson: “The requirement to love transcends the categories of race, religion, nationality or ethnicity. It is boundless, extending to every member of the human race of whose needs I am aware.”
The WFM project sees neighbours in Scotland, in Greece and in India. The fundraising is helping them. They’re not asking the question, who is my neighbour? They are getting on with being a neighbour to those who are in need.
Many of us are extremely busy. Time is in short supply. Will we give of our time to those in need? This parable teaches us that religion without love is pointless. Of course, we cannot earn our way to Heaven. But once we’ve placed our trust in Christ, God expects us to see with different eyes, and see the needs around us. And he expects that we will expend time, love and money in our efforts to bless our neighbours. The ultimate good Samaritan is Jesus himself, who loved the undeserving with the most sacrificial of all loves. May he enable us to follow in his footsteps.