The Good Samaritan: A meditation on Jesus’ parable.

I had the opportunity to teach my Sunday school class this past Sunday as we’re going through a study on the parables in the gospel of Luke.  Here’s the text of my lesson if anyone would like to refer back to it.

The Interaction – Luke 10:25-29  

“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.” But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

The Question

“Teacher, what shall I do to have eternal life?”

That’s a question that we’re all asking… What do I have to do to be saved?  To have eternal life?  To be good enough?

This immediately brought to my mind another episode in Jesus’ ministry, when a “rich young man” asked Jesus what he should do to be saved.  Jesus’ response was very similar.  What does the law say?  Here, Jesus turned his attention to this man’s idol, which was his riches.

Mark 10:17-22  And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.'” And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.

Notice the difference in posture between these 2 encounters.  The ‘rich young man’ came and knelt before Jesus.  

In this case what does the text say?  A lawyer stood up to put him to the test.  This word actually means that he stood up to tempt him.  It has the connotation of trying to ensnare Jesus in his speech.  To get him to say something that would contradict himself.

In this case, what was the lawyer’s intent in asking this question?  Was he seeking a better understanding of how to live a godly life?  Was his posture one of humility and learning?  Or was he prideful?

Do we come to Jesus’ word like the ‘rich young man’ or like the lawyer?  How do we approach God’s word?

The Answer

Jesus has a tendency to put his finger on the root of our heart issues.  Jesus response to these 2 men was very similar… What does the law say?

Jesus’ response underscores his high regard for the law of God as set forth in the scripture.  Jesus always points back to the law and the prophets in his ministry and regards the scriptures as of absolute authority.  Jesus never spoke against the law and the prophets.  Quite the opposite, he magnified their application in his teaching.

Take some time and count how many times throughout the gospel accounts of his ministry he makes comments like “it is written” and “that the scriptures would be fulfilled.”

If someone asks you a question of moral implications, what is your reference point?  Is it based on how you feel about an issue or what seems to make sense based on your experience, personality and biases, cultural opinions, political policies?  Or is there an objective authority – the scriptures – that you defer to?  This is easy to do in matters that we’re comfortable with, but what about when the questions put us in an uncomfortable situation?

In this instance, Jesus asks the Lawyer what does the law say?

Note that the Lawyer answers well.  He knows his stuff.  Jesus commends him.  What are the 2 greatest commandments?  I’m sure we can all rattle them off the top of our heads like this Lawyer… Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.

And Jesus leaves it like that.  Let that sink in a little.  Think about it.

Immediately the Lawyer seeks to weasel his way out of the absolutely crushing weight of these 2 commandments.

The Second Question

“But he, desiring to justify himself…” asks “who is my neighbor?”  

“Ok, God, break this down for me so I can figure out how to make this manageable and simple and doable.  What’s the formula, because I can quickly see that this could be a problem for me?  I know who God is, but my neighbor?”

We can’t leave it at that either.  We are masters at trying to justify ourselves.  We may be simplistic and black & white when it comes to making judgements about other people, but when it comes to justifying ourselves, we’re as nuanced as Bill Clinton was when he was being investigated by a grand jury.  “It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.

So before we jump into the parable, let’s consider these 2 guys and ask ourselves some questions.

We know that the rich young man went away sad.  Why?  Because he quickly understood the ramifications of following Jesus and he was not willing to make the sacrifice.

The Lawyer wants to justify himself.  He doesn’t want to make any sacrifices either, but he wants to feel good about himself at the same time.

Are you like either of these guys?  Do you turn away from the scriptures sad, not willing to let go of your idols?  Or do you approach the scriptures, not seeking to apply them to your life, but to use them to justify some action or behavior or position?

So Jesus then takes this Lawyer on a journey from Jerusalem to Jericho.  And I’d like to take you there too…

The Parable – Luke 10:30-37

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.”

So here’s some context…

The man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho.  This is a road that Jesus’ audience would have known something about.  It was about 15 miles long through the mountains descending about 3,400ft.  In Jesus’ time it was known as the “Ascent of the Red” or more colorfully, “The Way of Blood” because it was a dangerous road to travel.

And it’s not the first time it’s been mentioned in scripture…

This would have been the same route that David used when fleeing from Absalom in 2 Samuel 15.

And it was the same road on which the Chaldeans finally caught up with the last king of Judah – Zedekiah – at the end of 2 Kings (ch. 25)

A little history is in order here to better understand this parable…

After the reign of Solomon, the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel were divided with Samaria being the capital of Israel and Jerusalem being the capital of Judah.  If you recall, Jeroboam set up altars at each end of the kingdom in Dan and Bethel where the people were to worship instead of Jerusalem.

In the year 722, the Northern kingdom fell to Assyria (2 Kings 17) and while many were led off to captivity, some of the poorest were left behind.  Assyria then resettled the land.

2 Kings 17:24-28  “And the king of Assyria brought people from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim, and placed them in the cities of Samaria instead of the people of Israel. And they took possession of Samaria and lived in its cities. And at the beginning of their dwelling there, they did not fear the Lord. Therefore the Lord sent lions among them, which killed some of them. So the king of Assyria was told, “The nations that you have carried away and placed in the cities of Samaria do not know the law of the god of the land. Therefore he has sent lions among them, and behold, they are killing them, because they do not know the law of the god of the land.” Then the king of Assyria commanded, “Send there one of the priests whom you carried away from there, and let him go and dwell there and teach them the law of the god of the land.” So one of the priests whom they had carried away from Samaria came and lived in Bethel and taught them how they should fear the Lord.”

So the Jews of Judah considered these people to be foreigners and half-breeds who were not God’s chosen people, but were instead interlopers.

In 597, the Southern Kingdom (or Judah) fell to Babylon and a puppet government was set up.  In 586 King Zedekiah then rebelled against Babylon and Jerusalem fell again.  Zedekiah tried to escape by this same road from Jerusalem to Jericho before he was nabbed by the Chaldean army in the plains of Jericho, dragged back to Babylon, had his sons killed in front of him and then had his eyes gouged out as punishment for his defiance of Nebuchadnezzar.

And this is where it gets interesting…

When Cyrus issued a decree in 538 to let the people of Judah go back to their land in Judah – this is recorded in the books of Ezra & Nehemiah – Guess who was there?  The Samaritans.  They wanted to help in rebuilding the temple (Ezra 4), but the Israelites refused.  “Then the people of the land discouraged the people of Judah and made them afraid to build and bribed counselors against them to frustrate their purpose, all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia.”

If you recall the book of Nehemiah, the chief opposition to his rebuilding of the wall of Jerusalem came from Sanballat, the governor of… YOU GUESSED IT… Samaria.

The Samaritans even built their own temple on Mt. Gerizim further defiling them in the eyes of the Jews.  So the bad blood between the Israelites and the Samaritans goes way back.  

So now you know a little about this road but even more about why Jews and Samaritans hated each other.

The Parable

Let’s get back to the parable and remember what it is that the Lawyer asked.  But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”  

So Jesus answers with a story.

Jesus was a master storyteller through his parables.  We can think of a parable as “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.”  Not just one point, although parables do have a focal point, but they, like this one, have multiple layers of meaning like the skin of an onion.

In this story there are a few characters.

  • A Man
  • Robbers
  • A Priest
  • A Levite
  • A Samaritan

(There’s an innkeeper too, but he’s like a cameo appearance, so we’re not going to be building any Innkeeper theology from this passage)  

Parable Point #1

On the surface this parable is an illustration of what God means when he calls us to love our neighbors and an illustration to show how all-encompassing this command is.  Recall Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount…

Matthew 5:43-48  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Jesus’ hearers knew that he was critical of the Jewish leaders because of their corruption and hypocrisy.  As he began to unpack this parable, pointing out that the Priest & Levite – the leaders of Israel – didn’t help our Man, they would have likely expected him to say that a normal Jewish guy passed by and helped.  That would have been more palatable and served to underscore both his message of love and his general position on the state of Israel’s leaders.  And conveniently it would have restricted “our neighbor” to people like us.

But that’s not what he did…

Jesus brings the full weight of this commandment down on the Lawyer when he says it is a Samaritan who stops to help.

Keep in mind that the question, “Who is my neighbor?” is really, “Who do I have to love?”

Jesus’ answers by telling him not only WHO he has to love, but specifically HOW he has to love.

Verse 33 says, “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.’”

Jesus unpacks what it means to love our neighbor with 2 aspects: Compassion & Action.

  • Compassion = An attitude of the heart
  • Action = Sacrificial service

If you recall in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus employs a teaching device where he takes the commandments and expands on them to cover much more than what the commandment specifically says.  Murder includes hating.  Adultery includes lust.

He does the same thing here.

“Love your neighbor as yourself” in v. 27 uses the term for love Agape, which – rightly – means seeking the good and welfare of all.  Jesus builds upon that when he describes the heart attitude of the Samaritan that, “He had compassion.”  The sense here is that he was inwardly emotionally moved and compelled by that emotion of love to do something.

In this command, there is no room for going through the motions.  The command requires us not only to go through the actions of welfare, but to have compassion upon even our enemies.

This is illustrated in the Samaritan altering his agenda and helping our Man.  Don’t miss where Jesus says,“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…”

This begs some questions for us:

  • Are we willing to alter our agendas to help someone that comes from a class of people we hate?
  • And even if so, do we have actual compassion or going through the motions because it’s the right thing to do?

Parable Point #2

The Samaritan seeing our helpless and dying man – his enemy – might also make us recall something Paul teaches us in Roman 5:10, “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.”

Ephesians 2 teaches that we “…were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ…”

So in this context, let’s think about our characters.

If we are the Man who is in desperate need of help…

Who then is the robber who has “beaten us and left us for dead”?  Indeed it is Satan, the enemy who seeks to steal, kill and destroy.

Who are the Priest and Levite who look at us in our misery but have no power to heal?  They represent the Mosaic Law which has no power to save, only to judge.

Who is the Samaritan?  Who else by Jesus Christ, our enemy who died for us on a cross.

Life Takeaways

Loving our neighbor – including our enemies – makes sense only in the context of God’s love for us.  We have no ability to love our neighbor without having tasted of the redemptive love of God & through the enabling power of the Holy Spirit.

Loving our neighbor requires a heart of compassion, not just a set of actions that we’re obliged to do.  However, loving our neighbor without corresponding action is no love at all.

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