Text: Luke 10:25-37
The Fifth Sunday After Pentecost, Series C
Listen to the sermon here.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
The parable of the Good Samaritan has passed into folklore. It has changed the meaning of the word ‘Samaritan’ in modern English. Today the phrase ‘Good Samaritan’ describes a stranger who compassionately helps those in need. For example, you might say, “A good Samaritan came along and helped me change my flat tire.” There is now a well-known organization called ‘The Samaritans’, whose task is to help people in dire need. This parable is often taken in a general moral sense: if you see someone in the ditch, go and help them. Sometimes, when people remember that in Jesus’ day, the Samaritans and the Jews hated each other like poison, this is expanded into a second moral lesson about the wickedness of racism and prejudice. Those are two excellent applications of this parable. But if we want to understand what Jesus himself meant, we need to go deeper. This parable was not given to us in a vacuum. No, there was an occasion and reason for Jesus speaking this parable. So, this morning I want to look at what the lawyer’s questions tell us about this parable.
I. The Lawyer’s Questions
The parable comes at the end of an exchange of questions between the lawyer and Jesus. The lawyer is not sincere. This is not a case of curiosity nor an honest inquiry of a troubled soul, but an interrogation. Did Jesus meet the standards? Do you see what the lawyer asks as a test? “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (v. 25). Most people in the world think there’s something they must do or stop doing to earn God’s approval. You might notice that there is already something wrong with the question. What does one do to inherit anything? Nothing. Inheritance, by its very nature, is a gift from one family member (or friend) to another. You can inherit if you are born into a family or adopted. Either way, inheritance is not payment for services rendered. It is by grace, gratis, a gift.
So Jesus turns it around and sees if the man can come up with a Law answer. “What is written in the Law,” Jesus asks. “How do you read it?” The lawyer’s answer is, “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.” He is correct, and Jesus approves. The whole Law can be summarized in two simple commandments: Love God, love your neighbour.
“Do this, and you will live.” Love, and you will live. Love wholeheartedly. Love God with everything you are, everything you have, and love your neighbor as you love yourself. Try it for a few days and see how it works out for you. In other words, obey God’s commandments perfectly, and you will have eternal life. Perfect obedience to God’s command to love him and love our neighbours is a way to gain eternal life. The lawyer should be able to see that he has asked the wrong question.
And that’s why there is a second question. “Who is my neighbour?” Why does the lawyer ask this question? He was guilty, but he wanted to justify himself. The lawyer is a person who wants to earn acceptance before God on his own. He couldn’t do that by obeying God perfectly. None of us can. The only way to do that is to fudge on the Law. People often do that when they see that they’ve broken God’s Law. They look for a way out, an excuse, a loophole, some way to say that they’re not that bad and God should cut them some slack. We often try to trim the Law down to a manageable size, something we can do. The lawyer had to lower the requirements to a point where he could do it. So he asked, “Who is my neighbour?” Define neighbour. Is it the person next door? My good friends? My fellow Jews? Surely not Samaritans, gentiles or sinners. Suppose the lawyer can eliminate the wrong people, the people he doesn’t like, and the people who would inconvenience him. In that case, he thinks he just might be able to do this. Who is my neighbour? The lawyer expects Jesus to respond with a list he hopes he can manage. This is where the parable of the man who fell among the thieves comes in. It shuts the loopholes and silences the self-justifying questions.
II. The Samaratin’s Compassion
There was a man in a ditch at the side of the road. He was naked, bleeding, and dead for all intents and purposes. He had been beaten nearly to death and robbed. A priest and his Levitical assistant saw him. Priests and the Levites often lived in Jericho, and that’s where they were going. They would have a two-week shift in Jerusalem and then return to their homes in Jericho. When they saw him, they walked around as far as possible so as not to get near him. The beaten man looked like he was dead or might die soon. If he was dead or died on the way, and they touched him, they would become ritually unclean. They would need to turn around and go back to Jerusalem and undergo a week-long process of ceremonial purification. They couldn’t see their families. Their ceremonial purity was too important.
After the failure of the priest and Levite, help must come in from somewhere else. And help comes from the outside because it came from a Samaritan. This guy was a layman, not a priest, Levite, or even part of their community. He’s a hated outsider, considered a half-breed and a heretic. Notice that the Samaritan is not concerned about ritual purity. Compassion for the beaten man moves him to act using all his available resources. He got off his donkey and got down into the ditch. After treating the man’s wounds with oil and wine, he bandaged them. The Samaritan then put him on his donkey and took him to an inn in Jericho. Once there, he left a couple of days’ wages to cover the tab and promised to cover any extra expenses when he returned. He used his own time, resources, and money to care for the man.
Yet, the good Samaritan offers an even more unexpected demonstration of love. He risks his life by transporting a wounded Jew into a Jewish town and spending the night there. Here comes a Samaritan, hated by the Jews, riding into a Jewish city with a half-dead Jew on his donkey. Was that risky? Think of the old wild west. Imagine a Native American who found a cowboy who was beaten by bandits and brought him into the local saloon. As the Native American rode into town and walked into the saloon, how would you think he might be treated? The Samaritan took his life into his own hands to help the man he found. At significant cost to himself, the Samaritan became a neighbour to the wounded man.
So, Jesus corrects the lawyer’s question. It’s not who is my neighbour. Instead, it’s “To whom must I become a neighbour?” Anyone in need. The lawyer has a chance to see that he cannot justify himself (that is, earn eternal life) because what he needs to do is beyond his ability.
There is more to this parable. Jesus is talking about himself. There is a man beaten and left half-dead. So it’s this Samaritan outsider who comes to where the injured man is and has compassion for him. The Samaritan risks his life to transport the wounded man into an inn in hostile territory. You see, the whole human race is that man lying on the road. You were left there by bandits half-dead, and the Law did nothing to help you. The Son of Man came down from heaven to where we are, lying half-dead on the road, unable to save ourselves. Christ became a neighbour to you. He is your Good Samaritan. He is an outsider who has broken in to save you. Jesus looks at us, and he has compassion on us. He is moved by love, and his love moves him into action.
When no one else could save you, Jesus became your Good Samaritan. He bent down in the ditch to rescue a bloodied and beaten humanity. Christ became our neighbour and came to us with healing, restoring us with his care. It is by Jesus himself being wounded–beaten up by soldiers, whipped, nailed to a cross–it is by his wounds we are healed, healed for everlasting life. Jesus pays the price, whatever it takes, for us to be saved. And, like the Samaritan supplied the innkeeper, Christ gives the Holy Christian Church the resources we need to extend his love to others until he returns. Through the Church, Jesus applies the healing wine and oil of Word and Body and Blood to us. He forgives and frees us from the Law that we might do the Law – love God and also love that broken, bleeding, dying man in the ditch.
What must I do to inherit eternal life? Nothing. It is given to you. We cannot gain eternal life by our works. If we’re going to have eternal life, we’re going to inherit it as a gift. So give up on justifying yourself, admit your sins and lack of love, and receive the free gift of eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ, your Savior. Then you can take this love you’ve received from God, and you can show that Christ-like love to anyone who happens to come across your path.
Dear friends, the good news today is this: Jesus is your Good Samaritan. He comes to us where we are, has compassion, and does everything it takes to give us the care and healing we need. Oh, and one more thing: He also teaches us Christians how to love our neighbour.
May, the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.