Have We Misunderstood the Parable of the Good Samaritan?

Have We Misunderstood the Parable of the Good Samaritan?

Eternal life on our own merits is impossible for a people who by nature hate God and neighbor. Salvation is brought to us by a Good Samaritan who showed us mercy and promises to return for us to take us into eternal life. We demonstrate that we are right with God, not in trying to justify ourselves, but when we love God and neighbor with this kind of humility, recognizing with great awe that we were the ones beat up and left for dead because of sin, and that it was Jesus himself who crossed the road from heaven to save us.

The parable of the Good Samaritan is generally understood to be an ethical teaching of Jesus that challenges us to love our neighbor better. Most teachings on the parable are moralistic, leaving the impression that the imperative to “go and do likewise” is the sole aim of what Jesus is attempting to accomplish in telling the story.

But have we missed the greater lesson of what Jesus is impressing upon the hearer in this well-known story? Is the parable simply intended to press upon us the responsibility to love better? To answer this question, there is required a careful reflection of the context into which this parable comes. The parable is a surprising response to someone who understood well the demand of the law to love, but had failed to see how far he missed the mark of love in his own life.

An Issue of Justification

Luke 10:25-37 records for us that a certain lawyer approached Jesus to test him about how one can obtain eternal life. The lawyer specifically asks Jesus what he must “do to inherit eternal life.” When Jesus answers specific questions posed to him in the synoptic gospels, it is important to reflect carefully on the question that is being asked of Jesus. If the question being posed is not understood, the exegesis that follows will be faulty.

In this case, the lawyer asks the very same question of the rich young ruler, “what must I do to inherit eternal life”—two verbs. This is an entirely different question than those who asked Jesus for mercy, as with blind Bartimaeus, or others who, as in the book of Acts, asked what they must do to be saved. Humble approaches to Jesus by those who asked for mercy and deliverance from sin received compassionate responses. This lawyer, however, was asking Jesus how, through his own efforts, he could achieve eternal life, not salvation.

The lawyer bypassed the question of his own need for deliverance, a detail that is obviously so important to Luke that he adds, for proper interpretive purposes, that he was “attempting to justify (δικαιῶσαι) himself (Lk. 10:29).” When standing before the only one who supplies the righteousness that comes from God, any attempt to justify oneself was immediately met with the full weight of the laws demands.

Upon asking for eternal life, Jesus poses as question of his own: “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” The lawyer responds by citing Deut.6:5, the great Shema, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart will all your soul, with all your strength and with all your mind and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus responds from Leviticus 18:5 with a perennial blow that should have made any Israelite tremble: “do this and you will live.”

Jesus’ use of Leviticus 18:5 in this context is a direct response to lawyer attempting to justify himself in asking Jesus for eternal life based his own merits. This demonstrates that any attempt to self-justify oneself before God to achieve eternal life is always met with the divine standard of perfect and complete obedience. Jesus was not mincing words, he answered the lawyer by saying “if you do this, you will have the eternal life that you are seeking.”

Jesus Tells a Story

The glaring omission in the dialogue, unlike that of the rich young ruler who openly said he obeyed the law, is the silence of the lawyer with regard to his own performance of love. The problem, as much of the rabbinic tradition evidences, is that a neighbor was only understood to be a fellow Jew. The question is whether Leviticus 19:8, in its command to love one’s neighbor, only intended love to be exercised for a fellow Israelite, as the Rabbinic writings indicate, or did it demand love for all peoples.

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