It's simply not about just loving your neighbor. When we see what the parable is really calling for we'll see that it's loving our neighbor in a very overwhelmingly inconvenient way. Then when we dig deeper into realizing who the characters are in the parable we realize that the neighbors whom we are to love are in fact our greatest enemies. After all that we ought to shutter in fear if we are really called to go and do likewise, especially given why we are called to do so.
But, oh the bliss, mercifully this fear drives us to our knees in turning to the Lord Jesus Christ who Himself can both save us from not being Good Samaritans and also empower us to be Good Samaritans to His glory.
Care to revisit the parable with me?
Here is the text of Scripture:
And behold, a lawyer stood up to put [Jesus] 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."
As stated above, after reading that, the typical understanding of the passage is: Be kind to people. Be kind to strangers. Help those in need. Have mercy on others. Show compassion in your daily lives.
All of these ideals are valid. We should be kind, help those in need, show mercy and compassion etc.
But we also must realize that these commands toward our fellow man were understood by Jesus' audience before he even uttered this parable.
The law in the Old Testament commanded this kind of love toward other people:
You shall not see your brother's ox or his sheep going astray and ignore them. You shall take them back to your brother. And if he does not live near you and you do not know who he is, you shall bring it home to your house, and it shall stay with you until your brother seeks it. Then you shall restore it to him. And you shall do the same with his donkey or with his garment, or with any lost thing of your brother's, which he loses and you find; you may not ignore it. You shall not see your brother's donkey or his ox fallen down by the way and ignore them. You shall help him to lift them up again.
And taking it a step further, the law even speaks to showing this same kind of love toward your enemy:
If you meet your enemy's ox or his donkey going astray, you shall bring it back to him. If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying down under its burden, you shall refrain from leaving him with it; you shall rescue it with him.
The law already commands us to be compassionate toward our neighbor (even if he's a stranger whom we don't know - see Deut. 22:2). The law commands us to show mercy to a person in need and to love our fellow man - even our enemies (Ex. 23:4-5).
Whether it's someone we know or don't know, whether it's someone with whom we have a good relationship or someone who hates us, we are morally obligated (even according to the Old Testament) to love them, to show compassion to them, and to help them in their time of need.
All this is in the Old Testament law. And if that's the case, what was so striking about the parable of the Good Samaritan? What was so provocative about its teaching?
Let's revisit the story. At first a priest came along. These priests are the men who are supposed to represent their people to the Almighty God, offering sacrifices for sins on their behalf (Heb. 5:1). So they, of all people, should be most acquainted with the concept of mercy. But this priest walks by on the other side (maybe pretending not to notice?).
Next comes a Levite. Now the Levites who were not priests (only those Levites from the line of Aaron could be priests) were charged with assisting the priests (a "church" role) as well as keeping guard of the tabernacle and temple (a civil role). So they doubly had every reason to be experts in the Law and would have known their duty to help someone in need. Yet this Levite also walks by on the other side.
Neglected by the two people in Israel who above all would have known better, the Jewish man in the parable is left for dead. But then a Samaritan comes along.(1)
While there was a mutual dislike between Samaritans and Jews (Jn. 4:9), I think if we're paying close attention we'll see that the Samaritans were treated very terribly by the Jews. There is one clear example in Scripture where this becomes evident:
When the days drew near for [Jesus] to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him. But the people did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”
Think about all the towns of Israel that rejected Jesus in the midst of performing many Messianic works (Lk. 4:28-29, 10:13-15). And while Jesus reserved His own judgment for them, not once did the disciples express a desire to call fire down from heaven to destroy those towns.
Yet we get to a Samaritan town that rejects Jesus for far less of a reason (not because He was the Messiah but because He was intent on going to Jerusalem - the capital of the Samaritan-hating Jews), and His disciples want to invoke the death penalty on the entire village!
The Samaritans were despised by the Jews of that day and treated with great contempt!
Yet it was this Samaritan who came to this Jewish man's rescue. He showed such compassion to the man at such great personal expense (in both time and money). He gave up over 30% of his weekly earnings to ensure the man's recovery and promised more if necessary (Lk. 10:35). He not only tended to his immediate needs (Lk. 10:34) but provided continual care to the man (Lk. 10:35). He was completely inconvenienced by this man, but completely devoted to seeing his well being, even knowing that this man for whom he was caring was not a Samaritan and more than likely hated him for being one.
The teaching of the Good Samaritan is not simply love your neighbor (though that is part of the teaching). It's not simply be kind to people; be kind to strangers; help those in need; have mercy on others; show compassion in your daily lives (though those are all good things to do).
Those are all part of it to be sure, but the teaching of the Good Samaritan is: save your enemies! Even those who despise you and want you to die (Lk. 9:51-54), you go and rescue even them! Save your enemies!
Though they look upon you with such disgust that they wish you to be dead, save your enemies! Though they are in a place where they are sure to die, and it would be very easy to do nothing, save your enemies! Though it will cost you greatly of your own personal time and money, save your enemies!
This is much more than helping your enemies with their donkey or ox (as in the Old Testament commands), it is a command to save them even when it will be at great personal cost and they are in a position where it would be much easier to leave them for dead.
Does this describe you at all? I'll be honest, it certainly doesn't sound like me. And yet the command is right there, "You go, and do likewise" (Lk. 10:37).
How are we to have that much compassion at that much expense, especially toward those who hate us to the point of death?
How indeed? But in order to truly understand the lesson of this text I think we need to back up and find out not just how we're supposed to go and do likewise, but why?
Why are we to be the Good Samaritan?
Why are we to be the Good Samaritan? Well if we're careful to read from the very beginning of the passage we'll find that that's how we inherit eternal life!
It's right there in the text. The lawyers asks, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" (Lk. 10:25). And after hearing the lawyer say that we are to love the Lord our God with all heart, soul, strength, and mind, and to love our neighbor as our self, Jesus emphatically adheres: "Do this, and you will live."
The parable then demonstrates, not simply what kind of person we ought to be, but both who are our neighbor is and also what kind of love we absolutely must practice toward him in order to inherit eternal life.
But that's the rub right there is it not?
Have any of us loved our neighbor that way? Have any of us saved our enemies at great personal cost to ourselves? Will any of us be able to do that at all? And if we are, will we be able to do it again any and every time the situation calls for such love?
Yet that is what is required for eternal life regarding the justice of God.
The Apostle Paul likewise testifies to God's justice(2) in Romans when he says: "[God] will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life...glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good" (Rom. 2:6-7,10).
That's how to do it. That's how to inherit eternal life!
There's a problem though isn't there. Paul goes on to say what we already know and experience every day: "None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God...no one does good, not even one" (Rom. 3:10-11, 12).
What kind of situation is this then, that we are to go and do likewise in order to inherit eternal life, yet we are not able to do it at all?
Thanks be to God for Jesus Christ our Lord!
What do I mean by that? And what then is the lesson in this parable that Jesus is teaching?
Well, like in many of His parables, the main point is not simply to give the person He's talking to an example of what to do, but also to eventually turn that person away from their own self-works-righteousness and toward Him as the only one who can actually save them.
So what did Jesus do when the lawyer recites to him the two greatest commandments? He answers "Do this, and you will live," knowing full well that no man apart from Himself is capable of such obedience. You almost get the sense that the lawyer understood this, because he seeks clarification: "so...exactly who is my neighbor?" In other words, "I'm pretty sure I keep these commandments, and yet I also get the feeling you're convinced I'm not going to inherit eternal life...can you clarify for me, who it is I should consider my neighbor?"
You see, Jesus was no stranger to showing people that they're not able to keep the commandments by themselves.
You look at the Sermon on the Mount and you find that if people were trusting in their own ability to not commit adultery, Jesus reveals the original intent of the command and the standard behind their understanding of it as even higher: "But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Mt. 5:28).
Or take the rich ruler into account. He also asks the question, "How do I inherit eternal life?" And Jesus tells him, you know the commandments; keep them! (Lk. 18:18-20) To which the ruler replies, "All these I have kept from my youth" (Lk. 18:21). Really? You've kept all the commandments from your youth, even though Jesus just told you that no one is good except God (Lk. 18:19)? So Jesus gives him another one, "Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor...and come, follow me" (Lk. 18:22).
You see, at every turn if someone is trusting in their own righteousness, Jesus would reveal to them an even higher standard that no matter how "righteous" they were in their own eyes, they would never be able to meet the righteous standard that God requires. And it would always be with the intention to point them to Himself as their Savior
It was to push them to the point of the sinner-tax collector who, in light of himself by the revealed will of God, could not even "lift up his eyes to heaven," as the parable reminds us. But he could only "beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!'" (Lk. 18:13). And it was this man that Jesus said went home justified - that is, declared righteous, before God.
Salvation, in a fallen world for fallen man, is only by means of faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ (Jn. 14:6; Acts 4:12). It is His righteousness alone that delivers us from the wrath of God (2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Jn. 2:2), from the penalty of sin, and from sin's unrelenting power in our lives (Rom. 5:1, 6:11, 8:1-11).
And that is the ultimate lesson of the Good Samaritan.
All along I've supposed that in this parable there are a victim (the man half dead), two bad guys (the priest and the Levite), and a good guy (the Samaritan). But I've since come to realize that there are three bad guys (one of whom is also a victim), and one good guy.
We are all both the fallen man and the men who walked by on the other side. It is Jesus Christ who is the Good Samaritan!(3) He is the One who binds up our wounds, ensures our full recovery, and does it even for us who are His very enemies (Rom. 5:6, 8, 10).
You see, in the context of the parable, the Samaritan is one (historically speaking) who is treated terribly, spit upon, mocked, hated; and yet someone who goes to great personal cost to save those very enemies who treat him with such contempt and even despise him.
Does that not sound like a picture of who Christ is?
Surely he has borne our griefs
Truly the parable of the Good Samaritan teaches us to save our enemies; but the primary lesson in all of it is that we are the very enemies who need saving.
We cannot do enough good to save ourselves. We ourselves are robbed by the deceitfulness of sin and our own sin nature, and because of it we are left for dead. In fact, we are dead (Eph. 2:1). But Jesus Christ, the true Good Samaritan raises us from the dead (Eph. 2:4-7), and at great personal cost to Himself binds up our wounds and ensures our full recovery - even us who are His enemies (Rom. 5:6, 8, 10).
The command from the parable is to save your enemies. But the lesson is that we are the enemies, and we need the true Good Samaritan - Jesus Christ - to save us!
Of course from there, after believing in Him and trusting in Him as our atoning sacrifice and personal substitute for our sins (Jn. 3:16-18, 10:9, 11, 14:6; Acts 4:12; Rom. 10:11-13; 2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 2:16, 20; Heb. 4:14-16, 7:25; Rev. 7:9-10), we are then empowered by the Holy Spirit to be good Samaritans in the world and to show His love toward our enemies. But we do this not in order to inherit eternal life, but because we are confident in Him that we already have eternal life (Jn. 5:24).
And that is how we are to go and do likewise. But it can be no other way. For Jesus Himself says, "Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing" (Jn. 15:5). Note that it does not say, "apart from me you can only do 90%" or "80%" or "50%."
No! If we do not abide in Jesus Christ, we can do nothing! We can do nothing in regard to loving our neighbors or saving our enemies. So it is only in light of understanding that Jesus Himself is the true Good Samaritan that we are able to then go and do likewise as He commanded.
May He give us the grace to understand His word, to entrust our lives to Him as the true Good Samaritan - the One who raises us from the dead, binds up our wounds, and sees us to full recovery - and then in His power, by the enabling of the Holy Spirit, to truly go and do likewise - all for His glory.
For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.
(1) The Samaritans were descended from the very people keeping the temple from being rebuilt when the Jewish exiles returned to the land of Israel (Ezra 4:1-5; cf. 2 Kgs. 17:24-41). And while they no longer held this kind of physical hostility toward the Jews they were still heretical (though not idolatrous, in the normal sense of the word) in their faith (Jn. 4:22), until they met Jesus of course (Jn. 4:39-42).
(2) This is a minority view regarding this particular interpretation of Romans 2:6-7, but I do believe it to be the correct one - see also F.F. Bruce, Douglas J. Moo, and Charles Hodge for others who agree.
(3) While Jesus was obviously not unorthodox in His theology like the Samaritans were (Jn. 4:22), He was nevertheless seen as a Samaritan (Jn. 8:48) and treated with the same hostility - even more so to be sure.