Sometimes stories are retold so much that they lose their punch. We are anesthetized to the truth that should transform us. We in the church have trusted in the Sunday School versions that simplify and even cute-ify the truth contained inside. Jesus and the writers of the gospels were master story-tellers. In trying to understand the meaning and purpose of a story, it helps sometimes to see how stories work. There are reasons they are told the way they are told. I’d like to take a few minutes to look at a story the world knows as the Story of the Good Samaritan. It is a dynamic, relevant story that transforms by confronting our hearts.
If it’s okay, I’d like to have you start by reading the passage, and then I’ll walk us through a few critical details that Jesus uses to lay our hearts bare before His loving, watchful eye. Here it goes.
Luke 10:25-37 reads, 25 And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying,“Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” 27 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.” 28 And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”
29 But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus,“And who is my neighbor?”
30 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. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. 34 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. 35 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.’
36 Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”
Verses 25-28 are the set up. The set up usually has a lot to do with telling us what the episode is about. When we are trying to understand the story, we always have to back to the set up. It contains some vital details. In reading the set up, we see that it is a conversation between a lawyer and Jesus. But it is a certain kind of conversation, it is a confrontation. How do I know? Because in verse 25, it says this lawyer was putting Jesus to the test. This man wasn’t seeking information. He wasn’t looking for understanding. He set himself up as an authority and he was going to see what Jesus was made of. That may not be a fight, but it is confrontational. Did he want Jesus to succeed? We don’t really know, but we get another indication that he didn’t.
There was an opening question that any self-respecting Jewish teacher should have been able to answer. “What do I to inherit eternal life?” Jesus offers the standard orthodox Jewish answer, “Love God and Love your neighbor.” We know from Matthew 22:40, Jesus said the whole Law and Prophets rested on these commandments. When Jesus mentioned these two commands, he could have just as easily said, “Do the whole law, which is summed up in the commands to love God and love your neighbor.” At this point, there is nothing shocking, or even confronting in Jesus answer. This is the answer the man would have expected.
But the man has a follow up question. Before we look at Jesus’ reply, we have to remember this is a test. And that should color our understanding of what Jesus is saying and why Jesus is saying it. The man asks, “And who is my neighbor?” I’ll show you in a minute that this question is revelatory! In this question, we see more of the man’s heart. And if we are honest, we see our hearts more clearly than we may want to. It seems like a sensible question, but it’s not. This man is testing Jesus.
Jesus’ answer is the story we’re all familiar with. I won’t repeat it again, just read it above in verses 30-35. By the way the story is told, we don’t even have to know much about the culture to understand that the priest should have stopped and the Levite should have stopped. But knowing some cultural facts show us that by using the characters he did, Jesus was confronting this lawyer. These were religious men who knew the law. There are some teachers that emphasize these men didn’t want to break the law and make themselves unclean. If that had happened they couldn’t have carried out their legal obligations to serve God at the temple.
Yet, these men and the lawyer would have known that there is another law at work. That law is Pikuach Nefesh (Hebrew: פיקוח נפש). It describes the principle in Jewish law that the preservation of human life overrides virtually any other religious consideration. When the life of a specific person is in danger, almost any mitzvah lo ta’aseh (command to not do an action) of the Torah becomes inapplicable. In other words, by ignoring the man in order to keep the law, they were breaking a higher law. And they should have known that – so should this lawyer! The characters of the story confront us that some know the will of God and some do the will of God. The Samaritan, a man who worshiped God in in an unapproved way was actually the one who was doing God’s law. The priest and the Levite were not. Jesus was holding a mirror up to this man’s heart and saying, do you see yourself in these guys? Do you realize that you know the truth of God and you’re not living it?
But Jesus isn’t done! As I said, the set up to the story is vitally important. It clues us into the purpose of what is going to be shared. And the conclusion is important. It’s in the conclusion that there is resolution, the point is revealed. What does Jesus do next? He isn’t about to let the man, or us up off the mat. Making sure the man catches the point, Jesus now asks the question in verse 36, “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among robbers?” There is a quick, automatic response. We all know the right answer, “the Samaritan!”
Before I address that, let me go back for a second! Don’t you think it’s curious that Jesus never answers the man’s question? What was the man’s question? It was, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus changed the question. “Who is the one who proved to be a neighbor?” Why would Jesus ask that? I believe it is because Jesus knew the man’s heart. Remember, this man was out to test Jesus? He didn’t want to know and obey. He wanted to test. He wanted to trip Jesus up. Also, we see just before the story, the man asked Jesus the question “Who is my neighbor?” because he wanted to justify himself! What does that mean? This man wanted to look good. He wanted to be right. He wanted everyone to know that he knew the law and was doing the law. He didn’t ask Jesus “who is my neighbor?” so he would know who to love. He wanted to know who he didn’t have to love. He wanted to know the lines, the limits of this neighbor love. The only way for any of us to look good is to limit the requirement of obedience. We think, “I can love that person. But don’t ask me to love all people.” That would only set us up for failure. A self-justifying heart makes arguments for itself. A self-justifying heart is a defensive heart. A self-justifying is a closed heart. It isn’t looking for new ways to obey. It’s looking for limits that set it up for success!
Jesus changed the question because the man asked the wrong question. And wrong questions come from wrong hearts. If we are reading the Word of God with a heart that is asking, “where do I have to do this?” vs. “how, Lord, can I do this?” We reveal a self-justifying heart. And real heart change will elude us.
What is the answer to Jesus’ question? “Who do you think proved to be the neighbor?” Remember, we said the answer was “The Samaritan.” But that wasn’t the answer, was it? Neighbor love had nothing to do with who gave it. The answer the man got right was, “The one who showed him mercy.” Mercy is the identifying mark of love for neighbor. Jesus finished with a simple admonition, “You go, and do likewise.” Go and be the neighbor. How? By showing mercy! Mercy is a gift we’ve all been given. Mercy always costs someone something. It isn’t free for the giver. And it is the beginning of love. Without mercy, there is no hope for relationship. Without mercy, there is no room for a message of grace. Without unlimited mercy, we distort the world’s view of God, who seeks to save! This is neighbor love, without limits!
If we listen to this and say, “I can buy this giving mercy thing, but…” We are putting limits on mercy! If we are tempted to do that, we are the lawyer and don’t even know it. We aren’t asking, “God, how do I show love?” We are saying, “I’ll show love, but only on these terms.” I’ve been looking for a neighbor to love rather than being a mercy-giving neighbor to all God has put in my path. I want limits on God’s demands. Because only then do I have the hope of looking somewhat successful.
My challenge and encouragement is this. If there is a new insight in this article, don’t be intrigued or entertained by it. Be honest before it. We like limits on obedience. We look for reasons not to show merciful love. And by God’s grace and His Holy Spirit, we must get over that! Who has God placed in your path today that needs mercy? Will you ask, “Lord, who?” Or will you ask, “Lord, how?” He prefers the latter because it is a love without limits. That is the beginning of living eternal life now.
Father, thank you for the truth of Your Word. I praise you for the wisdom, love and truth of Jesus. I know I have looked to wiggle my way out of obedience to your gospel. Please reform my heart. Forgive me for withholding mercy. And help me, through Your Spirit, to be a neighbor with no limits on the love I give to others. In that, I pray more may experience your grace and truth. Use me, I pray. Amen.