June 14, 2013

A pointed parable


It’s one we’re all very familiar with.  It’s the best of its kind for motivating random acts of kindness and/or inducing random fits of guilt!  But I would suggest, it’s misused for these purposes.  And mostly, we’ve missed the point.

The story I refer to is of course, The Good Samaritan (Luke 10). This parable is held over the heads of Christian and non-Christian alike as an example of ultimate good neighborliness.   As if this is how we ought to act, so let’s get at it--find someone in need and help them!  Countless ministries have adopted this Samaritan as their mascot, at least in name. But have we missed the actual point of this well-known parable? 

Of course, the title we give it is entirely tradition. Nowhere in the text is this roadside rescuer called a ‘Good Samaritan’.   In his day (had he existed) I suppose many a Jew would have sat up and taken notice at the oxymoron of the thing.  Was there such a thing as a good Samaritan?  They were the hated half-breeds, shunned by every ‘good’ Jew…  Ironic that Jesus specifies that this angel of mercy was in fact a Samaritan,  while the Jewish actors in the story were the ‘bad guys’.  His audience must have squirmed. 

Which brings me to my point—the lawyer-- the one for whom this story was composed.  We will miss the real point of it without starting at the beginning, before the story unfolded, with the conversation that preceded it.  This lawyer stood up to challenge Jesus with a tough question. “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus answered with this man’s profession in mind:  “What is written in the Law?  How do you read it?”  And this expert answers perfectly (though I paraphrase): Love God with all that you are…and Love your neighbor like you do yourself.  He got an A+ for that one!  Good answer.  So Jesus proceeds to answer his question.  What must he do to inherit eternal life? You know the law, now “do this, and you will live.”  (Lk.10:28)

Sounds simple, but…who has ever lived up to this kind of love? It was, of course, an impossible bit of doing. “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight.” Rom.3:20 If the lawyer were honest, or at least humble, he would have admitted he was ‘toast’, not eligible for eternal life.  But no, he goes on ‘desiring to justify himself’ pursuing a legal loophole to sneak through, and asks: “Who is my neighbor?”

And this is the context for the parable that Jesus unpacks.  This is not a story about how we should live, or how to be a good neighbor.  It’s a story exposing the impossibility of ever meriting eternal life!  And it is custom-made for the lawyer.  For though this lawyer may know the law-- what is fair, what is deserved, what is required.  He is about to come up short in another department.  Religious training and dedication may make a person ‘pretty good’ but not good enough to qualify in the good neighbor category Jesus sets out here. Nope, the priest and the Levite weren’t even up to it. 

Possibly, the lawyer figured he’d be able to extend some sort of token ‘love’ to a finite set of persons who reside in his vicinity, but Jesus opens the category of ‘neighbors’ to include life-long enemies, underserving scoundrels, helpless victims who will never be able to pay back anything, and he shows love to be costly, over-and-above what is minimally required.  Interruption, expense, inconvenience, and all of these in a  prolonged way, this is the character of the neighborly love called for.  This is mercy, and it’s exactly what the lawyer’s good training had not prepared him for.

And once again Jesus has taken a trick question and gone right to the heart of the interrogator, showing him what he is lacking, and what he is in need of.  What do lawyers specialize in? [No, this is not a joke] The law, right? They are sticklers for justice—meting out what is deserved. But loving one’s neighbor requires something more—it demands mercy.

And when it comes to mercy, this lawyer may as well be the roadside victim himself.  Despite appearances, he is in fact beaten, helpless, and bound to die unless Someone stops to show compassion.  No amount of self-justification will do, this man is in need of mercy.

And of course, this is exactly what Jesus has done, for all of us. He is the truly good Samaritan.  While we were yet enemies, He came upon us in our trouble and gave of Himself to save our lives.  And it’s only going to be through Him living out His life in us that we will ever qualify as ‘good neighbors’.  I am not naturally merciful, nor generous, nor gracious.  I tend to carry guilt for all the possible kind things I could do but don’t.  I am not a great neighbor in many respects. But this is where I stake my claim on the Gospel. It is for sinners that Jesus died and it is for such as I that He lives to infuse His kind of life through me.  And little by little God’s making of me all he intends.  I’m His project and the results are guaranteed:

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good,  for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. Rom.8:29

Or as Spurgeon has put it:
“Let it never be forgotten that what the law demands of us the gospel really produces in us.”

He’s not  asking me to go out and determine to do ‘good’. But he is wanting me to see how much mercy I’ve been shown.  And I suspect that reflecting on how good He’s been to me will produce a more merciful heart in me.  And that beats any amount of motivation guilt can ever muster!  Mercy begets mercy. 


For one will scarcely die for a righteous person--though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die-- but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Rom.5:8

“…yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” Gal.2:16

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. Rom.5:10


P.S. I must add one more thing!  Have you read the Old Testament equivalent of the Good Samaritan parable?  I came upon it this morning in my Ezekiel reading.  God is the Good Samaritan. The people of Israel the helpless ones in the ditch:

“And when I passed by you and saw you wallowing in your blood, I said to you in your blood, ‘Live!’  I made you flourish like a plant of the field…” Ez.16:6

Nowhere will you find a more poignant story of the love of God for the helpless than here.  It is beautiful, and heartbreaking, a reminder never to forget from whence we’ve come, and to whom we owe all that we are.  Don’t miss it.

For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. Rom.11:36


Val said...

Interesting take on this...and Ezek. does make it more clear.....I have always found the *to do* of the Good Samaritan rather overwhelming in propect...

Linda said...

I think that may be because its been turned into a lesson on 'social justice' and seeking out people in need in general, (an infinite set of possibilities 'the poor you have always with you') instead of seeing the actual people in whatever kind of need that are directly in our path! Each of us has a particular calling.