So I’m sitting there and listening to a bunch of people talking about the parable of the Good Samaritan and I’m seeing them getting tangled in all kinds of what if this and what about that and they’re totally missing the point Jesus was making…
They were getting into tangles out of good motives – these were committed Christians, who sincerely seek to live God’s way and to do what Jesus says we should do. And because they see the parable of the Good Samaritan as an instruction – as Jesus telling us to imitate that guy – they were wrestling, very sincerely, with the implications: how do you balance the different calls on your life, the many different needs around you? It’s not a bad question to wrestle with. It’s just that it isn’t what Jesus was getting at when he told this parable.
Let’s have a look at the context. (It’s in Luke 10 if you want to follow along.) There’s a guy who is very knowledgeable about the Bible, and he asks Jesus: what shall I do to inherit eternal life? Jesus does the very Jewish thing of answering a question with a question, and points this guy to what he should already know from the Bible. The guy answers with the well-known command to love God and to love your neighbour as you love yourself, to which Jesus’ reply is: yes, that’s right, “do this and you will live”.
Do this – well, can you? can anyone? we all fail at it, no matter how hard we try.
The very common human reaction to this situation is: trying to rationalize, to find excuses, to look for loopholes… surely God can’t possibly mean that we’re to love each and every person just as much as we love ourselves…
So this guy, “wishing to justify himself” (in other words, looking for a way of excusing his failings and making himself look ok, a way of saying it’s alright that he doesn’t love everybody because “neighbour” in this verse can’t possibly mean everyone) asks Jesus: who qualifies for this? who are the people I am commanded to love?
Jesus doesn’t answer that question.
Instead, he tells him a parable about a man who finds himself in dire need, and the different ways different people react to that need: two people who see him and pass by on the other side of the road; and one who sees and stops and helps.
So instead of answering “who are the people I must love” (with the implied flipside of the coin: who are the people I can get away with excluding), Jesus turns the focus onto: what does it look like, to love others as you love yourself? In a very typical Jesus kind of way, he’s trying to get this guy to see that he’s asking the wrong question.
Which should lead him to examine his motives, and see how much evil there is in his heart – how he’s desperately trying to make himself look ok, how he’s trying to avoid the light of God’s commands because deep down he knows he can’t live up to God’s standards but he wants to feel he’s righteous…
And we, today, reading this passage in the Bible, can easily get sidetracked into the details of the story – as though it’s a list of things to do when you see someone in need, rather than a description of what you’d do if you saw exactly what that guy saw and felt compassion and had exactly the same resources that he had… This isn’t about how much money you’d give or whether you’d take him to an inn (today you’d take him to a hospital). It’s not even about helping people in need – though obviously yes, the command to love your neighbour does mean that we should! But Jesus told this parable to someone who already knew that. The guy he was talking to was a great Bible scholar. He knew the theory.
What did he need to learn? That he – just like each and every human being – can’t live up to that. When Jesus told him to “go and do the same”, if this guy was honest with himself he’d have screamed in agony: but I can’t!
Nobody can. And that’s the point. That’s the point of the story – and that’s the point of the incarnation of Jesus. It’s why he came down from heaven, lived among us and died on the cross. Because he loves us, and he knows we can’t.
The point of the commands in the Bible is not to make us live the right way – knowing what God commands is not enough to make us live up to them! Much as knowing that it would do me good to do more exercise and eat less cake won’t in itself give me the motivation and self discipline to make that happen. Or when I used to smoke and I’d see the warning whenever I took a pack of cigarettes out – knowing that it’s bad for me wasn’t enough to make me break the addiction. I remember in my university days, studying philosophy and hearing about the Greek concept of akrasia – weakness of the will – which for us as students, who were endlessly procrastinating, was a concept we happily embraced and joked about…
Basically, we humans are perfectly capable of knowing we should do x and yet not doing x; or knowing we shouldn’t do y and still going ahead and doing y.
And there’s a whole bunch of religions out there that say: that’s bad, you should feel really terrible, and here’s a load of stuff you must do to make up for it. Or alternatively there’s those that go: it’s ok, God doesn’t really mind.
Whereas Jesus says: it’s not ok, God does mind very much, in fact he minds so much that someone wholly innocent and blameless has to die to take on the punishment for all of this – and that someone is Me, the Son of God, who loves you humans so much that He’s willing to come down from heaven, live among you, and die an excruciating death for you.
So the conversation Jesus was trying to have with that guy – and is trying to have with all of us – looks something like this:
– Go and do the same.
– but I can’t! what shall I do? help!
– I’m glad you see it now. I’m here to help. Just trust in Me. Stop trying to do it in your own strength, and stop trying to hide your sin and pretend you’re ok. Turn away from your self-righteousness and put your faith in Me. I am the way, the truth and the life. I am the good shepherd, who lays down His life for His sheep. Believe in Me, and you will live.
For this is the way God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.