Summary: The parable of the good samaritan gives us more than a contrast between love and indifference. It gives us a contrast between two kinds of religion.
This morning, we continue our mini-series on the parables of Christ. Parables are stories intended to convey spiritual truth. They’re not historical; they’re not accounts of actual events; they are fictional narratives involving made-up characters. The situations they describe never really happened, and the people involved aren’t real people. That’s why the characters in parables aren’t named; they’re just identified by their occupations – a farmer, a merchant, a shepherd, a priest. But they could be real, and that’s the point. The characters in parables are instantly recognizable by everyone, regardless of time or culture, because they are based on a deep understanding of universal human nature.
Jesus knew people, better than anyone before or since. He is the most astute observer of the human condition, the most profound philosopher, who ever walked the face of the earth. And that’s why these deceptively simple little stories are so full of wisdom, so strikingly memorable, so true to life. Because they come from the Master himself; the one whose understanding of reality surpasses all of history’s greatest minds. Buddha, Confucius, Mohammed, Aristotle, Socrates, Plato – each of them achieved, at best, a partial enlightenment. But Christ’s understanding is absolute and comprehensive. He understands what makes people tick. He understands how the world works. And he’s given us that knowledge in the form of parables. Let’s listen, then, to this story from the gospel of Luke, chapter ten, the parable of the Good Samaritan.
On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
"What is written in the Law?" he replied. "How do you read it?"
He answered: "`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, `Love your neighbor as yourself.’"
"You have answered correctly," Jesus replied. "Do this and you will live."
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"
In reply Jesus said: "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. ’Look after him,’ he said, ’and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’ "Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?"
The expert in the law replied, "The one who had mercy on him." Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise." – Luke 10:25-37
This parable is introduced by a dialogue between Jesus and an "expert in the law," a scribe. In the days before printing presses, the scribe was someone whose occupation was to make copies of the Scriptures by hand. Unlike most people, these men were educated; they could read and write; and through constant exposure, they became very familiar with the Old Testament. But they weren’t just copyists; they were scholars and teachers. Because of this expertise, they were looked upon as authorities in the interpretation and application of the law. They were respected as men of wisdom, and had great influence in matters concerning the regulation of Jewish civil and religious life.
Now, why does this expert in the law question Jesus? He stood up to "test" Jesus. Perhaps he was hostile to the teaching of Christ; or perhaps he just wanted to see what how Christ would respond. But fundamentally, he wanted to prove something. We’re told that "he wanted to justify himself." In other words, he wanted to establish that he was righteous; that his knowledge and wisdom and law-keeping were sufficient to make him acceptable to God.
Now, is it possible to be judged righteous by God through keeping the commandments? Can our efforts to do the right thing ever make us holy in God’s sight? No. As the apostle Paul teaches, "[We] know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ." (Galatians 2:16) The scribe was attempting to be justified by his works. He was seeking righteousness in knowing and keeping every rule and regulation. He wanted to go to heaven, to "inherit eternal life." He understood that the requirement to do so was love – love of God and love of one’s neighbor. But what he didn’t understand was that we all fall short of that love; that we fail to love God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our strength, and with all our mind. We fail to love our neighbor as fully and completely as we do ourselves. And therefore, the only way we can be saved is to have someone else’s righteousness – the perfect righteousness of Christ – credited to our account.