The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37)
One of my elder friends reminded me of the story of a study which a certain seminary conducted with their student body. They asked each of the students to prepare a message on the “Good Samaritan” for a radio broadcast. The seminary then arranged for a man to feign a heart attack on the sidewalk in front of the students, as they were on their way to preach the sermon. As I remember the story, in every instance the seminary student stepped around the “dying” victim to hasten on to deliver his sermon on the “Good Samaritan.” I must confess that I find the story somewhat believable.
In thinking about the difference between the Good Samaritan described in our text, and those who are not such good Samaritans, I was reminded of two “Jessica’s,” both of whom were headline news in the recent past. You probably remember the story of Jessica Hawn, and recall what her boss, a prominent televangelist, did to her. You would find it difficult to forget the story of little Jessica McClure, who was rescued from a well in West Texas. What a difference! One “Jessica” was victimized by a preacher, while the other was rescued by a group of rough-necked well diggers. As we watched the news of little Jessica’s rescue on television, people on the scene said, “I just couldn’t leave the well until I knew she was all right.” The Chief of Police said, “I cried for two hours when she came out,” and this little girl’s rescuers persisted in saying over and over again, “We weren’t heroes; we weren’t Samaritans; we were just there to help.” Good Samaritans like these are needed in our day as well.
The story of the Good Samaritan is told by our Lord. It is meant to be understood in the context of what has already been said in Luke chapter 10. You may remember that in praising the Father, Jesus has just said:
“I praise Thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that Thou didst hide these things from the wise and intelligent [the scholars] and didst reveal them to babes” (Luke 10:21b).
In the story of the Good Samaritan, it is the scholars—the “wise and intelligent”—who are exposed for what they are (or are not). It will become clear that “these things”—the gospel, the truths of the kingdom of God—are hidden from them. The Samaritan is no scholar at all, but he is the hero of our text. What is the difference between “Samaritans” and “scholars,” in our text, so that the good Samaritan is really “good,” while the religious scholars of our Lord’s day are not? The story of the Good Samaritan helps us to see the difference.
- Our text has two basic structural divisions, each of which is prompted by a question.
- The first part of the story is in answer to the question, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
- The second part deals the question, “Who is my neighbor?”
These are the two major divisions then: (1) “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (verses 25-28), and (2) “Who is my neighbor?” (verses 29-37). We shall ponder the answer to these two questions in our study of this text.
The First Question
Let us look then at the first question, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” The man who comes to Jesus is a lawyer. He is not the kind of lawyer who goes to court with us for a traffic ticket or to bail someone out of jail. This “lawyer” is an expert in the Old Testament law, in particular, the Law of Moses, which is contained in the first five books of the Bible. We might say that this person is an Old Testament scholar, specializing in the Law of Moses. This term “lawyer” is not used very frequently in the Bible. We find it only in the Gospels, in Luke 10 and Matthew 22:35.
Our text tells us that this “lawyer” comes to our Lord, asking this question to put Jesus to the test. It is a hypocritical question, because he appears to be a seeker, but he is not. He is not really seeking to be taught by Jesus, nor is he interested in finding the way to eternal life. He believes he understands all these things. He does not believe that Jesus, an uneducated man (so far as Judaism viewed Him—see John 1:46; 7:44-49; Acts 4:13), could possibly teach him anything. He feigns respect for Jesus as a teacher of the law, but he is only seeking to test Jesus by questioning Him so that he can then say, “Your teaching is not consistent with the law.” When the lawyer asks, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life,” this phraseology is not that of the Old Testament. The Old Testament law says, “Do this and live.” The lawyer is using Jesus’ terminology, and is asking, “What is the essence of your teaching?” He wants to take the bottom line of Jesus’ system and compare it with the bottom line of Judaism so that he can then say, “Your system is wrong.” That is his intention.
The lawyer’s question implies that he does not expect Jesus to respond with a sequence of acts, but rather with one decisive act. Much like the rich young ruler in the Gospel of Matthew, he seems to be saying, “What good thing must I do in order to have eternal life?” Notice now how Jesus responds to this man’s question. First of all, Jesus does not relinquish His claim to authority. Jesus does not respond with the kind of false humility that says, “Well, of course, you’re the scholar.” He says to the scholar, “You have answered correctly,” retaining His authority and dealing with him as the student and He the teacher. Jesus would not pretend to be other than Who He was—the Messiah. Our Lord is the Master; this man is not, even though he is commonly regarded as a scholar. So what does Jesus immediately do? He does not answer his question. I must tell you that this is the great temptation for anybody who is a teacher: Don’t just stand there, teach something. Do you notice that Jesus restrains Himself from giving the man an answer and instead says, “You know the law, how does it read to you?”
I find it surprising that Jesus asks the lawyer what the law teaches, because when I come to the Gospels I come from the perspective of the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus often says, “You have heard it said, but I say to you.…” In other words, “Here is what Judaism teaches about the law, but here is what the law really means.” I come, therefore, expecting that Judaism is wrong when it teaches the law, but it is not always wrong. You may remember what Jesus says in Matthew 23 (which is not a bad commentary on this individual in particular or on Judaism in general). Matthew 23:1-2 is part of our Lord’s criticism of the Jewish religious leaders: “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses.” Had the lawyer in our text not “seated himself in the chair of Moses?” That is, had he not come to Jesus as the one in authority, who had the right to teach others the meaning of what Moses wrote? That is why we are told that he is a lawyer; he is an Old Testament scholar and thus a teacher of the law. One would expect Jesus to say, “Don’t listen to anything they say; they’re wrong.” But He says,
3 … Therefore, all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things, and do not do them” (Matthew 23:3).
Is this not an amazing thing to hear from our Lord? He is saying, “Their teaching is not wrong, but their practice is wrong because it is hypocritical. Listen to what they say; do what they say, but don’t do what they do because they are hypocrites. They say one thing, and they do something else.” Therefore, Jesus is willing to say to the lawyer in our text, “How does the law read to you? You tell me.” We see this elsewhere in the Gospels when the rich young ruler comes to Jesus and asks, “What shall I do … ?” When another lawyer asks Jesus, “What is the great commandment,” Jesus tells him the answer. In our text, when the lawyer asks the question, Jesus says, “You tell Me the answer.” (What is interesting is that both answers are virtually the same.) Jesus refrains from giving an answer to his question. Instead, He asks a question, and the lawyer responds. His answer to our Lord’s question draws together two of the great Old Testament texts: (1) “loving God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength,” a citation of Deuteronomy 6:5; and, (2) a citation from Leviticus 19:18: “You are to love your neighbor as yourself.”
The answer the lawyer gives Jesus is absolutely correct, and it is also identical with the answer our Lord gave when He was asked a similar question. There is no difference of opinion about what the law teaches in terms of the essence of the law. Jesus asks the question; the man gives the answer. Jesus then responds, “Good answer; now do it. If you really want to know the answer to the question, ‘How does a man attain (that is, earn) eternal life,’ the law says, ‘Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself, and do it habitually.’”
Our Lord’s reply, “Do this and you will live,” is a quotation from Scripture as well. Unfortunately, the New International Version does not indicate this, but you will notice the capital letters in the New American Standard Version, which indicate that it is a citation from Leviticus 18:5. The answer of the law is, “If you would attain to eternal life by the keeping of the law, then keep the law. Do it and live. Keep on doing it and live.”
The words of the law, cited by the lawyer, go even further. They not only require that one keep the law; they require that one keep the whole law perfectly. You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind. You must not only love your neighbor, you must love him as yourself. The law must be kept, all of it, without any omissions or failures. In other words, in order to be justified under the law, one must be perfect. This is certainly not what this lawyer wanted to hear. If the lawyer believed that Jesus was making eternal life too easy, by requiring only one thing, he just fell into the trap of saying (by the words he quoted) that his system made eternal life impossible, for no one could possibly keep the whole law perfectly. And this is exactly what the law required. Listen to what the apostle Paul writes on this point:
For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, “CURSED IS EVERYONE WHO DOES NOT ABIDE BY ALL THINGS WRITTEN IN THE BOOK OF THE LAW, TO PERFORM THEM” (Galatians 3:10).
It is at this point that our expert in the law becomes downright uneasy. Here is where beads of sweat must have started to form on his brow. Jesus has not yet told this man anything new. He simply asks the man how he reads the law, and the man reads the law exactly as Jesus does. Then Jesus says, “All right, you know what the law says; do it.” This is where it gets uncomfortable for us too, isn’t it? The law commands us to do what we cannot and persistently do not do. If you want to be saved by your works, by law keeping, then you must be saved by keeping the whole law; not most of the time, but all of the time; not in most of its commands, but in all of its commands. This is when beads of sweat should begin to form on all of our brows as well.
It is very important that we understand this: Jesus is not teaching works as a means of salvation here; He is actually teaching that doing good works (law keeping) cannot save anyone, because no one can keep the law perfectly. This man asks the question, “How can I be saved?” Jesus answers, “You tell Me, according to the law.” He responds, “One can be saved by perfectly and persistently obeying the whole law, with one’s whole heart, soul, mind and strength.” The lawyer is now on the spot. The system he is seeking to defend, is a system that cannot save anyone. In seeking to condemn Jesus, the lawyer has just condemned himself and the whole world.
The Second Question
Our lawyer tried to put Jesus on the defensive, to force Him to justify Himself. And now, suddenly and unexpectedly, it is the lawyer who is on the spot. He now feels obligated to justify himself. And he attempts to do this by asking Jesus a second question. Some people never learn! Our text says, “trying to justify himself, he asked, “Who is my neighbor?”
The passage which the lawyer just quoted says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.” You’d think this guy would be real uneasy about his ability to do this, but instead he seems more worried about the command to love his neighbor. Why? My theory (which is only theory) is that it is difficult to test one’s love for God. How do you assess one’s attitudes, one’s devotion, one’s meditation, one’s relationship with God? You can’t. But if you want to find some way to measure one’s love for God, you can look at his love for his neighbor. Isn’t that what the Book of James is saying to us (and 1 John too)? James says that a man who professes that he has faith and yet doesn’t show love for his neighbor is a man with a false profession. I find it interesting that the title of one of Chuck Colson’s books is Loving God, but the subject matter of that book is about loving man. When you read this book, you find that the love men have for God is expressed by their love for their fellow man. I suspect that the reason this lawyer is so uneasy about the command to love his neighbor is because he knows his love for his neighbor is deficient.
The lawyer of the Old Testament law now begins to do what some lawyers do so well—look for a technicality in the law itself. He is seeking to find some excuse from the law that gets him off the hook. He goes into his scholarly mode, as it were, and asks this very deep theological question, “And who is my neighbor?” I love what Jesus does, or rather, what He does not do. Jesus does not say, “Oh, that is a profound question.” He does not pull out His Hebrew lexicon (dictionary) and say, “Oh, that’s a very interesting Hebrew word.” Preachers sometimes appeal to the more technical elements of the original languages in which the Bible was written, but Jesus does not do this.
Neither will Jesus allow Himself to be drawn into a debate with this lawyer. (How fortunate for the lawyer!) Jesus could have argued with this lawyer, and won! Let’s play out a possible argument for just a moment. If on the surface, you ask the question, “And who is my neighbor,” what would the answer be? We know what the Jewish answer was: “My neighbor is my fellow Israelite.” There is a way in which this looks like the right answer. Look with me at Leviticus 19:18, the command to love your neighbor as yourself. I want you to look at this verse for a moment:
“Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).
Now answer this question on the basis of this verse alone, “Who is my neighbor?” Do you know his answer? The Jew would say, “One of my fellow Jews.”
On the surface, it looks like the inquisitive lawyer is safe on the basis of this verse alone. But let’s look further than this one verse. Here is where Jesus could really take this lawyer apart, and it is amazing that He doesn’t. First, we are told elsewhere in the law (in the study of which this man is regarded as a scholar) that God loves the alien; that is, God loves the non-Israelite (Deuteronomy 10:18). God defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow and He loves the alien. God loves the non-Israelite as well as the Israelite. In the Jewish mind, the law belonged to the Jews and no one else. God says, “The law applies equally to Jews and non-Jews, and you’d better not interpret it differently.” Look at these verses with me.
22 “You are to have the same law for the alien and the native-born. I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 24:22).
There are not two sets of laws, one for Israelites and one for the Gentiles:
15 “The community is to have the same rules for you and for the alien living among you; this is a lasting ordinance for the generations to come. You and the alien shall be the same before the Lord.” 16 The same laws and regulations will apply both to you and to the alien living among you” (Numbers 15:15,16, NIV).
“And I charged your judges at that time, [These are the men who apply the laws.] “Hear the disputes between your brothers and judge fairly, whether the case is between brother Israelites or between one of them and an alien” (Deuteronomy 1:16, NIV).
If I were to ask you the question, “Does the Old Testament teach that there is one set of laws for the Jews, and another set of laws for the Gentiles?,” I would hope you knew that the answer is, “No!” The clincher text is in Leviticus 19:34 right down the road from Leviticus 19:18:
“The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself” (Leviticus 19:34a, NIV).
1 Peter 4:10-11 10 As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. 11 Whoever speaks, let him speak, as it were, the utterances of God; whoever serves, let him do so as by the strength which God supplies; so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belongs the glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. (NASB)
Wouldn’t you love to have been in a debate with this lawyer, sitting there casually with your hands in your pockets, and then to turn and ask him, “Haven’t you read the law?” Oh, what a delight it would have been! He’s absolutely wrong, and Jesus knew it better than any of us. But Jesus doesn’t take this man apart, even though it would have been easy for Him to do so. Jesus simply responds to the lawyer’s second question by telling a story, the story of the Good Samaritan.
What Our Text Does and Does Not Say
Let us take note of what our text does not say, and then consider what it says. In this story, we can be tempted to assume things that are not said. For example, Jesus says, “A man was going down from Jerusalem” (The New American Standard Version says, “A certain man was going down from Jerusalem.”). While Jesus makes it clear that the two travelers (the priest and the Levite) are Jewish, and that the hero is a Samaritan, we are not told the racial origins of the victim. The reason is simple—it doesn’t matter. And if it mattered to the first two travelers, it should not matter to us. The only thing that matters about that man is the one thing we’re told about him—that he is badly hurt and in need of help! The man had been mugged. Robbers overtook him, beating him badly and stripping him of his clothes, and then leaving him lying by the road, half-dead. This man needed help, badly. That’s what matters; and that’s what the text tells us. It isn’t matter whether it is a Jew who needs help or a Gentile. There is a human being lying by the road, who is seriously wounded and who desperately needs help.
We are told that two of Judaism’s finest specimens come upon the injured man as they make their way along the same road. These two men seem to be there by chance (see verses 31 & 32). I take it that this means they did not have any pressing business, which might have hindered them from stopping to render aid. These two men—the priest and the Levite—belonged to an elite Jewish class; both of them were religious professionals. In today’s vocabulary, we might say that one was a prominent pastor and the other a well-known televangelist. If anybody was expected to carry out the Old Testament law, it would be these men.
The priest came upon the injured victim first. He could see the man lying by the side of the road as he approached. Rather than to get involved, the priest deliberately walked on the other side of the road, so as not to get too close to the battered victim. I suspect that the priest carefully focused his eyes straight ahead or in the opposite direction of the injured man, so that he would not see his suffering. He did not check to see of the man was alive or dead. He did not ask the man if he needed help. He did nothing that would enlighten him about this man’s condition, and thus his need. For this priest, ignorance was indeed bliss.
The Levite was no different than the priest. He came upon the injured man some time after the priest. His actions were a virtual re-play of the scene with the priest. He passed by the suffering traveler on the other side, so that he would not feel obligated to do anything to help him. If the priest and the Levite felt any emotion at the sight of this man, it was probably revulsion at the sight of his injuries and deplorable condition.
The critical difference between the Samaritan, the priest, and the Levite is their compassion, or lack of it. So far as the attitude of the three travelers toward this man and his condition this the only difference the text indicates. The text tells us that the priest comes along and says (so to speak), “Yuk!” and he turns away. The text says virtually the same thing about the Levite. He comes along; he looks briefly, and then he turns aside. He doesn’t get too close. He doesn’t say, “Are you still alive?” He doesn’t listen for a heartbeat, or try to get a pulse. He doesn’t say, “I’ll send an ambulance.” He does not say, “I’d like to help you, but if I touch you, I may be ceremonially defiled.” He looks, and he says to himself, “How disgusting,” and he walks away. It is the opposite of compassion. It is repulsion. He doesn’t want to know any more about this man.
Have you ever seen somebody back into a car, hear the crunch and feel the cars bump, and then not even get out of their car to see what damage they might have done? They don’t want to know, because if they see the damage, they will feel more responsible for it. So they put their car in drive and move on. That is exactly what these two men do. They do not look; they do not know the extent of the need. All they see is a tragedy and a need, and that is enough to turn their stomachs and their heads. They go all the way around this man to avoid seeing, much less doing, anything about his need.
The Samaritan Comes on the Scene
At this point in the story, the Samaritan comes upon the same scene. Before we consider his response to the injured traveler, we need to review a little concerning the relationship between the Jews and the Samaritans. When the Assyrians defeated Israel, they dispersed the Israelites of the Northern Kingdom among the Gentile nations. They also brought foreigners into the land of Israel to re-populate the land. The result was a half-breed race (half Jewish, half Gentile) that populated the Northern Kingdom of Israel from then on. When the Babylonians took the southern kingdom of Judah captive, they did not intermingle the races but kept the Jews separate, and so “pure” Jews returned to Judah. The “Jews” of Judah came to disdain the half-breed Samaritans, and not without reason, since the Samaritans gave those who returned from their Babylonian captivity much grief and opposition as they attempted to rebuild the city of Jerusalem, its walls, and the temple (see Ezra 4:10, 17; Nehemiah 4:2).
That same hostility between the Jews and the Samaritans is very evident in the New Testament. Perhaps the most enlightening text is found in the fourth chapter of the Gospel of John. When Jesus (deliberately) passed through Samaria, He became thirsty and asked a Samaritan woman for a drink of water. The woman was surprised and asked Jesus why He, a Jew, would ask her, a Samaritan, for a drink, since Jews and Samaritans did not associate with each other. This woman went on to discuss with Jesus some of the theological differences between the Jews and the Samaritans, but Jesus would not allow her to sidetrack Him from His presentation of the heart of the Gospel. In the Gospel of Luke, chapter 9, we read that the Lord’s disciples went ahead of Jesus, into a Samaritan village, to make arrangements for the Lord’s arrival. When the Samaritans learned that Jesus was headed for Jerusalem, they would not allow Him to enter their village, and so the disciples asked Jesus for permission to call down fire from heaven to destroy the place, but were forbidden and rebuked by Him (9:51-55).
You can imagine the response of the Jewish lawyer, when Jesus introduces the Good Samaritan into his story. Two Jews, holding the most esteemed religious positions in Israel, have deliberately ignored the needs of a helpless, half-dead robbery victim. Rather than to help him they simply chose to look the other way. And now, approaching the same crime scene, comes a Samaritan, the lowest possible rung on the Jewish social ladder. This Samaritan, unlike the priest and the Levite, has a reason for his journey. He is on a trip. If anyone could excuse himself from getting involved, it was this Samaritan. But when he saw the man lying by the road, he reacted in a very different manner. The Samaritan, unlike the two religious Jews, felt compassion for the victim (verse 33).
He drew near to the victim, rather than to veer to the far side of the road. He treated the man’s wounds and bandaged him. The Samaritan does not seem to have had a first aid kit in his saddle bag; rather the wine, the oil, and perhaps even the cloth he used to bind the wounds came from his own food supplies and clothing. He placed the wounded man on his own mount, and brought him to an inn, where he spent the night caring for the man. The Samaritan had to continue his journey, but he did not let this keep him from providing care for the injured traveler. He paid for the victim’s room in advance, and saw to it that the innkeeper looked in on the recovering victim. He promised to return, and to fully reimburse the innkeeper for any additional expenses. There is nothing more the Samaritan could have done to minister to the man on whom he had compassion.
Jesus Concludes His Story
At the conclusion of His story Jesus asks the Jewish lawyer a final question: “Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the robbers’ hands?” The lawyer really chokes on his words here. He cannot find it in himself to even pronounce the word “Samaritan,” and so he answers, “The one who showed mercy toward him.”
Twice now, Jesus has been asked a question by the lawyer. Twice, Jesus asked the lawyer a question in response. And twice, Jesus then responded to the lawyer’s answer by telling him to “do” that which he had just said. The lawyer asked Jesus what one must do to inherit eternal life. When Jesus asked him what the law required, the lawyer responded with the two-fold command to love God and to love one’s neighbor. Our Lord then told the lawyer to do this. When the lawyer asked Jesus who his neighbor was, Jesus told this story of the Good Samaritan, and then asked the lawyer to identify who was a neighbor to the man in need. And when the lawyer reluctantly identified the Samaritan as the “good neighbor,” the Lord told the lawyer to imitate the Samaritan.
Why does Jesus twice tell this lawyer to “do” something in order to “inherit eternal life”? Why would Jesus tell a man to do something when He Himself taught that a man cannot be saved by his works? Here is the answer: because he is talking to a man who believes and teaches that a person is saved by his works, by his law keeping. If law keeping is the way to eternal life, no wonder this man is a lawyer! Jesus tells this man, “Do what the law requires and live,” because he has really asked Jesus this question: “Based upon the law, what shall I do to have eternal life?” The answer of our Lord is this: “You are to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.” Now we see why Jesus doesn’t go any farther with this man than he does; it is because this man first has to see the inadequacy of the law keeping system he embraces as the only means to obtaining eternal life. This man will not turn to Christ as the Messiah until he first turns from his dependence on law keeping to save him.
When a man like our lawyer friend in this text reaches this point, he has a fundamental decision to make: (1) Because he is condemned by the law, he must look for justification before God in some other way than keeping the law; or, (2) He must attempt to avoid being condemned by the law by finding (or creating) some technicality, which appears to get him off the hook. No wonder this man had become an expert in the law.
There is a great contrast in our text between the two religious leaders and the Samaritan, but at its very root, there is one thing that especially distinguishes the Samaritan from the Jews—compassion. When the two Jewish religious leaders saw the injured man, they seem to be repulsed, and they do everything they can to ignore and avoid him. The Samaritan, moved with compassion, does everything possible to minister to the needs of the injured victim.
What is Jesus trying to teach this Jewish lawyer here, by telling him this story? Overall, I believe that Jesus is attempting to show this lawyer that the Jewish religious system of that day was completely bankrupt. This lawyer obviously saw himself as the authority, and Jesus as the back woods preacher. The lawyer thought of himself as the accreditation agency, and of Jesus as the novice who was being tested for official approval. The lawyer thought of Judaism as owning the only franchise offering tickets to “kingdom of God,” and anyone who did not obtain their official approval as imposters.
Jesus sought to show this self-confident lawyer that by his own definitions, law keeping was not the pathway to eternal life, because no one is able to live up to the demands of the law. In order for one to be saved by law keeping, he must fulfill every requirement of the law all of the time, and with his whole heart, soul, mind and strength. This was impossible, and so this lawyer should realize that the law can only condemn, but it cannot save.
This lawyer’s confidence in the law and his ability to keep it was at the heart of his resistance to Jesus Christ. He confronted Jesus because he perceived (correctly) that our Lord posed a threat to Judaism. This lawyer was unwilling to accept faith in the Lord Jesus as the way to eternal life because his whole life was devoted to the preservation and promotion of law keeping. Until this lawyer saw the bankruptcy of his religious system, he could not cast himself on Jesus for salvation by faith.
The story of the Good Samaritan teaches some very important lessons to law keepers, to those who wrongly supposed they can earn eternal life by doing good works. It teaches that those in the highest offices of Judaism are guilty of a lack of compassion, which is at the heart of what the law required:
9 And as Jesus passed on from there, He saw a man, called Matthew, sitting in the tax office; and He said to him, “Follow Me!” And he rose, and followed Him. 10 And it happened that as He was reclining at the table in the house, behold many tax-gatherers and sinners came and were dining with Jesus and His disciples. 11 And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to His disciples, “Why is your Teacher eating with the tax-gatherers and sinners?” 12 But when He heard this, He said, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick. 13 “But go and learn what this means, ‘I DESIRE COMPASSION, AND NOT SACRIFICE,’ for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:9-13).
There was a very fundamental difference between our Lord’s way of salvation and that of Judaism. Our Lord’s way was that of grace, through faith in the sacrificial death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Judaism’s way was the way of law keeping, impossible though it may be. If a man actually supposed that he earned eternal life by his good works—by law keeping—then it is no wonder that he would be proud and self-righteous. Salvation (eternal life) was the result of his working. And so it comes as no surprise to see the priest and the Levite passing by the robbery victim with no compassion at all. They looked at the afflicted as those who suffered due to their own sin (see John 9:1), and they looked upon the affluent as those who had lifted themselves up by their own bootstraps. No wonder they had no compassion on the “sick.” No wonder the prophet Jonah wanted to watch the people of Nineveh be burned to a crisp, even the little children and the animals (see Jonah chapter 4). Self-righteousness is a subsidiary of legalism, and the mortal enemy of compassion and mercy.
Grace, on the other hand, is the mother of compassion. The lawyer was partially correct in his assessment of our Lord’s teaching about the way to eternal life. Jesus did teach that eternal life is granted by the doing (so to speak) of one thing—namely, believing in Jesus Christ. If one recognizes that law keeping cannot save, but can only condemn, then eternal life must come another way. And so it does. Those who accept the indictment of their sins by the law can be saved, apart from good works, by trusting in the only One who has ever kept the whole law, the One who died to satisfy the death penalty which the law pronounced upon sinners. Jesus Christ is the only righteous man to have lived on this earth. He alone fulfilled the law perfectly. And yet He took our sins upon Himself, bearing the curse of death which the law pronounced upon us. And by trusting in His death, burial, and resurrection on our behalf, our sins are forgiven and we receive the free gift of eternal life.
Since this eternal life is not the result of our good works, but the result of God’s grace manifested in and through Jesus Christ, we have nothing to be proud of, no basis for feeling self-righteous. And because God has been merciful and gracious to us, we can show mercy and compassion toward others. Grace leaves no place for self-righteousness; it is the basis for compassion. That is what Jesus is trying to help this lawyer to understand through the parable of the Good Samaritan.
And just as this despised and rejected Samaritan became the “savior” of the robbery victim on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, so the despised and rejected Jesus of Nazareth has become the Savior of all who trust in Him:
3 He was despised and forsaken of men, A man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; And like one from whom men hide their face, He was despised, and we did not esteem Him. 4 Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, Smitten of God, and afflicted. 5 But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; he chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed. 6 All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him (Isaiah 53:3-6).
Let me say one more thing as I conclude this lesson. This parable (and this sermon) are not intended to demean true biblical scholarship and study. I do believe that this parable was meant to condemn scholasticism, the intellectual and academic study of the Bible that is substituted for faith and obedience. How this lawyer seems to have enjoyed intellectualizing the truth of God’s Word. How hard he tried to keep the discussion scholarly and detached from life. But our Lord would not allow this man to deal with the truth of God’s Word in a test tube. Jesus would not define the term “neighbor” by doing a Hebrew word study. He defined it by telling a story. And Jesus will not allow the lawyer to deliberate and pass judgment as to whether someone else is our neighbor; He challenges us to ask ourselves whether or not we are good neighbors to those in need. That is what the truth of God’s Word is for, it is to be rightly understood and then rightly lived. God does not want us to give Him a textbook definition of loving our neighbor; He wants us to demonstrate love for our neighbor in the real world, by showing compassion to one in need, as did the Good Samaritan. Let us beware of intellectualizing the truth. Let us beware of keeping the Word of God in the classroom. And let us live out the grace of God that we have experienced it, if indeed we have experienced it.