August 25, 2013
Growing up vacationing in a motorhome, one of the things I got used to noticing were stickers on RVs that had a big smiling face of a man with a halo over his head and the words underneath, “The Good Sam Club.” The Good Sam Club, of course, took its cue from Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. Here was this Samaritan who saw a person in need and stopped to help him in his need. When RVers joined the Good Sam Club, they were pledging to help fellow RVers in their need.
In the parable, Jesus obviously is distinguishing the Samaritan from the two Jewish characters in the story, the priest and the Levite. Those two did not stop to help the man in need, but the Samaritan did. The Good Sam Club did not form as an organization for theological motives, but simply to provide a way for people to join together to help each other out. However, often Christians take a similar approach to their theology. What is Jesus teaching us in the parable of the Good Samaritan? We should be like the Good Samaritan, of course!, and not like those wretched Jewish priests and Levites who wouldn’t even stop to help a poor soul in need.
But if this is really what Jesus is getting at, then what truly is the difference between His religion and, say, an organization such as the Good Sam Club? There is no difference. The man who was testing Jesus was wanting a theology similar to what can be found in a secular organization such as the Good Sam Club. Jesus, however, is teaching something radically different.
Looking again at the parable Jesus teaches, what is the difference between the Samaritan and the two other guys, the priest and the Levite? The answer is: absolutely nothing. There is no difference. The priest and the Levite were obviously sinful human beings. Their actions attest to that. The thing that is easily missed is that so was the Samaritan. The Jews found it easy to notice that those heretic Samaritans were sinners. And they were right. The Samaritans were sinners, just as the one in Jesus’ parable was. What might have been harder for them to realize is that they were just as much sinful people as those hated Samaritans were.
So the Parable of the Good Samarian might better be titled the Parable of the Sinful Samaritan. There were three sinners who traveled the road the man was on who had been beaten and left for dead. There was no difference between them. For that matter, there was no difference between these three and the robbers and the man who had gotten beaten up! All were sinners.
Jesus’ response to the man is striking. Surely it can’t be right. The man asks what he must do to gain eternal life and Jesus directs him to the Law? What does it say? How do you read it? The man answers correctly. Exceptionally well, in fact. “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.” Wow, the man knew his stuff. That is the essence of the Law of God, the summary of the Ten commandments. And what does Jesus say to him? “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”
So is Jesus now teaching salvation by works? Is He directing the man to the Law so that he can indeed gain salvation by what he does rather than by grace alone? Is Jesus, after all, doing what every other religion does and teach that there is something we must do in order to gain eternal life? What Jesus is doing in fact is answering the man in the way he is approaching God. If you want to know what you can do to gain favor with God, Jesus will tell you. You must be perfect. You must go to the Law of God and keep it down to its last jot and tittle. So, yes, what Jesus said is true. Do this and you will live. You will have eternal life exactly as you have desired it.
But don’t we know deep down that that can’t happen? That it’s not that God will renege on His part of the bargain, but more that we simply will fall short. That far from keeping all the Ten Commandments, we’ll be lucky if we can get beyond the first one.
Ask a Law question and you will get a Law answer. The man asks Jesus about God and salvation but from a Law standpoint. Not from how God brings it about, but from how he can do something whereby God will be expected to grant him eternal life. Ask a Law question, get a Law answer. And the Law will always fail you if you hang your hat on it. That’s what Jesus shows in his parable of the Samaritan. This was Jesus’ response to the man’s second attempt at getting a satisfying answer to his question.
Jesus’ first answer was straight-forward. You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live. But the man, Luke says, wished to justify himself. That’s easy for You to say, Jesus, keep the Law and you will live. But I want to show you that I am one who deserves eternal life. So if I am to love my neighbor as myself, who is my neighbor? The answer is the one who is not worthy of your time or your money or your effort. The answer is the one you would just as soon ignore. The answer is the one you naturally think of as one who is opposed to you.
This is who the Samaritans were. They were the enemies. And it wasn’t a one-sided thing. The Samaritans hated the Jews just as much as the Jews hated the Samaritans. Each thought they were the true people of God. So when this man, a Jew, asked Jesus who he should love as himself, his neighbor, he was expecting the guy down the street; his fellow Jew; a person who is worthy of love; something along those lines. But not a Samaritan! Not the hated half-breeds from up north. Not someone who is not worthy to be spoken of in polite company.
But this is the beauty of Jesus’ parable. It is the beauty of His answer to how one gains eternal life. The Samaritan is not the one in need. The Samaritan is not the one in the story who needs help. It is indeed a fellow Jew. And what happens? The two other Jews in the story pass right on by. And they are not even your ordinary Jews, but a priest, and a Levite! These do not see a neighbor in that man lying there half-dead. Their own fellow Jew. What if it had been a Samaritan? It wouldn’t have made a difference. These religious Jews weren’t about to stop and help one in need.
But it was the hated Samaritan who did. The man had asked, Who is my neighbor? Jesus responded with a question of His own. Who was the neighbor to the man who needed help? It was the Samaritan, of course. Or, as the man said it, “The one who showed him mercy.” And this is where we see how Jesus teaches the man that it is not by works that he will be saved. It is not by anything he will do or any attempt to justify himself that he will gain eternal life. But it is rather by mercy. It is rather by God’s pure gift to the man.
Ask a Law question, and you will get a Law answer. When the man responded to Jesus, getting it right once again, “The one who showed mercy on him,” Jesus said, “You go, and do likewise.” Do this and you will live. Be a neighbor to the one in need. Have mercy on the one who is your sworn enemy. Give of your own time, your own money, your own effort to help the one who is left for dead, and you will live. You will have eternal life and blessings beyond your wildest imagination.
And is this because you have done all this? Has Jesus reversed course again and reverted to teaching salvation by works, by what we do? No, He has done just the opposite. To see this, we go back again to our alternate title of the parable, the Parable of the Sinful Samaritan. The fact that the Samaritan was the good Samaritan wasn’t due to him being somehow a better person than the priest or the Levite. It was due to him having been justified, as the man testing Jesus had sought, but justified by grace. Justified by the Gospel, by God forgiving him his sins. Not by keeping the Law. Not by attempting to show his worth to God. The priest and the Levite were prime examples of the Law of God, but they did not see the need for showing mercy as they had received it. The Samaritan was outside of the Jews’ law.
As he walked down that road he did so as a justified sinner. The priest was a sinner, and so was the Levite. The Samaritan saw a man in need. One who was as he was. The Samaritan received mercy and simply did what people who have received mercy do, they show it others. Especially those in need. They do not consider that the person they’re helping is not worthy, or their hated rival, or cannot repay them. They just do it. Having received mercy, they give mercy. They live under mercy, they are merciful to others.
We can be grateful that there are people who want to be in organizations like the Good Sam Club. We can be grateful that there are people who simply help others out whether they’re in an organization for that or not. We can be grateful that there are people who want to be good people. Mostly what we can be grateful for is mercy. Not what we can do, how much we can do, what will be enough for God to take us in. Simply mercy. God’s mercy in His Son. The sinless one who walked the road we were on and picked us poor sinners up and poured out for oil His own blood to wash away all our sins. Who did not walk on by but walked to the cross so that He could suffer as the sinner in our place. He did this for those who did not deserve it, you and me. He did this for those who are not worthy, everyone.
There is one who is good and He is Christ. There is one who needed no justification but is the one who has justified all in His suffering, death, and resurrection. There is one who gives you balm in your need, medicine for your soul; one who brings you to the Inn of the Church and there feeds you with His body and blood. Who forgives you. Who strengthens you. Who preserves you in body and soul to life everlasting. Amen.