All-too-often, we portray this beautiful gem of gospel truth as one more burden, not the blessing Jesus intended. So, what is the true meaning of this parable? Let's take a look.
Jesus and the Lawyer "What is the least I can do?"
The first five verses of the parable set the stage for this story. A lawyer - that is, an expert in the law - tried to test Jesus. Specifically, he wanted to know what he had to do to inherit eternal life (v. 25). We might be bold enough to say that he wanted to know the least he could do and still inherit eternal life. He was asking, in so many words, "How good is good enough?"
Now, let's pause here because this is vitally important. If you miss this, you lose the meaning of this entire passage. Again, what was the lawyer's concern? It was salvation and, more specifically, how he could attain it (we might even say earn it) through his efforts. That is the frame for this story; it's the question Jesus aims to answer. Don't forget that. We'll come back to it in just a second.
How did Jesus respond? He lowered the boom. He said, "You shall 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" (v. 27). In so doing, he summarized the entire law of God (cf. Matt. 22:37-40). In other words, Jesus responded that if you want to attain or earn heaven through your efforts, you need to do everything God commands, with every fiber of your being, every single time - no exceptions.
Clearly, the lawyer understood the awful implication because he immediately felt the need to justify himself (v. 29). How did he do so? As Jesus lowered the boom, the lawyer tried to lower the bar. He responded, "And who is my neighbor?" Again, this was his attempt to lessen the all-encompassing and uncompromising demands of God's law; he wanted to know what was the least he could do and still inherit eternal life.
To answer his question, to identify his neighbor, Jesus then told this famous story involving six characters: robbers, a presumably Jewish man, a priest, a Levite, a Samaritan, and - only incidentally - an innkeeper. A while ago, someone showed me how three of these characters illustrate the three basic approaches we can have toward God's blessings.
Approach #1: The Robbers "What's yours is mine."
The first approach is that of the robbers. Their view is: "What's yours is mine." Verse 30 continues:
Jesus replied, A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead."
The strong implication here is that these are irreligious folks. They're thieves and men of violence. They don't fear God and don't care about others. They care only about themselves and will take advantage of others for their selfish gain. They're cruel, not compassionate.
Our natural impulse here, as would have undoubtedly been the case for the lawyer initially hearing this, is to vilify these robbers - to see them as somehow different from, somehow morally inferior to us.
However, Jesus invites us to a much deeper level of introspection. Consider the implication of such thinking. If we find nothing in these robbers similar to ourselves, what we're saying is that there are standards of God that we've met, and commands that we've fulfilled. We're saying that we're not only better than them; we're different from them.
For instance, when we hear the eighth commandment ("Thou shalt not steal."), we won't think it speaks to us - but it does. Some point out that the eighth commandment is, in many ways, a summary of all the others. Violating the first table of the law is to rob God of his glory. Breaking the second table of the law is to rob parents of their rightful honor, innocents of their lives, husbands or wives of their spouses, and innocents of justice or their reputations. Even coveting is the desire to have what others possess - to "steal" it in our hearts. In other words, we are all robbers. Like the roadside bandits in Jesus' story, we want what we want, and, all too often, we'll do whatever it takes to get it.
So, here we have a wounded innocent lying on the side of the road, half-dead. He needs help. He requires compassion. It's critical.
Approach #2: The Priest and the Levite "What's mine is mine."
It's here that Jesus introduces the second approach. He describes a priest and a Levite. Their view is: "What's mine is mine." The story continues in verses 31-32:
31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.
Here, Jesus takes an unexpected turn. Unlike the godless robbers, Jesus introduces eminently religious figures - a priest and a Levite. The lawyer probably expected these to be heroes in Jesus' story. However, it's even more likely that Jesus employed a conventional story device of the time - two religious leaders who fail and then a common man who succeeds. This would be somewhat akin to our three-fold joke formulas - ex. "Three guys walk into a bar - an Episcopalian, a Presbyterian, and a Pentecostal."
One thing is for sure: these two are not heroes. They both walk by the wounded man. Moreover, they - probably to avoid touching a possibly dead man and defiling themselves after religious service in Jerusalem - each "passed by on the other side." Not only did they not help; they didn't even go near! They wanted to keep what was theirs - in this case, a religious record and reputation.
Now, again, our instinct is to condemn these two - to not see ourselves in them. That would be to miss the point.
How does the Bible describe those apart from God's salvation in Jesus Christ? It uses many metaphors, right? We might say they're lost or blind or hardened, or we might use any of a myriad of other descriptions. One of the direst is this: dead. Before Christ knew us, we were spiritually dead in our trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1).
In other words, we live and walk among those who have yet to find a new life in Jesus Christ every single day. Do we pray for them? Do we get to know them? Do we strive to help them? Do we share the truth of God's love with them? Or do we, fresh from religious worship and service, pass by on the other side. I don't know about you, but that cuts me deep. I'm a man dead by the side of the road. I'm the robber. I'm the priest. I'm the Levite. Do you know who I'm definitely not? The Samaritan.
Approach #3: The Samaritan "What's mine is yours."
We read the third approach in verses 33-35. It's the approach of the Samaritan: "What's mine is yours."
33 But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. 34 He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 And the next day he took out two denarii[a] and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, 'Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.'
The lawyer probably expected Jesus to introduce a common man, to zing the religious establishment by exalting a member of the laity as especially righteous. Instead, Jesus blows his mind by adding the universally loathed and despised Samaritans into the picture.
The lawyer wanted to know what was the least he could do to inherit eternal life. Jesus told him the truth: the least anyone can do is everything.
In other words, Jesus shows that salvation, for the wounded man left for dead, came from a most unexpected place: an enemy, not a friend; the unclean, not the clean; the despised and rejected, not the admired and accepted.
At this point, if you're tracking with this amazing story, you might be connecting some dots. Perhaps you're realizing that, in this story, Jesus is the Good Samaritan. We treated Jesus as our enemy. He allowed his defilement that we might become clean. He allowed his rejection that we might be received.
Jesus is the Good Samaritan
There is a tendency to read as and reduce this parable to a morality tale. That's the way most people read it. We can almost hear our well-intentioned Sunday School teachers: "Now listen, little boys and girls: who pleased God in this story - the robbers? The priest? The Levite? No! It was the Good Samaritan. Now, you know what Jesus wants, right? He wants you to be a good little Samaritan, too."
Is that the ultimate point? No.
Remember the frame for this parable? The lawyer asked Jesus, "What shall I do to inherit eternal life?" This parable is primarily designed to answer that question. It's about salvation. Specifically, it's about justification - not merely behavior modification.
Jesus presented the lawyer with a portrayal of the high standard of God's all-encompassing, never yielding law. The lawyer, if he had any sense, was utterly demoralized by it. He might have asked himself, "Who could love like that?" That's precisely the point: only One can love like that, and only One has - Jesus. Salvation/justification can never and will never come by what we do, but rather can only occur through what Christ has done.
Jesus took the initiative.
What has Jesus done for us? Well, like the Good Samaritan, he took the initiative. He didn't pass us by at a distance. He drew near. He took on our flesh that he might share in our humanity. He endured temptation in every way that we do, yet without sin. He became one of us that he might become one with us.
The Bible tells us that "We love God because he first loved us" (1 John 4:19). It also says that "While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). Jesus didn't wait for us to draw near; he left his seat in glory to accomplish our rescue and redemption (cf. Philippians 2). Jesus took the initiative.
Jesus took the risk.
Do you know what else Jesus did for us? Like the Good Samaritan, he took risks. No, I don't mean that he left anything to chance. He didn't. I mean that Jesus risked hardship, danger, suffering, and death - all to rescue and redeem you from spiritual peril and poverty. No cost could exceed his compassion. No risk was too great.
Jesus took the time.
But Jesus didn't only move us out of harm's way. Like the Good Samaritan, he put us on the road to ultimate and lasting healing. He's paid every price necessary for our complete restoration. He's promised to see the good work he's begun through to completion (Philippians 1:6).
Jesus didn't ask, "What is the least I can do?"
The lawyer wanted to know what was the least he could do to inherit eternal life. Jesus told him the truth: the least anyone can do is everything. Knowing that he could not, Jesus created a crisis that only he can solve. Jesus showed that salvation could not come from within us - no matter how irreligious or religious. It must come from outside of us, even from a most unexpected place.
Jesus asked, "What can I do for the least?"
We can praise God that it has! Jesus did not ask, "What is the least I can do?" He asked, "What can I do for the least?" And he's done it - for you and me.
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