At first glance the parable of the Good Samaritan appears to be pretty simple to understand. An expert in Jewish law asks Jesus, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (Lk 10:25), and Jesus tells a story about a man who helped a stranger. “Go and do likewise” (Lk 10:37). Seems simple enough. Be nice to strangers and you’ll go to heaven. This is the core message of the American social gospel. Give a bum a buck. Give a hitchhiker a ride. Commit a random act of kindness. This theology is taught in our churches and schools. It is preached by our media, our politicians, and our clergy. Be a Good Samaritan. We often hear this message at funerals: “I know Bob’s in heaven, because he was such a nice guy. He helped strangers. He always had a smile for everyone.”
The Good Samaritan is understood as an example for us. Be like this guy. But there’s a problem with this interpretation. Jesus commanded, “Go and do likewise.” OK. For how long? How can you be sure you’ve been a good enough Samaritan? What if you never see a naked guy lying in the middle of the road? Exactly how many dollars do you need to give? How many kind deeds do you have to do before you can be sure that you have earned heaven?
And there’s a bigger problem. Many atheists are better at being Good Samaritans than you are. How many plane loads of food did you send to Haiti? How many billions of dollars have you pledged to fight AIDS in Africa? If being a Good Samaritan gets you into heaven, you’re going to find yourself at the wrong end of the line – miles behind Bill Gates, Ghandi, Warren Buffet, and countless other pagans who are far more righteous than you.
Yet our sinful flesh loves to misinterpret this parable. Why? Because it hates the true Gospel and it loves its own works for righteousness. It’s no wonder that the world, which is opposed to the things of God, can still be infatuated with the Good Samaritan. We name our heroes, our hospitals, our laws, and our charity programs after the Good Samaritan. We naturally love to see the Samaritan as an example just as we love to see Jesus as an example. WWJD – you’ve seen the bracelets. What would Jesus do? The first thing Jesus would do is be born of a virgin. How’s that working out for you? Might as well throw out your bracelet. You’re toast from the moment of conception. Concerning salvation, you’ve lost before you even started.
Likewise, the lawyer’s first question to Jesus showed that he had everything wrong from the beginning: “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” This man was supposed to be a legal expert. He should have known better. He should have chosen his words more carefully. What shall I do to inherit? What kind of question is that? Can you imagine asking Warren Buffet: “What shall I do to inherit your infinite wealth?” Are you kidding? If you’re name isn’t Buffet you don’t get a penny. You don’t do anything to inherit – you get born a Buffet or you don’t. Once again, you’re toast at conception. You will inherit nothing. This isn’t rocket science, so how can this expert ask such a messed up question concerning salvation? Because the carnal mind cannot comprehend the things of God. The gospel is simply so foreign to our natural understanding that apart from the Holy Spirit we can’t even put even put a basic sentence together, let alone understand God’s plan of salvation. Jesus said, “I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see, and did not see it, and to hear, and did not hear it” Lk 10:24). The gospel was not hidden because God kept it a big secret. It was hidden because our eyes were blind and our ears were deaf – deaf to any voice except the Law.
What must you do to inherit eternal life? The Law answers: “You shall love the Lord, your God, out of your whole heart, and in all your life, and in all your strength, and in all your mind – and if that’s not enough – You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lk 10:27). Do this, not just once, not from now on, but every moment of your life, from birth to death. Do this and you will live. Have you ever broken the First Commandment by taking thought for your life? Have you neglected the preaching of God’s Word? Did you have a selfish thought once twelve years ago? I’m sorry, the deal’s off. Instead of eternal life, you justly deserve eternal damnation and torment in the fires of hell. And those were just a few “petty” sins. More importantly, the Law requires that you have perfect love for God. This love must flow from the inward abundance of your heart and then spill over into every aspect of your life, your strength, and your thoughts. But what do you find when you look into your heart? Examine yourself with the mirror of God’s Word. Jesus says, “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness” (Mk 7:21-22). How can perfect love for God, which the Law justly demands, flow forth from an evil source? David writes, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Ps 51:5). You can’t get blood from a turnip, and you can’t produce love for God from a dead and wicked heart. Once again, you are toast at the moment of conception – even before you’ve had a chance to not love your neighbor.
Often we put the cart before the horse and focus on how we live, what we think, what we do. But these things come out of the heart. You can put lipstick on a corpse, but it’s still dead. You can clean up your act somewhat and perhaps people will say nice things about you at your funeral. But not God. When it comes to salvation, he’s not counting the dollars you gave to orphans in India or the hours you volunteered at church. He doesn’t look at the outward. God looks at the heart, and that’s a big problem.
Although the lawyer was cut to the heart by the righteous demands of the Law, he still sought to justify himself. When faced with the incalculable debt to the Law, there is no end to the self-justifying schemes of your Old Adam. Give him ten minutes, and he’ll come up with a new plan to climb out of the hole. Let’s pay off one credit card with another. That’s exactly what the lawyer did. Instead of throwing himself on the mercy of Jesus, instead of crying: “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner,” he tried one of the Old Adam’s favorite tricks: whittle away at the Law until it’s not so impossible. Let’s ignore that fact that my heart is deceitfully wicked above all things, incapable of loving God. Instead, let’s quibble over who is my neighbor. More to the point: who can I cross of the list? Which people do I not have to love? This is the way the Old Adam works. The lawyer had quoted from Leviticus 18:19 “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The whole verse is this: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” The Pharisees read this to mean: You only have to love Jews – sons of your own people. You don’t have to love Greeks, or Romans, and especially those disgusting Samaritans. It just got a whole lot easier to “love your neighbor.” Within a few centuries the new Pharisees of the early church, the monks and hermits, came up with an even better idea. Keep the law by eliminating all neighbors. Move! Live in the desert. Don’t talk to anyone, and certainly don’t get married.
This is the context in which Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan. To a man who should have been crushed by the law, yet still insisted on justifying himself. In this story the worst villains are a priest and a Levite. These men were supposed to be the shining examples of Jewish morality. No one else was holier, more righteous. No one claimed to love God more. No one did more for the God’s people. If anyone could ever be saved by keeping the Law, it was these men. But not only did they fall short of loving their neighbor, they failed in spectacular fashion. All the hopes of sinful humanity that were pinned on these men were utterly dashed. Love your enemies just like the Good Samaritan. Is that what this parable is all about? Are you kidding me? I can’t even love my wife. Not always. Not perfectly.
So who is this Samaritan that loves his neighbor where all others fail? I’ll tell you who he’s not. He’s not you. When it comes to salvation, you don’t get to be the Good Samaritan. You don’t get to the hero in the story. You aren’t the good guy. You can be the lawyer trying to justify himself. You can be the priest or the Levite, whitewashed tombs on the outside but inwardly full of dead men’s bones and every uncleanness. You can be the naked man left for dead on the side of the road. You can even be the thieves who beat the guy up. You can be anyone at all in the story – except for the Samaritan.
So who is this Samaritan? Who is this man who perfectly fulfills the whole law? I’ll describe him to you. The Samaritan was spat upon, an object of scorn and ridicule. He was despised and rejected of men. Where the priest and Levite crossed to the other side of the road to avoid their own countryman, they would cross the Jordan River and go days out of their way to travel around the land of the Samaritans. All those who saw him mocked him, and turned their faces away from him. For he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him (Is 53:2). We closed our eyes so we would see him not, and we our ears so we would hear him not. Jesus said, “Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.” And we, along with the Jews, answered him, “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” (Lk 10:37-38).
And having rejected God’s words, having closed your ears to his voice, you found yourself lying in the ditch. You were robbed of your strength, beaten up by the just demands of the law, the shame of your unrighteousness exposed for all to see. You were far from God, and unable to take a step towards him. In fact, given the choice, you would have continued on your journey away from Jerusalem, away from the holy city of God. You were dead in your sins and trespasses, unable and unwilling to come to God, and so he came to you. Jesus laid aside his glory and humbled himself, taking on the form of a servant, even a despicable Samaritan. And for the joy set before him, He endured the cross of our own making. He took the burden of your sin upon himself, and clothed you with his own righteousness. He washed you in the wine of his own blood and poured out the oil of his Holy Spirit upon you. He lifted you out of the mire and carried you down the road to salvation upon which only he could walk. He paid your debts in advance, not with gold or silver, but with his holy, precious blood and his innocent suffering and death. He who knew no sin became sin for you. He became a curse so that you might become the righteousness of God. Though you were at one time ashamed of him, he delighted to call you his neighbor. You were born into the wrong family, with the wrong name, yet in Holy baptism, you were reborn into the family of God. You were given his name and made an heir of his righteousness, his love, his salvation. He cleansed your corrupt heart of stone and gave you a new heart, a heart that overflows with his love. He placed his Holy Spirit within you, so that you now delight in his Law. It’s no longer a burden to love your neighbor but a joy because the love of Christ has been shed abroad in your heart. From this source, from this new heart, the love of God flows out into all your life, into everything you do with all your mind and strength. What did you do to inherit eternal life? Nothing. You were found by Christ. You were baptized into Christ. And you now live in Christ.
Who has believed our report? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? (Is 53:1-2). Jesus, the Lord of Glory, the King of heaven and earth, came not in power and might, but in weakness and humility, as a Samaritan, as the only Good Samaritan. This is the revelation that the prophets and kings of old yearned to see and to understand. This is the mystery of the ages – Christ revealed, not in glory, but in frail humanity, in the form of a servant, clothed as a Samaritan, for you. Blessed are your eyes that have seen the Lord revealed in glory upon the cross. Blessed are your eyes that have seen Christ who comes to you again where he has promised to be – at his altar, in his body and blood – here, in church. Blessed are your ears for they have heard his words. Amen.