Find your way to that well-worn area in your Bibles called Luke chapter 10. I invite you to turn there—Luke chapter 10. We’re going to be looking at the story of the Good Samaritan. I’d hoped to do this sermon in one shot. If you’d like to stay until 3:00 this afternoon, we’ll do that. [Laughter] Otherwise, I’ll have to beg your leave to do it in two parts.
The story of the Good Samaritan itself begins in Luke 10:30, and—as you’re turning there, getting settled—I’m just going to remind you of what we’ve studied the past couple of weeks. The scene begins here with a legal expert, a lawyer, who poses a question to Jesus in Luke 10:25. And in Luke 10:25, it starts there,
“And behold, a lawyer stood up [there’s a motive here] to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He [that is, Jesus] said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “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.””
With that answer, the lawyer has answered really his own question, hasn’t he? “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He answers with the law: “Love the Lord your God; love your neighbor.” And Jesus even said that that is the answer. Verse 28: “And he said to him, ‘You have answered correctly.’” The law of Moses, which the lawyer sums up by citing those two passages—Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18—tells you exactly how to find eternal life. And that is a bit of a surprise to many of us, who live on this side of the cross in the New Testament days, as that is our focus of much of what we think and read and study and rejoice in. We think of new versus old, not old and new with the same message. The law tells you exactly how to find eternal life. Love God with the entirety of your being, and love your neighbor as yourself. Do those two commandments—Jesus said right there, verse 28—“and you will live.” Or in other words—get this—obedience to God’s Word from the heart is the very essence of eternal life.
If you were to conduct a survey of the people in our city, how many people do you think would define eternal life that way? Obedience to the will of God is eternal life. Ask people what the essence of heaven is. Ask people what everlasting life is all about, and you’re going to get some version of: “I get to escape from my problems. I get to get away from all the difficulty I face in this life and in this world. I get to leave from here down below and go up there—up above—and be translated to eternal bliss and joy.” That’s heaven, right?
But if we listen to Jesus, eternal life—heaven, everlasting life—is about loving the Lord your God from all of your heart, with all of your soul, with all of your strength, with all of your mind, and then also loving your neighbor as yourself. Eternal love, worship, obedience to God. That is what heaven is all about. Eternal love and service to others. That’s heaven. What makes heaven so heavenly? If you want to know the truth about it: It’s not about you. The essence of heaven is in loving others, serving others, with unbroken consistency, without any diminishment, without any failure, and doing so without any end. There are very few, I would wager, who consider that description of heaven to be paradise. Very few think that version of heaven sounds attractive, sounds appealing, sounds like a place that they want to spend eternity. Many like and prefer the sound of “pearly gates,” “golden streets,” “wedding banquets shared with the whole family, friends”—all the rest. But eternal obedience to laws? Hold on a second! That sounds like legalism! That sounds like Old Testament.
That’s exactly what Jesus has affirmed here. The lawyer asked, “What shall I do,” or “What doing”—if I can just nail it down—“what doing grants or gains me eternal life?” And Jesus returned the question, “How do you read the law?” So the lawyer answered the question for himself. He answered from the law, “Love God; love your neighbor as yourself,” and Jesus said, “Correct.” “Do this and you will live.” That is to say, “You will have inherited eternal life. You’re in!”
The only people on this earth—on the entire planet, in all of history, and in all the future of humanity—who find eternal obedience to the perfect will of God to be an attractive state of being for all of eternity, are who? Christians. True Christians. Those who have a new nature. Those who have been born from above. Those who have been regenerated to new life, spiritual life, by the power of the Holy Spirit. They, and they alone, truly want what the Bible describes as heavenly.
By the grace of God, they have been given a new nature. This isn’t something that is generated on their own. This isn’t something we’re born with. What we’re born with is more of the Muslim idea of eternal life: feasting, seventy-two virgins, bliss, victory over all enemies, stomping the heads of all the infidels. That’s heaven for most of us as we’re born into this world. But by the grace of God, we’ve been saved from that way of thinking. We’ve been saved from a way of thinking that has to do with consumption. We’ve been saved from a way of thinking that has to do with “my best life.” We’ve been saved from a way of thinking that defines everything in terms of “me”-centered. Salvation is to put God at the center. Salvation is to see God as our desire, as our longing, as our fulfillment, as our joy, as our consummation. And by the grace of God, that comes by a new nature, being born again, being regenerated so that one loves what God loves and hates what God hates.
So we who’ve been radically changed—we who have been granted a new nature by the grace and the power of God—we agree with the words of Paul, testifying with him that the law—Romans 7:12—“is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.” Like him—Romans 7:22—“we delight in the law of God in our inner being” because we have a new nature. We are new creations in Christ, and the essence of that new nature, that new creation in Christ, is that we love God and his law.
So like the psalmist we cry out, “O, how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day.” I just keep turning it over and over in my mind, and I find joy and satisfaction and contentment and peace. I’m thrilled with it. I delight in it. And to learn fully the law of God, to run without any hindrance, without any delay, without any compromise whatsoever in the path of our obedience to the perfections of God, written in his all-wise Word—well, that is a heaven of heavens to me! Amen?
Our lawyer in Luke 10:28 is standing there after hearing what Jesus said. He, by the way, intended to trip Jesus up. We saw that in verse 25; he intends to test him and hopes to find some error in Jesus, perhaps even to entrap him, publicly expose him before others as a fraud, or in error. In verse 28 Jesus not only affirms the lawyer’s answer as correct—as straight, precise, down the line—but he then turns that answer on him, and he uses that answer to try to penetrate that lawyer’s conscience. “Do this and you will live.” “Practice a lifestyle of obedience to loving God and loving your neighbor, and you will live that eternal life that you’re talking about. You’ll live it!”
This is not turning out the way that the lawyer expected it would. He thought he had framed the argument well. He thought he’d kind of boxed Jesus in by the law of Moses. He failed to see that the snare he had set for Jesus—the trap he had laid—has been sprung upon himself. And in his conscience, the lawyer knows—like we all know—he does not love God from his whole heart. He does not love God with the entirety of his powers, of his faculties, of his soul and strength and mind. Like the rest of us, he has not loved God like that for five consecutive seconds in his entire life.
So when Jesus takes the sword of God’s Word out of the lawyer’s hand and uses it to pierce his conscience, to penetrate through the layers of callous over the hardness of his heart, the lawyer should have said, throwing himself before Jesus, “Depart from me, a sinful man, O Lord!” “Depart from me!” He should have said, “I’ve broken both of those commandments. I’ve never kept them. Now what’s the plan, Jesus? Is there any hope for me? Is there any mercy from God for me?”
But instead of repenting, look what the lawyer does. Notice how the lawyer responds to Jesus in verse 29: “And who is my neighbor?” There’s no question, is there?—of whether or not he has kept or is keeping the first commandment—to love, worship, and obey God. He bypasses that one altogether. He moves on to address the second great commandment. He’s still the lawyer, isn’t he? This is still his witness, this is still his courtroom, and he’s going to frame the argument and set the direction with this next question. But clearly we can see that his conscience is bothering him, which is why verse 29 tells us that he wanted to “justify himself.” He wanted to vindicate himself. Why this sudden need to show himself righteous? Because his conscience is bothered. Because he knows he’s guilty. His conscience is accusing him, so we see that even though his conscience is penetrated and convicted and accusing him, his proud heart comes to the rescue, hoping to silence that accusing conscience with self-justification. And he frames the argument to his own advantage, believing he is going to find—before Jesus, before all these people he’s talking in front of—public vindication in neighbor love, which he thinks is an easier commandment for him to obey.
He’s about to hear an answer from Jesus he does not see coming. And we are so glad that he has asked the question. We’re so glad because Jesus, here, gives us one of the most profound, one of the most beautiful, poignant stories ever told. Everybody knows the Good Samaritan. It’s on our lips, it’s part of our common speech. In telling the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus is actually—even in the telling of it—he is demonstrating love toward this lawyer. Not only him, but Jesus—it says there in verse 30, “Jesus replied.” Basically, that verb is to say that he takes up the question. So before, Jesus is kind of curt, you might say; he’s short with his answers. But here—“Jesus replied”—he takes up the question. He says, “Oh, this is one I want to spend a little time on. You want to talk about neighbor love? Good call!” And he expands. Jesus sees in this question an opportunity to love the lawyer well. Not only the lawyer, but he loves the crowd of onlookers, too. Not only them—he loves the larger group of disciples who were listening in. The Twelve he appointed as Apostles—he’s teaching them to understand what love looks like. They’re all listening in. They’re all focused on this exchange between Jesus and this educated—highly educated—lawyer. So this has become for him an opportune time to address this matter of love—what it means to love one’s neighbor as one’s self. Everyone present needs the lesson, as do we.
So as you listen to Jesus telling the story of the Good Samaritan, I want you to listen this way. Don’t put yourself on Jesus’ side and think, “Yeah, get him, Jesus! I’m with you!” Put yourself in the lawyer’s shoes. Put yourself in his shoes. Listen to this as if you were he because he has articulated things that you have thought before. We can all tend, can’t we?—toward justifying ourselves. Whenever someone brings a sin to our attention, don’t we tend to brace and front-up and defend ourselves, tell the person that they’ve got us wrong, tell the person they’re reading our motives wrong, tell the person, “Oh, no, no, no! You’re misinterpreting that.” We’re really good at this. The lawyer is good at it and educated in it. So he is really our champion, isn’t he? You’re like, “No, I don’t want to go there.” Okay, go with the disciples. How about James and John? James and John, who just at the end of the last chapter—what do they want to do with the Samaritans? Incinerate them, right? Okay, so you want to be a disciple? Fine. Join those guys. Let’s listen, though, as if Jesus is targeting us.
We tend to defend our own actions as righteous or, like this lawyer, to excuse ourselves. We tend to find a loophole in the law to lessen the duties and obligations that God places on us in order to make life a little simpler for ourselves, don’t we? So let’s agree from the outset to listen to this well. Let’s agree from the outset to have an open heart, to have sensitive consciences. In fact, ask God, even now as you’re sitting there, to give us a sensitive conscience, so that we can hear this story with open ears, set the account before us with open eyes so that we can see it well, so that the Lord would instruct our hearts and inform our consciences, and lead us into the life of obedience to the will of God in this matter of loving our neighbors as ourselves because, beloved, as Christians, this is what we get to do. In fact, since I’m asking you, why don’t we pray about this right now, before we go any further?
Father, we do pray that as we go through this story, not only this week but next week as well, that you would give us a sensitive heart, that you would give us awakened, sharpened consciences, and you would inform our consciences about what loving our neighbor as ourselves looks like. Help us to be moldable, pliable. Help our hearts to be sensitive and soft to you, that we might change, repent, grow, and practice what is truly our birthright, which is to love you and to love others. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.
We’ll start by looking at Jesus’ work, which is point one in our outline: Jesus awakens a sleeping conscience. Now I want you to see that the lawyer’s earlier posture toward Jesus that is noted in verse 25, where he stood up to put Jesus to the test. That posture has changed. It’s changed here by the time we get to verses 28 and 29, having been taken back to the classroom of the law. Having been schooled by the teacher of teachers with the law’s most basic instruction about love, the lawyer’s conscience, here, is bothered, now. He is ill at ease. So he poses another question, but this time not to test Jesus; this time he poses a different question—verse 29—“He, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’”
“Jews believed “neighbor” referred to those with the same ethnic, national, and religious identity,”Travis Allen
This sudden desire to vindicate himself, to prove himself blameless in some way, is an attempt to silence an accusing conscience. Like all humanity, the work of the law is written in this lawyer’s heart. In fact, he has studied the written Word of God and studied it carefully and noted mentally, intellectually—he understands it very, very well. But even in his heart—Romans 2:15 says that “The law is written there”—and so there’s an internal angst that he feels. His conscience bears witness to that truth. Deep down inside, no matter how much he tries to suppress those feelings, he knows that he does not love God with all his heart, soul, strength, and mind. However, though he is feeling this internal turmoil in his conscience, sinful pride is right there to rise up and shield him from any further bother. Hopefully, the conscience will be quieted, go right back to sleep. So in pride the lawyer makes a desperate grab at public vindication. He thinks he’s going to find a safe refuge from and accusing conscience, being a law-abiding man as he is, one who does love his neighbor as himself—he knows. The strength of his vindication depends on the definition of the word “neighbor.”
The word “neighbor,” here, is the adjective “plésion,” which is an adjective that means “near,” “nearby,” “close by.” It’s an adjective. The English word is very similar. The “neigh” part refers [in OE] to what is close, “nigh” or “near,” and the “bor” part, which is from the word “gebūr,” which [in OE] means “inhabitant,” “peasant” or “farmer.” So it’s a “near inhabitant,” a close-by farmer—someone who’s close to you, near to you. So the word “neighbor”—“plésion”—describes a near person, someone who lives close by, and that is a relative term, isn’t it? “Close” in comparison to what? Could be a next-door neighbor—that’s a neighbor. Perhaps it is someone who lives in your same village—those are neighbors. Or maybe a near-by village—a neighboring village—maybe those are neighbors, too. Or maybe that definition can expand to talk about those who live in your region, or your state, or your country. Maybe it’s all those—even if they’re in other countries—who are the same ethnicity as you, same nationality, same shared religion. But again, “near,” “nearby,” “close by”—that is a relative term, isn’t it?
When you go back to Leviticus 19:18 and look at the context of this command, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” in the co-text, the word “neighbor” seems restricted to fellow Israelites. It says there, “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 Yahweh. So you shall not take vengeance against whom? The sons of your own people. So these are sons—children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. These are Israelites; these are fellow Jews. That’s the immediate parallel, there, with the word “neighbor.” Now if you go into the further context of Leviticus 19:33-34, the word “neighbor” is even broader. Moses writes there—verses 33-34:
“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”
So again, the stranger, the alien, the sojourner, the resident alien who is living in Israel—are they also to be considered as neighbors? Are we to be obligated to them, too? Or is the definition—as many Jews believed—narrowly defined as fellow Jews? I mean, you can treat the sojourner with neighborly love. You can treat him that way even though he’s not a neighbor—you can treat him with neighborly love—but you don’t have to be obligated to defining him as a neighbor.
Jews believed “neighbor” referred to those with the same ethnic, national, and religious identity—that was the prevailing view. Fellow Jews are neighbors—one’s kin, one’s countrymen. But those Gentiles? Certainly not! Those invading Romans? Certainly not! Those despised Samaritans? Definitely not! Some may be even more liberal, perhaps, expanding the “neighbor” designation to proselytes—those who converted to Judaism. They could be counted, maybe, as neighbors as well.
So that’s what this lawyer is posing to Jesus. “Where do you stand on this, Jesus? Where do you stand on this issue of ‘neighbor’?” It’s a bit of a distraction, isn’t it? It truly is what is called in debate a “red herring.” Like, “Hey, look at this over here, but don’t pay attention to this.” That’s what he’s doing. He’s hoping, here, to quiet an accusing conscience, as we’ve said, and in pride he frames the rest of the conversation within the sphere, the domain, of semantics. Legal definitions—that’s where he’s good. He wants to direct the rest of the conversation into his own legal turf. It’s an attempt to maintain some modicum of control. By using legal definition to restrict the law’s demand on his conscience, he hopes to escape from feeling the weight of the law. His conscience has been pricked by Jesus’ straightforward command, “Do this and you will live.”
The lawyer avoids talking about love for God altogether. He directs the attention of Jesus and the whole group to love one’s neighbor—he sets about defining a category of human being—get this—for which he is not responsible: those who are non-neighbors. He intends to make the category of “neighbor” as small as possible, and he intends to make the category of “non-neighbor” as big as possible, thus reducing the accusations of his conscience. The lawyer wants his conscience to quiet down, to stop firing, to rest easy, to leave him alone. He wants his conscience to go get comfy and warm, curl up, rest harmlessly dormant—to sleep.
Folks, never do that. Never do that. Instead, cultivate a sensitive conscience, not a hardened conscience. Don’t become lawyers, finding justification, vindication for how you live, how you already believe, affirming everything you do. Don’t live that way. When your conscience bothers you, pay attention to it. Like nerves in your fingertips that warn you of danger when they come close to a fire, God has given our soul, our immaterial self, the conscience like a spiritual nerve ending that warns us of spiritual danger. So inform your conscience. Teach your conscience by giving it constant attention to the Word of God, and then listen whenever your conscience alerts you of danger. So Jesus, here, has awakened the lawyer’s conscience, awakened the lawyer’s sleeping conscience—and that is a grace. It’s an act of love, kindness—not just to awaken it, but now to soften the target, soften this hard conscience.
And so, point two: Jesus overwhelms a proud conscience. He overwhelms a proud conscience—or if you prefer, Jesus softens a hard conscience. He softens a hard conscience. And he does so in the kindest way, in the most unpredictably disarming way. He softens the target by telling a story. Look at verse 30:
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. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. 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. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.””
Before we look at this story in some detail, I just want to point out a couple of things. First of all, this story is a parable. It’s not an allegory; it’s a parable. An allegory is an extended metaphor, where all the different characters and pieces and parts in the story are meant to represent something else. In an allegory, each part represents some deeper meaning, some deeper spiritual truth. Very few true allegories are in the Bible. Some would argue that there are none at all. But among the early church Fathers, they loved finding allegories in the Bible. Especially and particular inspired by Origen, allegorical interpretation was the common practice in the early church and among the church Fathers, and it set the pattern even for how this story was read by most interpreters for centuries to follow, all the way up until the Reformation times. This story in particular was read as an allegory.
Origen said that the man coming from Jerusalem to Jericho represented Adam, and he’s leaving Paradise—Jerusalem—and entering into the world—Jericho. The robbers represent Satan, his demons, evil forces arrayed against us. The priest represents the law; the Levite represent the prophets; the Samaritan—he’s the picture of Christ. You see it, there? The wounds that are healed—they represent sin. The Samaritan’s donkey stands for the body of Christ that bears the sinner. The inn—oh, that’s the church. The innkeeper, then, is the bishop of the church. The oil and the wine stand for the Lord’s Supper. The Samaritan’s promise to return—well, that’s the Second Coming of Christ. You see how that all lines up? Why interpret any further, right?
This is not an allegory. We have God to thank, who used John Calvin to bring some sanity back to biblical interpretation and reject the allegorical interpretation of this story. Calvin took this story in its plain sense—as a straightforward answer to the lawyer’s question by means of a parable.
I wouldn’t normally tell you the allegorical stuff in a sermon like this. I”m telling you that, though, because there is some measure of allegory making its way back into modern interpretation, into modern preaching. Young preachers are finding it very attractive to find different hidden meanings that are beyond the plain meaning that you and I can both see on the plain reading of the text, and they’re finding deeper hidden meanings in the text that sound—wow!—really amazing! And the average church-goer hears one of these preachers giving some Christological interpretation that’s really allegory that we need to see in the text, but we’re all sitting there listening and going, “Man, I’m not seeing it. This guy must be really, really sharp!”
So it’s left to the skill of the preacher, the cleverness, the creativity with which he finds and discovers other meanings in the text. And I just want to tell you, folks, don’t go down that road. Because for every single one of those allegorical hidden meanings that Origen and others found in the text, I can give a different one. And some did, like the oil and wine not referring to the Lord’s Supper but to members of the Trinity. Some did. So which are you to take? Is the wine is the sacrament? Which sacrament? Is baptism included, or is it just the Lord’s Supper—oil for the bread, wine for the cup? Are we to take this as Father and Son?—the oil being poured out on the church, and that’s the Holy Spirit. Or the wine being the blood of Christ? I mean, I can make things sound however I want to, right? That’s what allegorical interpretation does. You can insert any meaning you want to, and that’s happening again. It’s making a resurgence in our time as more and more congregations are biblically illiterate, theologically naive, and preachers are getting away with this kind of thing. And I just want to warn you: Don’t follow that. Find the plain meaning of the text. This is a parable. This is not an allegory. It’s a straightforward parable. And the word “parable” means “para” + “bole,” to “throw something alongside.” It’s a shortened story told to make a comparison with a principle. It’s to make an analogy with a truth and to illustrate one truth. So while it may address and confront a number of different things, in a parable there is really one truth, one single point that’s the lesson of the parable. So this is a parable, not an allegory.
Second thing to help us understand Jesus’ point in telling this story: We want to ask the question, why did he give this parable? What is the one thing that he wanted to lawyer to understand, here? Because this story—this parable—does indeed give him one thing. It makes a single point to absolutely overwhelm this lawyer’s pride and crusted conscience. The lawyer had asked, “Who’s my neighbor?” He’s making reference to Leviticus 19, and he’s making obedience to Leviticus 19 a matter of definition. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” “If we just get down ‘neighbor,’ understand what that definition is, I’ve got it. I’m doing it.” That’s what he’s saying.
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This the second of the two greatest commandments, and for the lawyer, he’s trying to find vindication, a safe haven from an accusing conscience, and he’s trying to do it in definitions, in defining the word “neighbor.” But Jesus, in telling the story of the Samaritan, he bypasses the matter of definition entirely, doesn’t he? Entirely. His parable, here, illustrates not what the definition of “neighbor” is. It illustrates what love looks like. In particular, it forces the lawyer to deal with loving, with what it looks like—and what it looks like in particular—to love as yourself. He’s dealing with that aspect of Leviticus 19:18: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Maybe you’ve heard, like I have, “You can’t love others until you love yourself.” There’s a whole lot of counseling in what’s been called “Christian” counseling, saturated as it is with the principles of evolutionary psychology. And it’s all about taking this issue of “You can’t love others until you love yourself,” and turning this “loving yourself” into an industry—helping self-centered people love themselves better, which is just deepening the idolatry of the self. The self is the chief idol of our secular age. So by teaching people how to love themselves better, you’re just drilling them down into further idolatry, in self-idolatry, and self-meditation on “me.” What is that? It’s bondage.
Listen—you and I already love ourselves plenty, don’t we? You do what’s best for yourself, and you want others to treat you that way. It’s why we get offended. If you didn’t love yourself and people offended you, you’d be like, “Yeah, great. Good.” Someone steals your wallet, you’re like, “Oh, good—all right.” Someone drives away in your car, you’re like, “Um, yeah.” Someone takes that promotion, “Oh, okay.” You don’t care because you have no regard for yourself, right? Why do we get offended? Because we care about ourselves! This is why Jesus’ “Golden Rule” is so brilliant: “As you wish others would do to you”—Luke 6:31—“do so to them.” That assumes what we all know to be true—that we love care and concern for ourselves. Love, care, and concern for how we’re treated—that’s basic, isn’t it?
That’s the chief point of the parable: to help the lawyer consider how he would want to be treated by others, especially if he were to fall into the same set of unfortunate circumstances. Understanding that is going to help him, and it’s going to help all of us know what God meant when he commanded, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Put yourself in the other guy’s shoes. If we live that way—that’s what he’s talking about, here. It’s not hard to grasp; it’s not a big mystery. So that’s it—that’s the bottom line up front.
The story comes in three parts. Jesus gives—letter A—an occasion in showing compassion; letter B—an evasion in showing compassion; and letter C—an illustration of showing compassion. So an occasion, an evasion, and an illustration in showing compassion. Subpoint A: There’s an occasion for showing compassion. A guy goes down a road and gets beat up, and he’s left there for dead—that’s the occasion. Plain and simple. Jesus replied to the lawyer’s question, telling the story, and he sets the story in a very dangerous and familiar area. If you’re living in Israel, you know this area. You know that’s “the bad part of town,” like we all say when we go down to Denver, “Don’t go to this area; don’t go there.” Every town’s got it. This is the area in that region: “Don’t go there.”
“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho.” That is a descent of about 3,000 feet, and just a short 14-mile stretch of land as the crow flies. It goes from Jerusalem at 2,474 feet above sea level down to Jericho at 846 feet below sea level, down in the Jordan Valley. The whole trip was about 17 miles and about 8 hours or so on foot. From the city of Jerusalem, you go down the east into the Kidron Valley, back up the other side of that valley, ascending to the Mount of Olives that looked over Jerusalem to the west. Then turning toward Jericho—northeast—the journey would continue from the Mount of Olives heading down into some very, very rugged terrain. First, you’d encounter a steep descent into Nahal-Og, which is a deep, deep canyon. You’d go down into that then head up the other side. You’d come up to the crest of a terrain feature that Joshua, in dividing up the land, called “the ascent of Adumim.” The Ascent of Adumim followed the wadi Kelt. A wadi is like a river in the desert. Sometimes it’s completely dry, but in a flash flood that thing becomes flooded, overflowing, and is very, very dangerous. So it’s the wadi Kelt, a deep gash in this hilly topography. And that formed the boundary between Judah to the south and Benjamin to the north—the Ascent of Adumim along the wadi Kelt. The world “adumim,” by the way, is related to the Hebrew word for “red.” It might refer to the literal reference to the reddish streaks that are found in the limestone in that area, or it could be a figurative reference to the amount of blood that’s spilled in that area. Commentators don’t know exactly where it got its name, but this is a notorious place. It’s crawling with bandits, outlaws, and renegades. The area is filled with caves and nooks and crannies—hideouts for Arab Bedouin robbers who used the terrain to their advantage, preying upon travelers. The Romans put a fort up there to protect pilgrims. Even in the times of the Crusades, the Knights Templar also protected pilgrims going to and from Jerusalem along that road. So the bandits would use this terrain for concealment, to hide out before an ambush, which also allowed them then to conveniently make their escape and disappear into the night.
So “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.” It’s a violent scene—action-packed, one that you would never want written about you or about anybody whom you love. After we read, “A man was going down,” there are five verbs in that sentence, all in the aorist tense, with a punchiness and a violence to them. Each one describes some further aspect of harm that befalls this poor traveler. You can imagine the scene. He’s walking down the road. He’s passing ambush site after ambush site. I don’t know about you, but especially you men as you walk through dangerous parts of town, your “Spidey” sense is up as you’re walking with your wife and children. And you’re just looking around for where the danger is going to come from. Your head’s on a swivel; you’re looking all over the place. That’s this guy. He’s going down the road. He’s passing site after site. He’s on the lookout, wondering if and when it will happen. And then it happens. Around the next bend what he fears comes upon him and when it happens—wham!—it comes with surprise and speed and violence and action. “The robbers”—note the plural—there are many of them—they pounce on him, surrounding him, stripping him of his clothing. In removing the clothing, as you might imagine—I’m imagining none of you have done this to somebody, okay—if you were ever a robber, beating them up and taking his stuff. You’re trying to strip his clothing off of him, and any resistance that comes from this guy—he’s just trying to something off and can’t get it off right—you interpret as refusal and fighting back. Thinking he’s putting up a fight, they are mercilessly beating him, a beating ensues. Literally, the text says, “laying blow upon blow,” punch upon punch, striking, kicking. Finally, the robbers tire of giving out the beating. You know beatings are hard to give out—they really wear a guy out. So they’re not in good shape—these lazy robbers—they just jump on him for the beating and then they get out of there. Perhaps they heard the shuffling of feet coming down the pathway. The next couple of verses tell us that the priest and the Levite are soon to arrive. So they get out of there and disappear into the terrain. They leave the man there, half dead.
Now for some of you sensitive souls out there, remember, this is a story that Jesus told. It’s not true. It’s a parable. This not a real situation. This didn’t actually happen. No animals were harmed in the production of this story. No real humans were hurt, either—if you’re concerned about them. Jesus just made it up, but it’s based on real-life events. And that’s why this is so poignant. And the way he set up the story—Jesus has revealed a couple of things that we need to notice. First, this poor man is half-dead. He is about to die, and someone left to die is unable to care for himself. As one commentator said, “This man is fighting for his life.” He’s half-dead, which means—as another commentator said, “He’ll soon be whole-dead unless someone comes to his help.”
Second thing—Jesus has left the identity of this man completely ambiguous. We don’t know who this guy is. We don’t know anything about him. That’s intentional. And the audience—as they’re listening—would assume, naturally, “Jesus is talking about a Jewish man.” He doesn’t say that, does he? But they would assume it because he’s coming from Jerusalem. But Jesus doesn’t identify the guy as Jewish. He said, “a certain man.” Why is that important? The lawyer is looking for a definition of “neighbor,” and Jesus intentionally sets up the story that he wants to tell, framing this in such a way that this rather elastic term “neighbor” can be defined as broadly as possible. In fact, he’s helping the audience see this man not as a Jew, but as a fellow human being, someone who’s been brutally victimized, someone whose situation stirs the heart of compassion, moves the heart to feel sympathy for him. That’s intentional—brilliant story-teller Jesus is. So that’s the occasion—subpoint A—clearly an occasion for showing compassion.
Subpoint B—now we’re going to see an evasion in showing compassion. Two guys come along; they do nothing. That’s the summary—verses 31-32: “Now by chance a priest.” That is, a descendant of Aaron’s family in particular—a priest. He provides service inside the Temple. That priest “was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite [What’s a Levite? A Levite is a descendant of Aaron’s tribe, but not of Aaron’s family. He’s of the tribe of Levi, but he’s not of Aaron’s direct family, so the Levites were there to assist the priests. They helped provide service to the priests, who then served the Temple. That’s the Levite. “And when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.” So a priest and a Levite, each one of them traveling down the same road, and by chance or by coincidence—that is, they just happened to be coming down the road—they don’t come walking down the path together. They come one after another. Why is that? Because that’s the way Jesus wanted to tell the story. A priest comes by, sees the half-dead man, notices him there lying in his blood, but he passes by on the opposite side. The language is clear; the priest totally avoids the man.
After the priest, the Levite also comes down the road, and Jesus portrays him as coming to where the guy is—and he gets a good look at him. Then he leaves, too—makes his wide berth, passing by on the opposite side. Now this seems utterly inexplicable, right? I mean, sheer human decency would seem to demand that this man ought to have been attended to. Shocking! They see this man hurting, probably groaning—but even if he’s unconscious and not even a moan is escaping from his lips—he looked dead. Okay—so perhaps the priest didn’t notice. But the Levite—it shows him going up and getting a close look at him. He can see his chest rising and falling with the breath coming in and out. The guy’s alive. And we’re all screaming out as we’re hearing this, “Help him!”
“The point of the story is to contrast the failure to act with the duty to act.”Travis Allen
So you’re wondering at this point why these men did not help him, especially members of the clergy, right? I mean, why did the priest and the Levite avoid this guy? Why didn’t they help him? Certainly, priests offering sacrifices at the Temple because of the sin and the misery of the people of Israel; the Levites who are helping the priests butcher all the sacrifices—if anybody knows human misery—and by the way, when priests and Levites leave Temple and go out into their villages, where they are most of the year, what are they doing? They’re like pastors in the community. They’re teaching the law; they’re ministering the truth to people. So you might as well take out the word “priest” and “Levite” and put in the word “pastor.” “Evangelical pastor.” Why didn’t they help him. There’s no care, no compassion. It sends the mind racing for explanations, to come up with sufficient reasons to make sense of their refusal to help him. Some people say that the priests and the Levites are concerned, as you might be imagining, about incurring ritual impurity, ceremonial uncleanness. They didn’t want to touch a man who’s half-dead because what if by chance, while they’re touching and trying to help him, he dies in the process? Oh, no! Then they’d be touching a corpse! It makes them unclean—they’d be unclean for seven days. Numbers 19 requires a ritual of purification. What a hassle! And priests in particular need to avoid dead bodies, according to Leviticus 21:11. By the way—just a footnote—you know whose scholarly work informs the ministry of the priests and the Levites? You know who writes the commentaries that these guys read? The scribes, the lawyers. Jesus is giving a little bit of a dig at the lawyer, here. It’s kind of insinuated more than overt. Any legal consideration that might justify the inaction of the priest and the Levite in the story is condemned. Their inaction condemns the lawyer by implication. It implicates him as well.
But others point out that this lawyer might also be considering this: These men are actually not heading toward Jerusalem but away from Jerusalem. Implication: They have finished their Temple service. They’re heading back to their homes. So there is no need for them to worry about ritual purity. There’s no need to worry about protecting ceremonial cleanness for service in the Temple. There goes that excuse! Another motive is offered. Perhaps they didn’t want to stop and help the wounded, dying man because they’re worried about the bandits returning. They fear receiving the same beating by the same robbers who are probably lurking in the rocks close by. So knowing they’re all alone—because, after all, you’ll notice that Jesus didn’t give any one of these guys traveling companions for protection. So they hurry off to save their own skin. Now that’s unflattering, too, because what does that make these guys? Cowards, right?
So as our minds are racing to find motives to explain their seeming coldness, their aloofness—to understand their failure to help this man—it is vitally important for us to stop and realize what Jesus has done, here, and by intention and that is this: He didn’t mention any motives at all. And that is intentional. He has pointed to and portrayed only actions. He has bypassed any mention of motivation for their actions. It’s not that Jesus didn’t want to put motivations into the story; he did. In fact, look at verse 33. We see a motive mentioned; what is it? “But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had”—what?—“compassion.” What does the compassion do? It kicks off a flurry of self-sacrificial love and activity toward this guy. It’s not that Jesus neglects motive.
So then what is it? What’s Jesus doing, here? The point of the story is to contrast the failure to act with the duty to act. There are no motives that justify this kind of inaction when somebody is in need. Jesus wants us to see what actually happened, and the priest and the Levite came, they saw, they did nothing. By contrast, the Samaritan came, saw, and acted—and that is what Jesus wants us to see. The inaction is unjustified. There is no motive that justifies this. The action, though, is not only justified; it’s warranted, it’s actually expected. It’s just common human decency. So if we do entertain why they didn’t help, we are to come to the conclusion that nothing justifies the failure to act, to help somebody in need. Nothing vindicates inaction for someone who’s hurting. By citing a motive, even if Jesus decided to insert a motive—he didn’t want to get unclean, or he was a coward, or something like that—even if we judge it to be a sinful motive—by citing a motive it would lead us to believe that there may be other motives we can use for self-justification. Maybe that one just doesn’t fit.
Again the point is to tell us that there are no motives that justify the priest or the Levite not helping the man. Who cares? Who cares about why they didn’t help? Evidently, Jesus does not care about why they didn’t help. They didn’t help; that’s all we’re intended to see for now.
By the way, do you know the final judgment at the end—what does Jesus condemn the goats for? This kind of inaction. “I was hungry. What did you do? Nothing. You didn’t give me anything to eat. I was thirsty. No cup of water. I was naked; you didn’t clothe me. I was in prison, and you didn’t come to visit me.” Inaction. How guilty are we of inaction? How guilty are we of sins of omission? We tend to think about the “Thou shalts” and the commandments—the things we do that we ought not to do, but we think very little about our inaction to love.
And we tend to think just like this lawyer. We want to exonerate or defend our actions or inactions based on our motives, based on what we’re thinking at the time. We let ourselves off the hook based on our judgment. Interesting, isn’t it? There are just some things in life that simply require our attention, demand our duty in the form of action, and when it comes to admitting a duty, our reasons, our motivations are completely beside the point. God holds us accountable for failing to do what ought to have been done. So there’s an opportunity to show compassion. Even though the priest and the Levite could have helped the man, any feelings of compassion they may have felt were overcome by other concerns. And that leads us to a third part of the story.
Jesus has clearly rendered his judgment, his rebuke against the Jewish religious establishment, here, by citing a priest and a Levite. Using a priest and a Levite as negative examples, showing their failure to love one’s neighbor, he’s openly acknowledging what everybody in the audience knows: that they represent a loveless religion. He is confronting the loveless neighbor of the religious hierarchy in Israel, and everybody knew it. And everybody agreed. Therefore, the lawyer, along with the listening crowed, he too is waiting for Jesus to resolve the tension of the story. Who is going to help this poor, half-dead, rapidly dying man? Who’s going to help him? He along with everybody else fully expected Jesus, having made the priest and Levite the villains of the story—maybe even worse than the bandits—to make somebody a hero of the story, who’s probably from the common people. Just a simple villager, right? Several passages in the Old Testament—particularly in the Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah—cite three categories of people who comprise all of Israel: priests, Levites, and the people. So the lawyer, the crowd, Jesus’ disciples—everybody—think he’s going to insert a hero from among the people—maybe a really sympathetic character, like a simple village peasant, humble man. He’s just paying attention to going to work, going home, going to work, going home—“Oop—got to help this guy.” Or maybe a child—that would be a great hero, wouldn’t it? Or a kind-hearted Jewish woman—“Oh, there, there—let me help you out.” We all understand that. We all love our mothers, right? So we’ve got this guy lying on the side of the road, half dead. We’ve got two potential rescuers, both of whom failed, refusing to help.
Now, subpoint C: An illustration of showing compassion. Verses 33-35 begin with an absolute shock: “But a Samaritan.” We’ll stop there. Hah! A Samaritan. So we’re living in Greeley, Colorado, 2,000 years after this. We’re like, “Yeah, so what? Samaritan? Samaritan, Shamaritan—whatever.” You need to be hearing a record needle making a deep scratch across a nice piece of vinyl. Or imagine nails dragging down a chalkboard slowly. I know, this is the Internet age: “We don’t use chalkboards anymore, Travis.” Imagine the squeal of tires careening off the road, and the car goes into the ditch and blows up in fire. That’s what you need to be hearing, here. Samaritan?! This is something the crowd did not expect and, frankly, did not appreciate and did not welcome. “But a Samaritan…” To cast a Samaritan in the role of the sympathetic character, resolving the story’s tension, painting the contrast with the pitiless, uncompassionate character of the Jewish religious establishment. “Well, hold on, now! This is going a bit too far.”
Samaritans, you remember, claimed to worship the same God, the God of Israel. Their religion was an aberrant, heretical form of Judaism. It was an aberration, a twisting of Judaism. They accepted the Torah and rejected the rest of Scripture. They worshiped in their own temple on Mount Gerizim, not in the Temple at Jerusalem. They were an idolatrous, ethnically impure people. They knowingly intermarried with pagans—the Assyrians—and later the Greek resettlements. These Samaritans historically persecuted and hated the Jews, and you know what?—the Jews hated them right back. Historic prejudices were all carried forward so that they treated each other with such contempt, as mutual enemies.
Jesus, though, does not stop to explain, “Now, the reason I’m using a Samaritan guy is because I really want you to get over this racial disharmony.” He just moves on. He doesn’t even pause for breath. He keeps on talking, using a Samaritan as the protagonist in his story, to resolve the tension, to illustrate to his Jewish audience what it means to love one’s neighbor: “But a Samaritan.” Look there at the text:
“But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. 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. And the next day he took out two denarii [two days’ wages] and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’”
That is magnanimous. We ought to keep in mind that this is just a story, a parable at that, with a single point. But we cannot help at this point to stop and remember what James and John wanted to do to the Samaritans: “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them because they didn’t show us hospitality?” “Nuke the Samaritans. Wipe them off the face of the earth.” Listen—by using a Samaritan to illustrate how to love one’s neighbor—that’s confronting some deep-seated prejudices, and not just the lawyer’s prejudices. It confronted all the prejudices and hatred of the listening crowd, all of his own disciples without exception, and even of the Twelve, and even of his inner circle, two of his inner circle—James and John. And they are only expressing what the rest of them think.
Beloved, I’ve got to wonder—we’ve got to wonder together—if there’s anybody in our heart, any category of person, anybody who’s wronged you in some way, any person who’s offended you, hurt you deeply, hurt your family, anybody whom you have experienced or encountered in your entire life who falls into the category of Samaritan—that you would rather see them dead. We need to think carefully about that because, as we come back next week, we’re going to take a closer look at how the Samaritan—and you might as well take that image of the person you have such difficulty with and put their image, fix it on top of the Samaritan in the story—that’s how Jesus wants you to react—to see that it doesn’t matter who it is. Love is defined in the action as loving as one’s self.
Well—a cliff-hanger. Sorry about that, but we’ve got to stop here and carry it on next week.
Father, thank you for what we’ve learned so far. We thank you for what you have yet to teach us. We do pray for your grace, your grace to awaken our consciences, your grace to inform our consciences—but your grace especially to help us repent—your grace to help us identify where we’ve been loveless like this lawyer, even like Jesus’ own disciples. Help us to see where we have failed. Help us to see where we need to love as you truly have loved us by sending your choicest Servant, your one and only Son, to die on a cross—not for friends, but for absolute enemies and rebels like us. Help us to live out the love that you have shown toward us, your enemies. Help us to live that kind of love out with one another and with others as well. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.