We sinners share a common problem when it comes to Jesus’ parables. We read them with an eye to our own righteousness. That is, we read them with our eyes peeled for what they might tell us to do. We read them with Law tinted lenses.
While it is true that Jesus’ parables contain Law (commands and demands from God), if we’re to understand them rightly our eyes need to hunt tirelessly for where Christ and his Gospel reside within them. Though not always easy, we must avoid the temptation to make the Law our primary prize while reading or listening to Jesus’ parables.
Take the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37). Its popular understanding is that Jesus expanded the definition of neighbor to include all people by answering the question “Who is my neighbor?” with a story illustrating sacrificial care toward one’s enemy. And he made it official when, at the end, he commanded: “go and do likewise.”
But, “Who is my neighbor?” was not the primary question driving the discourse between Jesus and the lawyer that resulted in this well-known parable. The lawyer’s opening question to Jesus is, “Teacher what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
The parable of the Good Samaritan comes in the context of a salvation question. “Jesus, what must I do to be saved?”
Where does Jesus point him? Jesus asks, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” According to Jesus, the lawyer gives the right answer and, if he does what the Law commands, he will live.
“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.”
It’s important to understand, that despite the Law’s command, we do not have the power to do it. The commands of the Law do not grant us the ability to fulfill them. It seems the lawyer knows this. Luke lets us into his motives.
“But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, ‘Who is my neighbor?’”
This is often the question we focus on in these verses, but it’s plain to see this is the wrong question. The lawyer seeks to merit his salvation, even though he knows he cannot do what the Law commands. He works up the only way he can to justify himself. The lawyer’s question asks, “who is it that I am to love?”, conversely meaning, “who can I hate?” It is as if he says to Jesus, “I know that I cannot love everyone around me. If I am to inherit eternal life by doing the Law, then there must be some other way to fulfill it that I do not understand.”
Jesus’ parable ends with a question (typical Jesus), “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” Jesus says in a manner of speaking, “It is not about who is worthy of your love, but are you showing mercy and compassion as the Law commands? Are you loving your neighbor as yourself?” The lawyer understands the story. Once again, he gives the right answer: “The one who showed the man [believed to be dead by the priest and Levite] mercy.”
And again, the lawyer is found dead-to-rights, just as we are. We don’t love our neighbors as ourselves and Jesus just took away the only means of justification he or we could scrounge up: a manipulation of God’s Law that makes it O.K. to love some and not others.
“Jesus, how can I love everyone? I can’t stand some people in my own church let alone people who do, say, and believe things I don’t like or agree with. You’re making this impossible.”
That’s the point.
The lawyer, like we so often do, entered the conversation trying to justify his works as worthy of eternal life. “I know the Law and I love those worthy to be loved: my neighbors, i.e. the Jew who also knows the Law and keeps it as I do.” But Jesus pulls the rug out from under both him and us.
It is Jesus closing words that often throw us in this parable. When Jesus says, “You go, and do likewise.” we assume him to be saying, “Go and be merciful as the Law commands.”
It would seem that Jesus still asks the impossible. Yet, we know that we cannot earn salvation by works of the Law? So what is Jesus really commanding? What is he telling us to go and do likewise?
Jesus isn’t asking us to be the Good Samaritan. He’s asking us to be the man who is as good as dead. He asks us to go and do the only thing we can, because we’re already dead.
In the story of the Good Samaritan, we are the stripped and beaten man left behind half dead. We are the man passed by the Law (the priest and Levite) on the other side of the road believed to be dead and beyond help.
It is Christ who is the Good Samaritan.
In the glorious and great exchange of the Gospel, it is Christ who proved to be your neighbor and my neighbor.
It was Christ who went and did like the Good Samaritan. It is Christ who binds up our wounds through His on the cross. It is Christ who anoints us with the oil of His Spirit; who purifies us with the wine of His blood shed for the forgiveness of our sins. It is Christ who saddles us on the animal of His own righteous and life-giving works and brings us to safety.
It is Christ who pays our medical bills.
And it is Christ who promises to return for us.
He takes our guilt, our sin, and our shame on himself as he covers our naked, bloody souls in His righteousness, His perfection, and His eternal life. While the Law demands we be the neighbor, the Gospel declares it is Christ who is our neighbor.
Christ takes those (read us) beaten and left for dead by the Law and raises them to new life in Him.