The Parable of “The Good Samaritan” Reconsidered

Tullian Tchividjian contends the context of this parable speaks of the vertical relationship to God instead of a horizontal one between people and how Christians have failed to understand it historically. Despite my initial acceptance of his view, upon further reflection, I must disagree with his thoughts here and maintain that the parable does speak to interpersonal relationships. I will leave his post but answer why I don’t agree with his interpretation.

Jesus says that He came only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Mt. 15.24) when the Canaanite  woman asked for her daughter’s healing; so how could He self identify with a “Good Samaritan?” Further, He tells the woman at Jacob’s well in Sychar: “Salvation is of the Jews.” The woman notes that Jews and Samaritans have no dealings among themselves when Jesus, the Jew asks her for a drink of water. It would be a strange connection then in our parable for Jesus to liken Himself a Samaritan when He is addressing this Jewish lawyer. For these reasons I feel the parable speaks to human horizontal relationships.

Who is the Good Samaritan?

Dying Gaul

For every good story in the Bible there’s a bad children’s song. This is the one I remember for the Good Samaritan:

The man who stopped to help, right when he saw the need; he was such a good, good neighbor, a good example for me.

On the surface, this little ditty may seem harmless. The problem, however, is that Jesus wants us to identify with every person in the parable except the good Samaritan. He reserves that role for himself.

“You should be like the Good Samaritan.” If you grew up in church or Sunday School, you probably heard this a thousand times. In fact, even outside the church, the parable of the Good Samaritan is used to exhort neighborly love and concern for the downtrodden. This parable is perhaps the best known story Jesus ever told  after the parable of The Prodigal Son. It is, however, also the most misunderstood.

You know the story: a man is walking down the road when he is set upon by robbers, who mug him, beat him, and leave him for dead. As he lies, suffering, in the roadside ditch, a priest and a Levite, in turn, pass by on the other side of the street, preferring not to get their hands dirty. It is the hated half-breed—a Samaritan—who comes to the man’s aid, setting him on his donkey, taking him to an inn, paying the inn-keeper to take care of him and promising to return to see that his needs are attended to.

You also know the common interpretation: don’t be like the priest and the Levite, too concerned with themselves to help another. Be like the Good Samaritan – be a good neighbor. In other words, our preachers want us to (at least eventually) identify with the Good Samaritan, the hero of the story.

The parable of The Good Samaritan is the second of the great commandments in narrative form: love your neighbor as yourself. In fact, Jesus tells the story to answer a lawyer’s question about who his neighbor is. The lawyer, trying to trick Jesus, asks him what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus tells him to follow the laws he already knows so well: “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, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27). Then, “seeking to justify himself,” the lawyer asked Jesus a follow-up question: “And who is my neighbor?”

Jesus answers him by telling the parable of The Good Samaritan…and we miss the point completely.

If Jesus had been asked, “How should we treat our neighbors?” and had responded with this story, perhaps “Be like the Good Samaritan” would be an acceptable interpretation. Instead, Jesus was asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He was asked a vertical question (a question about a person’s relationship to God) rather than a horizontal one. The lawyer was, after all, seeking to “justify” himself. This parable must, therefore, be interpreted vertically. It’s about justification, not sanctification.

The context puts Jesus’ final exhortation to “go and do likewise” in perspective. Remember, this is the same Jesus who told his audience at the Sermon on the Mount that they “must be perfect, as [their] Father in Heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). What Jesus is saying in the parable of The Good Samaritan is that, to inherit eternal life, you must keep God’s law perfectly—which includes loving your neighbor as yourself. No wiggle room. You must always love perfectly, sacrificially, selflessly—not just on the outside, but on the inside too. You must, in other words, always want to love perfectly, sacrificially, and selflessly. You must never hurt anyone—physically, emotionally, relationally. And you must always help everyone—physically, emotionally, relationally. You must never harbor grudges. Never. You must never seek retribution. Ever. You must never want to seek retribution. When someone cheats you, instead of trying to get your stuff or money back, you have to give them more. You have to turn the other cheek to your most aggressive enemies. You must love perfectly.

“Go and do likewise” is, therefore, not a word of invitation to be nice. It’s a word of condemnation in answer to the laywer’s question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Far from telling the story to help us become like The Good Samaritan, Jesus tells this story to show us how far from being like The Good Samaritan we actually are! Jesus’ parable destroys our efforts to justify ourselves; to find a class of people we can call “neighbors” that we actually do love. In destroying our self-salvation projects, the story of The Good Samaritan destroys us. Jesus brings the hammer of the Law (“Be perfect…”) down on our self-justifying work.

In a rich irony, we move from being identified with the priest and the Levite who never perfectly love our best friends “as ourselves,” much less our enemies, to being identified with the traveler in desperate need of salvation. Jesus intends the parable itself to leave us beaten and bloodied, lying in a ditch, like the man in the story. We are the breathless bruised. We are the needy, unable to do anything to help ourselves. We are the broken people, beaten up by life, robbed of hope.

But then Jesus comes.

Unlike the Priest and Levite, He doesn’t avoid us. He crosses the street—from heaven to earth—comes into our mess, gets his hands dirty. At great cost to himself on the cross, he heals our wounds, covers our nakedness, and loves us with a no-strings-attached love. He brings us to the Father and promises that his “help” is not simply a one time gift—rather, it’s a gift that will forever cover “the charges” we incur.

Yes, Jesus and Jesus alone is the Good Samaritan.

Author: Alex the Less

B.A. (1976), M.Div. (1983), Journeyman Carpenter (1991), B.B.A. (2009)

2 thoughts on “The Parable of “The Good Samaritan” Reconsidered”

  1. Although it is true that we cannot fulfill the law, that is, be perfect, this interpretation seems odd to me. I wonder how many other of the thousands of good exegetes of the past had this interpretation. Only God, of course, is “good,” that is perfect (without sin). That is why we need his grace to do good works, keeping in mind that works without faith in Christ do not lead to eternal life.

    Here is Spurgeon

    Jesus tells us over and over again the manner in which we are to live towards our fellow men and He lays great stress upon the love which should shine throughout the Christian character. The story of the good Samaritan, which is now before us, is a case in point, for our Lord is explaining, there, a point which arose out of the question, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” The question is legal and the answer is to the point. But let it never be forgotten that what the Law demands of us, the Gospel produces in us. The Law tells us what we ought to be and it is one objective of the Gospel to raise us to that condition. Therefore our Savior’s teaching, though it is eminently practical, is always evangelical. Even in expounding the Law He has always a Gospel design. Two ends are served by His setting up a high standard of duty. On the one He slays the self-righteousness which claims to have kept the Law by making men feel the impossibility of salvation by their own works. And, on the other hand, He calls Believers away from all content with the mere decencies of life and the routine of outward religion and stimulates them to seek after the highest degree of holiness—indeed, after that excellence of character which only His Grace can give!

    …So you know that there is poverty and sickness around you. And if you pass by on the other side you will have looked at it, you will have known about it—and on your heads will be the criminality of having left the wounded man unhelped!

    http://www.spurgeongems.org/vols22-24/chs1360.pdf

    1. Upon further reflection, I agree it would be odd for Jesus to identify with being “the good Samaritan.” After all Jesus settled the theological question between the contentions of the Jews and Samaritans when He told the woman at the well, “Salvation is of the Jews.”

      I will edit my introduction but leave the post. I agree the parable most probably speaks about the horizontal relationship we are to have with others.

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