September 6, 2011

Only God is good, and that includes Samaritans

by Jesse Johnson

The most misinterpreted and wrongly applied of Jesus’ parables is certainly the story of the good Samaritan. The prevailing contemporary understanding of this passage sees the story through the lens of Christian ethics, as if the Samaritan was invented by Jesus as a means of demonstrating to Christians how they should express God’s love to the world. This interpretation—common as it may be—is the polar opposite of what Jesus meant by the parable. Jesus did not tell this parable to illustrate how we are supposed to live, but rather to refute the idea that being a good neighbor can earn you salvation. The Samaritan is not in Scripture to serve as an example of Christian ethics, and to conscript him for that cause largely misses Jesus’ point.

As a side note, the concept of working one’s way to heaven through doing good deeds and being a good neighbor is not limited to Ancient Near East priestly societies. In fact, it is as common today in the United States as it was in second temple Judaism. How often have you witnessed to someone who says they are going to heaven because they are “a good person”? When you follow up by asking them to describe what it means to be a good person, the response is generally along the lines of “I help people, and do what is right in my own eyes.” The story of the good Samaritan was told to crush exactly that concept of good.

The scene is in Luke 10. Jesus had a massive crowd around him, and he just preached what is certainly one of the most fiery, exclusive, hell-fire and brimstone messages of his entire ministry. He told the crowd that if they rejected him, they would be worse than Tyre and Sidon. Satan fell, he said, and now the demons are subject to Jesus. He alone holds the entrance to eternal life, and he will only open it to those whom “the Son chooses.” He publically declares he is the Messiah, and that without faith in him, Hades awaits.

After all of that, “a lawyer stood up to put him to the test”—which lets you know a little about this lawyer’s incredulity and ignorance, and a lot about his arrogance. His question, of course, was works-based: “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus seldom missed an opportunity to show the folly of trying to labor your way to glory.

Note that the context is not one of teaching disciples about Christian living. Rather, this parable was provoked by a lawyer who had publically implied—to Jesus and in front of others—that he had kept the entire law. When Jesus asked him if he had even read the Law (which is a funny response in its own right) the lawyer rejoined by quoting an excerpt from Deut 6:5 mixed with an excerpt from Lev 19:18. His answer would not have passed muster with an AWANA leader, but it did adequately capture his works-based understanding of what it takes to inherit eternal life. Jesus countered by telling him that if he worked hard enough, and never sinned, and was perfect, and…well you get the idea. “Do this and you will live,” Jesus said (Luke 10:28). If the man wanted to earn eternal life on his own merit he would indeed have to do the impossible and keep the law perfectly by loving God with all his heart and loving his neighbor as he loved himself.

The lawyer knew what the crowd knew, namely that he fell far short of that requirement. Had he rested his case and apologized for wasting the court’s time, he would have received mercy. Instead he “sought to justify himself” by “testing Jesus” in front of the onlookers (v. 29; note again Luke’s use of language that invokes a works-righteousness idea of salvation). Jesus responded with the parable of the good Samaritan to illustrate the impossibility of working one’s way to heaven. Jesus illustrated doing the impossible with a story about a man who sacrifices immensely for a complete stranger.

I’m assuming everyone reading this is familiar with the story. The fictional Samaritan showed undying sacrificial love to someone he had never seen before, and likely would never see again. He did this at immense expense to himself, without regard to the cost. He did not open a soup kitchen for the homeless, or give a bus ticket to a passer-by. Rather, he dropped him off at a hotel and left his credit card.

In his 2-volume Luke commentary, Darrell Bock clearly summarizes the different possible interpretations of this story. In order to read it as encouragement for Christians to live a life following the example of the Samaritan (which is actually Bock’s own view, despite the fact that he persuasively argues against it), Bock points out that it is necessary to see the lawyer as a person who was genuinely seeking how to love God more, and to see Jesus’ answer as encouragement to a struggling follower. Bock grants that to take this view, you have to understand the lawyer’s love for God as “genuine.”

This view is simply not persuasive because it fails to account for Luke’s language describing the lawyer (“seeking to justify himself,” “put Jesus to the test,” etc.). The lawyer’s love for God was anything but genuine, and to interpret the story this way gives an application that veers toward feel-good moralism rather than self-denying gospel contrition. Rather than interpreting the parable as a model of ethics, it is better to see this as a lesson on how not to earn salvation. It is akin to Jesus’ response to the rich young ruler, who also claimed publically and audaciously that he had kept the whole law (in fact, the similarities between the account of the rich ruler and the testing lawyer are legion). I. Howard Marshall (NIGTC) sees both of these incidents as examples of the same lesson: if you want to work your way to heaven, good luck.

The point of both encounters is not “do this and live,” but rather, “if you do this you will live, but it is impossible to do this, and claiming that you can really just makes you look silly.” Thus, when Jesus said “go and do likewise” (10:28, 37), he was really telling the lawyer that unless he recognized his inability to do just that, then he has an impossible task in front of him.

In short, this is not a parable told to teach Christian ethics, but instead is told to teach how utterly impossible it is for one to work his way to heaven. Hendrickson was correct when he wrote that the purpose of the story is to refute that notion that “being a good neighbor would all by itself assure salvation.” Hendrickson adds:

“But proving oneself to be a neighbor, and doing this to perfection, and besides, loving God with a love that is also perfect, would indeed result in everlasting life. We hasten to add, however, that such perfection is impossible on this sinful earth. Yet, the demand of God’s law is not abrogated. The solution of this problem has been furnished by God himself. Jesus Christ, by the substitutionary sacrifice of himself and by his life of perfect obedience, has done for us what we ourselves would never have been able to do.”

The good person testAs Jesus told the rich young ruler, “no one is good but God alone,” and that includes fictional Samaritans doing impossible tasks. If the selfless sojourner stands for anyone in the story, he is a picture of Jesus himself. He loved us unconditionally, at great cost to himself. Complete with laying down his own life for his enemies, Jesus reminds us (as he did the rich young ruler) that he alone is truly good.

This does not mean that there is no moral lesson to draw from the story. By way of illustration, Jesus makes the simple but unpopular point that loving your neighbor is not limited to people that you know and like. For Christians to love their neighbors, they must love whomever they find themselves next to. This is an especially important point in the context of the Great Commission where the church finds itself scattered around the world, in foreign lands and cultures.

But this point is secondary to the story to begin with, and is generally wrongly applied anyway. If you see someone in danger or need, and you have the means to help, then obviously seize the opportunity to “do good” for them (Gal 6:10).  But to take the parable of the good Samaritan and interpret it as a call for the church to work for social transformation is clearly off-base. Even reading into the parable the notion that Christians should meet the needs of poor people around them, while not in and of itself a bad thing, is certainly missing Jesus’ point, and has to qualify as a poor pillar on which to build a theological argument for church-based social action. We need fewer lawyers trying to justify themselves by testing Jesus, not more.

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
  • Blake

    Interesting take, Jesse. Thanks. If you’d ever be interested in investigating more of a Jewish/Hebrew view of this and other major parables, I think this book is outstanding:

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for the gracious comment Blake. I will look at that book (I haven’t yet). I hope my cavalier writing style doesn’t imply that this was off the cuff. I did read probably 30 Luke commentaries and a dozen journal articles on this parable. What really struck me is the division between commentators 20 years ago, and more modern works. Thanks for the hint Blake, and I will check it out.

  • Thank-you for rescuing this passage from the home for abused verses orphaned from their contexts.

  • Tim

    Wasn’t the lawyer not really a lawyer as we understand the word today, but rather a theologian? It makes the part where he tries to justify himself all the more poignant.

    Also, I love the imagery of leaving the credit card at the hotel desk. I’ve often wondered what would have happened if the fictional man ran up the room service bill before the fictional Samaritan made it back. Happily, Jesus has paid a bill I could never hope to satisfy. It’s too bad I occasionally (sometimes way too often) keep running that tab. It’s great that, in the words of the old hymn, Jesus paid it all.


    • Anonymous

      Yeah. Their lawyers were not experts in Roman law, but in the traditions of Judaism. As for the credit card analogy, that occurred to me because a girl in our church did that. In an effort to apply this parable, she actually picked up a homeless person and checked her into a hotel. The lady smoked in the room, and caused all kinds of damage, charged of course to the credit card. Laudable, but not wise.

      • Tim

        Wow, poor girl (in more ways than one!). I imagine she is wiser now in stewarding God’s resources. Good thing she has someone like you to shepherd her through this, Jesse.


  • Brad

    Hi Jesse,

    I was wondering if it is ok for a parable, story, or text of Scripture to have more than one meaning or truth in it. When I read the parable of the Good Samaritan,I feel like it is saying many, many things. For example, I think it is definitely telling me that I cannot earn my salvation. But I also think it is telling me that it is a good thing to be like the Good Samaritan. It seems like Jesus is saying the Good Samaritan is like Him. And I want to be like Jesus.



    • Anonymous

      I think that is actually one point. The standard for holiness is out of reach for us. But Jesus is our holiness and righteousness. This story is an illustration of both of those points. But I’m not sold that you can take the character used and attach an application to it. The point behind Jesus’ illustration is that your neighbor is anyone in need. But the application of “be like the good Samaritan” seems a bit stretched and forced to me.

      Generally, parables have one point. In fact, if you have Bible works, search for all the uses of “told” and “parable.” Many times that phrase is used, the context reveals that Jesus had one main point or purpose in his parables.

      On obvious expression is the parable of the prodigal son. It was told against the pharisees, but there is lots of truth packed into that. Check out A Tale of Two Sons, by MacArthur for more on that.

  • So if I gather your interpretative method correctly you are reading the Parable of the Good Samaritan through an allegorical lens rather than a literal lens as does Tim Keller – say?

    • Anonymous

      Jesse can correct me on this, but I think he is taking this parable in the parabolic sense like Jesus did.

      • Anonymous

        Exactly. It is a parable. It was not a real event. It was a story Jesus told to make a point. Is that point to help Christians understand how they are supposed to engage the poor in society? I argue above that the point is that it is impossible to justify yourself by your deeds–the very thing this lawyer was striving to do.

        • Then why does Jesus tell the lawyer to “Go and DO likewise” ?
          I DON’T see Jesus saying explicitly in this exchange with this lawyer that “here is the standard – you can’t meet it – just trust in Me instead.” Jesus said to the lawyer to go and do exactly what He just illustrated in the parable.

          It’s eisegetical to read this parable in the way you suggest because the conclusion you offer is not mentioned literally within the text. This is why I am saying you are putting an allegorical or symbolic layer over the plain reading of the text.

          • Noah

            If I may, Jesus said “Go and do likewise” to the lawyer as a response to the initial conversation starter of “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” After claiming that he had kept the law fully, the lawyer sought to justify himself after Jesus simply passed over his question with a “do [the law] and you will live,” with the question “who is my neighbor.” Then, of course, comes the parable. What the Samaritan does for the unknown man is so above and beyond that of anything that anybody could do for everybody that is around him. It’s not simply that this lawyer should go out and do this once, but that he should be doing this every day if he were to fulfill the law by loving his neighbor. This also does not take into account the other aspects of the law, such as loving God fully. The point is that the lawyer sought to justify himself with his question and Jesus sets the bar so high that there was no way that the lawyer could be justified in his claim to fulfill the law.

            Hopefully that helps.

          • Anonymous

            Exactly Noah.

            BTW, this is one of the areas where the similarities that many commentators point out between the rich young ruler and the testing lawyer are helpful. They both ask what to do to be saved, and Jesus tells them. Either sell all you have and give to the poor to gain eternal life, or show undying, selfless, sacrificial love to complete strangers in need at great expense to yourself, like the Samaritan. Do either of those, and you will live. The obvious point is that both are impossible, and should drive you to Jesus anyway.

          • if I may – “the bar” as you say is within reach for all who follow Jesus. Jesus is telling us that the priest AND the Levite BOTH had an obligation to help this poor man but turned away from it. Jesus sets the Samaritan as a good example for all of us. Jesus is plainly showing us how to live out the implications of the Gospel – show mercy to all men.

          • Noah

            Hey Mark, I’m glad we both may! Thanks for your comment and may the Lord bless you and keep you!

    • Anonymous

      Not quite. The allegorical method sees each person as standing for something, and usually it has the connotation of being something hidden. For a good read on allegorical interpretation and a critique of it, check out any hermenutics book. Zuck’s Basic Bible Interpretation has some good observations on that method, and has a helpful index.

  • Richard

    Thanks for showing this in it’s full light. I had not seen it that way and when I went back and read it I realized that I had not seen that aspect before. I had a similar experience with the sermon on the mount series by JMac. Seeing how Christ showed God’s standards were higher not lowernthan the Pharisees. The point being to show how you can’t achieve it on your own.

    Now to put you in the hot seat…

    My wife and I are still going through the Matthew sermons. I remembered the series on loving your enemies also. MacArthur specifically points to this story of an example of loving your enemies.

    So in response to Jesus explicit command of “Love your neighbor as yourself” must we believe that it is “secondary” to the story to see the example of expected behavior. It seems reasonable to see both as important. Bad application, like giving your credit card to a stranger, shouldn’t diminish the rich meaning in both.

    I think of Christ saying “you say …, but I say …” as both convicting, but also showing expected behavior. This seems the same to me.


    • Anonymous

      I agree. I think you should check out JMac’s sermon on the good Samaritan. It is not only one of his funniest sermons (unless the GTY folks edited the joy out of it), but one of his most insightful. I think the comparison to the sermon on the mount is apt; the standard is so high, that you must realize you can’t reach it. That being said, we strive for holiness and peace among all people.

      The point of the credit card comment was not that it was a bad application, but that it was an accurate application…if you take the story as a model for how to live. But the truth in both Mat 5 and Luke 10 is this: don’t cut out your eye or shop off your hand, and don’t give your credit card to the homeless. Do fight sin, and do love your neighbor. But realize that the standard is out of reach for everyone except Jesus, and he met it for you.

      Thanks Richard

      • Richard

        Thanks, I’ll look into that series. I appreciate your open discussion. It really makes your posts so much more powerful the way you engage your readers.

  • Bedwards

    First, I wanted to say I enjoyed your two posts last week and thought they were helpful in the discussion.

    I also think this post makes some good points. However, it seems to me that you are setting up a false dichotomy. To argue that Jesus is the perfect example of the Good Samaritan is certainly true. But to then say that we are not called to imitate that action seems odd. Can anyone live up to this standard? No, so we need Christ’s righteousness. But, are we to strive for this standard, resting in Christ’s finished work on the cross? It seems you say “Nah, just try to fight sin.”

    E.g., “But the truth in both Mat 5 and Luke 10 is this: don’t cut out your eye or shop off your hand, and don’t give your credit card to the homeless. Do fight sin, and do love your neighbor. But realize that the standard is out of reach for everyone except Jesus, and he met it for you.”

    Granted we can’t save ourselves by doing those things, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. Otherwise, I could say “Jesus point in Matt 5 is: don’t seek first the kingdom of God and don’t do unto others as you would have them do to you. Just do your best and be comfortable while you do it.” Or Peter’s point in 1 Pet 1 is: Don’t worry about being as holy as God is. Try to limit sin in your life and just trust in Christ’s holiness.”

    Are the examples Jesus gives radical? Yes. Can we ever attain them? No. Should we try? I say yes. It seems you say “don’t worry about it.”

    • Anonymous

      You are right. I should have worded that comment more carefully. I don’t mean to say don’t worry about it.

    • Richard

      Don’t forget the part where he said ” we strive for holiness and peace among all people.”

      I could be wrong but what is actually been taught “against”, (I hope that’s fair), is the going to the extreme that says, “Well where is a beaten up person for me to take care of? Hmmm, not here. Maybe over here? Nope. OH LOOK I FOUND ONE, now I can finally be like Christ.” I took away from the JMac series on loving your neighbor something more like. “La de da. Hmm… what’s that, someone in need, I’ll help them.”

      One produces a mindset of “We owe everything to the poor” and one produces a mindset of Galatians 6:10 “as we have opportunity.”

      Where I am convicted is how I look at my life and see how I’ve positioned my life so I rarely come across a person in need. It’s not that I need to find them, it’s that I need to stop living like a hermit and be in the world so the glory of Christ in me can shine through.

      So does that contrast the “don’t worry about it” vs “can’t achieve it” mindset for you in the context of the blog series enough for you?

      • Bedwards

        As I said, I think there are good points in the post, but the problem is a false dichotomy of “not this, but this” rather than “this should not be missed, but also this.” Other statements that give me this impression:
        “In short, this is not a parable told to teach Christian ethics, but instead is told to teach how utterly impossible it is for one to work his way to heaven.”
        Can’t it do both? By showing the impossible ethic it shows that we cannot be saved by what we do. But it also shows the ethic towards which we are called to strive.

        “Even reading into the parable the notion that Christians should meet the needs of poor people around them, while not in and of itself a bad thing, is certainly missing Jesus’ point, and has to qualify as a poor pillar on which to build a theological argument for church-based social action.”
        Is it really reading into the parable to say that Christians should meet the needs of poor people around them? It’s admitted that Jesus is the best example of the Good Samaritan, so aren’t we called to imitate his selfless love for others? Why does it have to be one and not the other?

        IOW, I think the argument here is ineffective at communicating the main point because it goes too far. The concern is that people use the Good Samaritan as a call for the church to solve all the problems of the world. How do we counter that? By pointing out that it’s not a command for the church but for individual believers, by pointing out that it’s not a command to solve all the problems of the world but to love our neighbor in a sacrificial way, and by pointing out that it also points us to our utter inability to save ourselves and shows us Christ’s perfection in our place. I don’t have to deny that the parable of the Good Samaritan teaches me how to love my neighbor. I just have to deny that it provides a mandate for the church to solve society’s problems.

        • Anonymous

          Thanks Ben. I don’t want to create a false dichotomy, or really any dichotomy. This post was largely a response to my reading of Keller’s Minister of Mercy book. There he says that the church is called to engage in social transformation projects. He grants that there are no NT verses that say this, so he draws it from the story of the good Samaritan (the subtitle is “the call of the Jericho Road”). My point here was simply to say that I don’t think that is a valid deduction, and that it stretches the parable too far. So I agree with the balance you bring in your last paragraph. Thanks for that.

      • Anonymous

        Well, there is a difference between striving for peace with people (Heb 12:14), and what I was arguing against on previous posts.
        But I agree that it is convicting to think that we position our lives to stay away from people to whom we could minister. I agree with that, and thanks for pointing it out.

  • Richard

    The merging of the Good Samaritan with the Rich Young Ruler was also a new perspective for me. When we went through “Crazy Love” at our church in a study group one of the sticking points was that story. I felt like there was just something not quite right in the presentation. Finally it dawned on me what Jesus actually said.

    Luke 18:22 When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”

    Jesus said he lacked ONE thing, but then tells him TWO things to do. It seemed to me then that the point was not that we all need to sell all we have, though clearly giving generously builds up treasure in heaven, but instead that salvation comes when we throw off all that hinders us so that we can follow Christ.

    The ONE thing lacking was not he had not given away his wealth, the ONE thing lacking was his failure to follow Christ. That makes it a bit different than the good Samaritan story in the sense of one is showing how you can’t do it, the other shows how you can do it. Salvation came from being perfect in one story, salvation came from letting go of the things of this earth and following Christ in the other story. As I think of how the disciples respond with “Well then how can ANYONE be saved?” maybe I over analyzed.

    Maybe that’s bad exegesis? But it seemed more correct than the asceticism that came out to me in “Crazy Love.” (Please don’t misconstrue that as an attack on Francis Chan or his book which is good in many ways in its own right, he gets a lot less wrong than I do!)

    • For my part I want to be cautious about merging the Luke 10 with Luke 18 incident. These were two similar situation, but still different. We should exegete a passage for what it says within its own context. I still don’t see anywhere in the Good Samaritan story where says, “Go and DO LIKEWISE – but, btw it ain’t gonna work cause try all you will and it won’t be enough.” Jesus simply tells this lawyer TWICE – go and do.

      • Anonymous

        I appreciate your caution. I quoted a few commentators above who bring out the parallels, and maybe in a future blog post I’ll even chart them out. Of course the interpretation of each passage stands on its own, but especially when you think about how Jesus evangelized, it is insightful to see similarities in his approach.

    • Anonymous

      I agree that the disciples response really clarifies Jesus’ message in that story, and I don’t think it is over analyzing.

  • Bob Turner

    Jesse – Thanks so much for posting this article. I am actually preaching on this passage right now in my church! Could I email you my final (3rd) sermon on this text to get your opinion on something?

    • Anonymous

      Sorry Bob. after I type this comment, Im going off line for a week and taking my family to Yellowstone. Everyone play nice in my absence 🙂

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