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.”
As 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.