By Paul Koch –
The parable of the Good Samaritan is one of the most familiar of all our Lord’s parables. Therefore, is one of the texts most often preached in the Church. Unfortunately, in my experience, a great amount of preachers misuse this text. As a matter of fact, I heard a sermon on this parable not that long ago; it basically boiled down to Mr. Rodgers in a cozy cardigan asking, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” And yet, this parable asks the central question to all of Christianity; it gets to the very heart of our faith and confidence. Surely, there is more to it than a desire to a better neighbor to those around us.
Jesus tells this parable after an expert in the law stands up to put our Lord to the test. He asks, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Now this, in various ways, is the question of the Faith. If eternal life is the goal and hope of our Faith, then what must we do to receive it? How do we go about getting such life? Well, our Lord directs him back into the law itself. What answer does he find there? How does one inherits eternal life, according to the law? The expert answers, “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.” And our Lord says, “Sounds good, do that and you will live.”
Now when I hear that list of things and I don’t have to ponder very long; I know I haven’t done that. I mean, sure, I love God. But all the time with all my being and love my neighbor like that, how is that even possible? A checklist like that is enough to drive me right to despair. But not for this inquisitor of our Lord. No, he stands firm. He doesn’t see that the problem lies within himself but rather in the law, for the law simply isn’t clear. Desiring to justify himself, he asks for clarity, “Who is my neighbor?” See, he believes that if he only knows who his neighbor then he can go about loving him as he loves himself. Apparently this means there are some people that are certainly not his neighbor. At this point, Jesus gives to us the parable of the Good Samaritan.
The story is one of death and life, of hypocrisy and redemption. An unknown man is going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and along the way robbers attack him. They beat him till he is nearly dead, strip him of all his clothes, and leave him lying in a ditch on the side of the road. Now without help, without interference from someone else, this man will die. He cannot help himself. He cannot better his own situation. He is completely dependent on the mercy of someone else. But, as luck would have it, someone else is coming along the road: three of them in fact.
The first to approach is a priest. So you think, ah, a priest surely a priest of God would have mercy on this unknown man. But no, he crosses the street, moves entirely out of the way, doesn’t want to get too close, and passes by on the other side. But that’s alright because not far behind the priest is a Levite. That’s right, another man of God: one who took the laws of the Almighty seriously and sought to do what was necessary to inherit eternal life. But he simply follows the priest’s example. He crosses over on the other side of the road, he goes out of the way to not help the dying man. Now we can concoct theories why they didn’t help: that they might become ritually unclean, that they would risk putting themselves in a situation where they would no longer be able to carry on their duties according to the letter of the law.
But the point is simple and clear – they did not help! They were willing to let the man die in the ditch on the side of the road.
But all is not lost, for there is still one more coming along the road, a Samaritan. That may not mean much to us but to that expert in the law that Jesus is speaking to, it means a great deal. The Samaritans were despised by the Jews. They were viewed as half-breeds and treated often as dogs. This is the least likely person who would help, the most unsuspecting of heroes for our story. But along he comes and when he sees the dying man his response is not with regard to the law but only with compassion. He has compassion, he goes and binds up his wounds and lifts him onto his own animal and carries him to an inn. At the inn he takes of him. When he has to leave the following day, he pays in advance for anything that might be used to care for this man. He is brought back from certain and sure death by the compassion of this unlikely hero.
So our Lord asks, “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” Now the answer is simple, clear as day. The one who proved to be a neighbor is the one who had mercy. Notice, though, he flipped it over on its head; Jesus didn’t ask who considered the man in the ditch his neighbor but who was a neighbor to him. So the challenge is laid at the feet of the lawyer and before us, as well. How do we show mercy as the Samaritan showed? How are we to love like that? If we are to do such things to inherit eternal life, then how shall we ever be certain that we will have it?
The power of this parable now sinks in. The mercy of the Samaritan shows us inability to love like that and we begin to realize that this parable was about us all along. We are not the hypocritical priest or the dispassionate Levite. We are not to try to be the Good Samaritan. We are the ones lying in the ditch, dying on the side of the road! We cannot help ourselves. We cannot save ourselves We will not live without the intervention of another. If the question is “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?”, then the answer is: nothing. You are dying on the side of the road! What could you possibly do?
Yet, Christ has done it all for you. He has found you dead in your sin, unable to save yourself. He has bound up your wounds with His own life and sacrifice. Your Lord has borne your sin to Calvary’s mount and given it all, so that you might live. He has carried you to the inn, to His church, where He has paid for your care. He is the one who has left His means of grace so that you will not go without. He has fed you with Word and Sacrament. He has washed and clothed you. He has breathed new life into each and every one of you.
And here, in this mercy of our Good Samaritan, we then are free to be neighbors to others. His love has delivered us so that we might even dare to love each other. Eternal life is not an achievement of your doing but a gift you have already been given. So what, then, do you do? What now? Well, look around, we are a community of those redeemed by mercy. Let us let His mercy have its way. With joy and confidence, let us love and forgive and be merciful even as we have been given mercy.