By Paul Koch –
We all know that our Lord used stories to teach the faith. He told parables to reveal how the Kingdom of God functions in this world, how we are to live in that kingdom, and what we can expect from our God in the final days of this dying age. Of all the parables that he told, two stand out as giants among all the others. Two parables, the parable of the Prodigal Son and the parable of the Good Samaritan tower above all others. These have a life beyond the pages of Scripture and the confines of Christian congregations. The parable of the Good Samaritan is even referenced in legal proceedings as a whole set of laws that protect someone who comes to the aid of a person injured or in danger. Because it is a famous parable it has been studied and preached upon time and time again. The very best of artists and musicians have interpreted and confessed the truths of this parable in their given craft. Which means that when we hear it we don’t come to the text without some notion of what is going on, or some image of how this might have looked.
Of all the great paintings of the Good Samaritan, perhaps my favorite is by Rembrandt. Almost every depiction of this parable features the Samaritan either coming to the aid of the wounded man on the side of the road or bandaging his wounds or lifting him upon his horse. But the scene that Rembrandt depicts for us is where the Good Samaritan has the wounded man placed in the care of an innkeeper. Now that might seem a bit anticlimactic, but perhaps by focusing on the inn we are given something unique in a famous painting from a famous parable that that allows us to hear the word anew.
This parable is given in response to perhaps one of the most profound questions ever asked of our Lord. It’s not, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” or “How many times should I forgive my neighbor?” No, a lawyer stands up to put Jesus to the test and asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” To which Jesus has him search the Law, and asks what it says. The lawyer 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 Jesus says: there you go, there’s the path to eternal life. Now notice he doesn’t do what we might do. He doesn’t confess that he can’t do that. Rather he pivots and wants some clarification on who his neighbor is. In response to this who scene, in response to the big question of “what must I do to inherit eternal life” Jesus gives to us the parable of the Good Samaritan.
A man is heading down from Jerusalem when he falls prey to some robbers along the road. They beat him and strip him and take all that he has leaving him half dead on the side of the road. The focus here is that this man will die if no one comes to his aid. Here we are introduced to the first character walking his way. A priest: but does he help? No. He crosses over to the others side of the road and goes on his way. Perhaps he was ritually clean having just come from the temple and didn’t want to risk defiling himself, but his reasons aren’t really the point. The point is, this is the one that you thought would have helped the man, this is a servant of the Most High God, but he just leaves him to die. But as luck would have it, another guy is following behind him: a Levite. Levites are subjected to the same law as the priest, and though we might expect him to pick up the slack of the priest he follows his example and leaves the man to die. And then comes the Samaritan. The Samaritans were considered by the Jews and sinners who did not conform to the law of God and the hearers of this parable wouldn’t have expected much from him. Yet he is the one who comes to the aid of the dying man.
We are told that he had compassion. He rushes to the man, binds up his wounds, applies some roadside medical treatment and then lifts him onto his own horse. He takes the man to the inn we talked about earlier and there takes care of him. Now he can’t physically stay there with him but he takes some of his money and pays the innkeeper in advance for any cost the wounded man might incur while he is gone. And he goes so far as to say that if the cost is any higher he will repay him when he returns.
Now then, our Lord turns back to the lawyer who asked the question to begin with and says, “Who proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” And of course the answer is simple and straightforward. The one who showed him mercy. The good Samaritan is the only one who had mercy. So Jesus says, “Go, and do likewise.”
So there we have it. There is the answer to the great question of “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” It seems that our salvation hinges on our desire to have compassion on others. We need to be people of service living not for ourselves but for our neighbor. And our neighbor isn’t necessarily the people we like, the ones we want to care about, sometimes they are nameless faces in need, like a man dying on the side of the road. To be sure, we’ve heard a lot of sermons that follow this line of thinking. We are to be the Good Samaritan. We are to have compassion and in this way we demonstrate the assurance that we will inherit eternal life.
With such a word we then turn to examine ourselves, our past and present behavior and get some sense of how we are doing in this task. We can take stock of things and try harder to secure our inheritance by our actions. But I have to be honest my friends, I don’t think you can do it. It’s not that I’m a pessimist. It’s just that I’ve seen enough of mankind’s good intentions to know they never last for very long. You may have compassion for a friend in need, but the homeless beggar outside the grocery store you pretend not to see. If our actions of love are what will get us into heaven, I’m not sure there’ll be anyone there – well outside of Jesus.
Perhaps that’s the point. In fact, if we go back to the parable, did you notice that Jesus turned the question around? The lawyer asked him “Who is my neighbor?” And Jesus after telling the story asks, “Who proved to be a neighbor to the man in the ditch?” The neighbor is the one who showed mercy – the perspective has changed. From the perspective of the lawyer the neighbor that he must love as himself is the one who shows mercy to him. Our Lord turns our whole preconceived notions of how things work on their head. He alone is the Good Samaritan in our parable. He is the one who shows mercy when no one else will. He is the compassionate one. Which means you are the one that is lying half dead on the side of the road. You are unable to help yourself, heal yourself, and save yourself.
The priest and the Levite are the law that comes walking along, unable to save you from your fate. They are the very ones that would have you just try a little harder, dig a litter deeper, and surely you will be able to make some progress down the road. In fact, your situation is even worse. For it’s not just that you were ambushed by robbers dragging you to your death. You were willing participants in the destruction that left you dead on the side of the road. But this is not a bad place to be. Oh sure, it’s a place of death, sure it’s a place that if we are left alone we will never have hope or confidence in eternal life – but you are not alone. You have a compassionate neighbor, a Good Samaritan, our Lord Jesus Christ.
He finds you dead. He finds you abandoned by the law which was both unwilling and unable to help and he has mercy. He sees your wounds and he binds them up. He knows you’re weak and unable to move so he lifts you in his strong arms and carries you to a place of safety. He speaks words of compassion that change everything. You are exposed, sinful and unclean and he says to you, “I forgive you all your sins, I love you. You are my brothers and my sisters and today you will live.”
He takes you to the inn, to that place that Rembrandt painted for us. There he promises rest and restoration. There he gives what is his to the innkeeper so that you might find life and salvation even if he is absent. Welcome then to the inn! Here are the gifts of our Good Samaritan provided for you. Water, Word, bread and wine. Food and drink that restores the soul and emboldens the spirit. We have nothing to provide you in this place but what our Good Samaritan has given, and what he gives you is nothing short of eternal life.
And so in the end we can in fact “go and do likewise.” For we can take the gifts given to us and hand them on just as we have received them. In Christ you are given a life that ventures far beyond the walls of the inn where through your hands and feet and mouths he will continue to prove to be a neighbor to a world dying on the side of the road. Your salvation is secure. You are the heirs of eternal life. So now you are free to be merciful in the love of your Good Samaritan.