“On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he asked, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’” Luke 10:25
At this point in Jesus’ earthly ministry, we are told by Luke in the previous chapter that the time for Jesus to be taken up to heaven was approaching, so “Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). Jesus knew that he was on a mission. He was fully aware of what awaited him in Jerusalem and he was marching towards that end. Knowing that his time was short and with the cross set before him, you would assume that Jesus would capitalize on this evangelistic opportunity and clearly explain the cross, his atoning sacrifice, the resurrection, justification by faith and the way of salvation. Instead, Jesus pushes on the man’s assumptions by asking “what is written in the Law?” and “How do you read it?” (Luke 10:26) The man responds by saying “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). Jesus, commends the man for answering well and even tells him “Do this and you will live” (Luke 10:28).
Imagine that the story stops there. You might be thinking, “Jesus, you blew it! You had the opportunity to show this inquiring man the way to salvation. You could have just pointed to yourself and said "follow me," but instead you pointed him to the law, which he’ll never be able to keep! But why?” Did Jesus really believe that this man could keep the law perfectly and so obtain eternal life of his own merit? Thankfully, the story doesn’t stop there. Let’s read on.
“But he wanted to justify himself…” (Luke 10:29) The underlying motive of the man comes to the surface in this verse. He was an expert in the law. He knew what the law said and what the law required. He had staked his life on trying to understand, interpret and live according to the law. Standing in front of the great teacher, he is probing to find out where he stands. Is he justified? Was all that effort enough? Does he measure up? He asks “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29)
Jesus responds with the parable of the good Samaritan. In the parable, a man on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho is attacked by robbers. He is beaten, stripped and left for dead. Later, a priest and a levite traveling the same road, see the man, and pass him by on the other side of the road. Shockingly, a despised Samaritan becomes the hero of the story. He stops to bandage and treat the man’s wounds. He puts him in an inn on his own dime until he has recovered. Jesus then concludes his parable with a question, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” (Luke 10:36) At this point we must remember that the context for this entire dialogue began with the question, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” We are still only a few minutes into that dialogue. Jesus has not taken a rabbit trail and forgotten that this man’s eternal salvation is hanging in the balance. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. Jesus is marching towards the cross, but first he must expose this expert in the law’s underlying assumptions about the way to eternal life.
The expert in the law is under the assumption that he can be justified under the law. He is probing Jesus, but Jesus is probing back. Jesus is showing this man who has dedicated his entire life to understanding, explaining and practicing the law that he has not measured up. He has not loved his neighbor as himself. He is not justified under the law. Surely Jesus could have more directly answered the man’s question out of the gate, but he preferred to take the long way in order to unravel the man's faulty assumptions. The bottom line of the parable is “show mercy.” It is practical. Jesus says, “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37). But it is also informative. In the unfolding of the parable, the expert in the law would have recognized his own need for mercy and all the ways he has failed to live up to the perfect standard of the law.
Is the parable of the good Samaritan a moral teaching, an evangelistic parable, or both? I believe it is both. I firmly believe that Jesus was not providing this man an alternative route to eternal life apart from the very reason he had come to earth. However, I also don’t believe that all of Jesus’ teachings on righteousness were set-ups only for the purpose of making us realize our need for grace. Sadly, some have reduced the most profound teachings of Jesus, such as the Sermon on the Mount, to not be taken literally or practiced seriously. Jesus’ teachings on righteousness are meant to be lived into. They are meant to be practiced and applied. We are not only to hear and consider but also “go and do.” Often we create false dichotomies. Jesus, through his teachings, atoning sacrifice, resurrection, ascension and the outpouring of His Spirit has made it possible for us to enter into His righteousness, both spiritually, as justified before the Father in heaven, and practically through the process of ongoing sanctification being played out daily in our lives.
Lord Jesus, thank you for showing us mercy. Thank you for the righteousness that is available apart from our best efforts to meet the requirements of the law. Help us to fully rely on your grace for our justification. Help us to partner with your ongoing grace at work in our lives to produce the type of righteous living that is pleasing to you. Thank you for filling us with your Holy Spirit, who works in us to perform your will and to conform us into the image of your Son. Help us today to look a little more like Jesus. Amen.