Let’s be honest. If we encountered a scenario like the one Jesus describes in the parable of the Good Samaritan, we would not react like the title character. In fact, most of us would probably think the Samaritan’s generosity toward a stranger seems excessive.
Did you ever set aside everything to help a total stranger in a desperate situation? More to the point, have you ever done that for someone who was your enemy? Did you risk defilement in order to minister to all his needs? Did you singlehandedly provide everything he needed—dress his wounds, feed him, stay with him through a long night of pain, pay his bills, provide him with several weeks’ room, board, and medical care—and then leave him with a blank check to pay everything he might need in the meantime?
. . . As Yourself
Actually, there is someone you have done all those things for: yourself. That is precisely how we look after our own needs, isn’t it? Give me whatever I need. Call the best doctor. Get me to the best medical facility. Arrange the best care I can get. Take care of me as long as I need it. Pamper me. Don’t skimp on the amenities. We might get closest to true self-sacrifice with a family member or a very close friend. But who would do this for a stranger—and an enemy to boot? This kind of thing is simply not done.
No doubt you have done something wonderfully generous at some point in your life. But do you truly love strangers like this all the time?
Of course not. Jesus is describing a rare love that has no limits. Keep in mind that this is also a sort of backhanded reply to the lawyer’s original question in Luke 10:25: “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” The answer goes like this:
What does the law say?
“Love . . . your neighbor as yourself” (v. 27).
“You have answered correctly; do this and you will live” (v. 28).
Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan in order to show what an impossibly high standard the law sets for us. And it is a rebuke not just to the lawyer, but to all of us. If we always truly loved our neighbors the way we love and care for ourselves, the Samaritan’s generosity would not seem so remarkable.
Whatever polemical trap the lawyer was planning to lay for Jesus was defeated by the parable. At the end of the story, Jesus turned the lawyer’s own question right back to him: “Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the robbers’ hands?” (Luke 10:36).
With the powerful lesson of that parable still hanging in the air, the lawyer had only one possible reply: “The one who showed mercy toward him” (v. 37).
Jesus’ next reply ought to have provoked deep conviction and a humble confession of the man’s own inability: “Go and do the same” (v. 37).
Because here’s the catch: the law demands that you love like that all the time. As a lawyer, the man should have known that he couldn’t perform a single act of extravagant altruism and imagine that he had fulfilled the demands of the law forever. The law demands perfection all the time. “Cursed is he who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them” (Deuteronomy 27:26). “Whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumble in one point, he has become guilty of all” (James 2:10).
So Jesus’ final reply to the man, “Go and do the same,” should have moved the lawyer to plead for grace and forgiveness. If that is what the law means when it promises life to those who obey (Leviticus 18:5), we have no hope at all under the law. The only thing the law can do for us is doom us. “And this commandment, which was to result in life, proved to result in death for me” (Romans 7:10). Because the law demands absolute and utter godlike perfection (Matthew 5:48), no one who has ever sinned can be fit for eternal life on the law’s terms. That’s what the lawyer should have realized. So should we. The full truth is that even Christians, into whose hearts “the love of God has been poured out” (Romans 5:5), do not consistently love like the law demands.
But there’s a deeper lesson here. The way the Good Samaritan cared for the traveler is the way God loves sinners. In fact, God’s love is infinitely more profound and more amazing than that. The Samaritan sacrificed his time and money to care for a wounded enemy. God gave His own eternal Son to die for sinners who deserve nothing more than eternal damnation.
For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8)
Indeed, “while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son” (v. 10, emphasis added).
What Christ did to redeem His people far exceeds the lavish act of benevolence pictured in the parable. Christ is the living embodiment of divine love in all its perfection. He is spotless, sinless—“holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners” (Hebrews 7:26). During His earthly life, He did literally fulfill every jot and tittle of the law to absolute perfection. And then in dying, He even bore the penalty of sin for others. Moreover, His unblemished righteousness—including the full merit of that perfect love—is imputed to those who trust Him as Lord and Savior. Their sins are forgiven, and they are clothed in the perfect righteousness the law requires. They inherit eternal life—not as a reward for their own good works, but purely by grace, because of Christ’s work on their behalf.
If that lawyer had only confessed his own guilt and admitted his inability to do what the law demands, Jesus would have been ready to offer him an eternity of mercy, grace, forgiveness, and true love. If he had simply sensed his need, the straightforward, plain-language answer to his question was already on the lips of Jesus, who repeatedly said things like, “He who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has everlasting life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life” (John 5:24). “He who believes in the Son has eternal life” (John 3:36). “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish” (John 10:27–28). “Everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die” (John 11:26).
Jesus never made such a promise to smug and self-righteous souls. Both this man and the rich young ruler asked Him specific questions about how to inherit eternal life, and He answered by confronting them with the law’s demands. But for those with ears to hear, He constantly made it perfectly clear that eternal life is not earned through legal merit; rather, it is the gracious inheritance of all who truly put their faith in Christ as Lord and Savior.
Did the man embrace the lesson Jesus was teaching him? Did he confess his inability when Jesus told him “Go and do the same”? Did he acknowledge his need for grace and repent?
Apparently not. That is the end of the story. Luke turns immediately to a different incident from the ministry of Jesus. Publicly disgraced in his failed attempt to win a verbal sparring match with Jesus, the anonymous lawyer simply disappears from the narrative and we never hear about him again. Like the typical proud, self-sufficient religious person, he might have made a resolution to double down on doing good works in order to prove himself worthy of divine favor and eternal life. Such people are oblivious to (or else they refuse to believe) what the righteousness of God really demands of them. They seek to establish their own righteousness without submitting to the righteousness God has revealed in Christ (cf. Romans 10:3). They read the parable of the Good Samaritan as if it were nothing more than a mandate for humanitarianism.
It’s fine to be motivated by the parable to perfect our love for our neighbors. I hope you are motivated that way. But if that is your only response to this parable, it is practically the worst response anyone could have to the lesson Jesus was teaching. This parable is meant to constrain us to confess our sinful weakness (revealed in our lack of compassionate, sacrificial love) and seek grace and mercy by turning with repentant faith to Jesus Christ—the only One who truly and perfectly fulfilled what the law demands of us. He alone is able “to save forever those who draw near to God through Him” (Hebrews 7:25). He is the only true source of eternal life.
If that lawyer had truly looked into the law of God (as he himself recited the commandments) and recognized his sin rather than turning away and “immediately [forgetting] what kind of person he was” (James 1:24)—he would have found a Savior whose yoke is easy and whose burden is light. But as we see, the story ends without a hint of his repentance.
That must not be our response to this parable.