The law of God requires that we love our neighbor as ourselves. But who is our neighbor, and how are we to love them? In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his exposition of the gospel of Luke by teaching on Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan.
This morning we will continue with our study of the Gospel According to Saint Luke. Today we will look at Luke 10:25–37, which contains one of the most well-known and popular of Jesus’ parables, the parable of the Good Samaritan. I would ask the congregation to please stand for the reading of the Word of God:
And behold, a certain lawyer stood up and tested Him, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
He said to him, “What is written in the law? What is your reading of it?”
So he answered and said, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,’ and ‘your neighbor as yourself.’”
And He said to him, “You have answered rightly; do this and you will live.”
But he, wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Then Jesus answered and said: “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a certain priest came down that road. And when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite, when he arrived at the place, came and looked, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was. And when he saw him, he had compassion. So he went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; and he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said to him, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you.’ So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?”
And he said, “He who showed mercy on him.”
Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
Again, we have had the privilege of hearing from God Himself. This is His Word, superintended and inspired by the Holy Spirit, carrying the full weight of God’s truth and authority. I urge you to receive it this morning as such. Please be seated. Let us pray.
Our Father and our God, as we look at this familiar parable, we ask that You, by Your Spirit, would take us beyond the familiar to a deeper and richer understanding of the things contained therein. Help us to hear Jesus in His teaching of these things. For we ask it in His name. Amen.
The Lawyer and the Teacher
It says in my Bible above the text I have just read, in bold letters, “The Parable of the Good Samaritan.” These subheadings are not part of the actual biblical text, but they are helps for us, rendered for us by the editors of the Scriptures. This is a certainly a legitimate topic heading, “The Parable of the Good Samaritan,” because that is what it is. I think I would like to change it a little bit to call it, “The Contest between the Lawyer and the Teacher.”
In this text, we have two people engaged in not only a conversation, but a thinly veiled debate, instituted by the nomikos, or the lawyer, the one who is an expert in the law. The other is called the didaskolos, or the teacher, Jesus.
Jesus, going about the countryside, acting as an itinerate rabbi, had received from the masses the title of teacher. There is no record in the New Testament of Jesus studying under the great rabbis or theologians of His era and earning a doctorate in theology that gave Him this kind of academic credibility. However, we are told again and again that He spoke as one having authority. His mentor was not Gamaliel in Jerusalem, but God the Father in heaven, who revealed all things to the Son incarnate. In any case, Jesus was acclaimed by the masses as being the teacher par excellence.
The Expert’s Test
Now came the professional, the one who did earn his degree, the one who made it through law school and was the head of law review, the lawyer. When we think of lawyers today, we think of those who are, for the most part, experts in civil or criminal law in our nation.
A lawyer in Israel was a professional academic expert on the Law of Moses, which included not only the laws that governed the religious community but the laws that governed the state. Old Testament Israel was a theocracy, meaning there was no distinction or division between church and state. The civil laws were governed by the same rules that governed the cultus, or the religious life of the people. This man was the expert, the professional.
We are told that the lawyer stood up and tested Jesus. We could read it another way: he came to challenge Jesus. He came to expose Jesus’s naiveté, to reveal to the adoring public that Jesus was simply an amateur and that he, of course, was the professional.
The lawyer tested Jesus by asking Him a fundamental question about matters related to the law of God, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Luke tells us that this was a test. This was not a genuine inquiry. A man seeking salvation would come to Jesus and humbly say, “Lord, tell me how I can get into heaven.” That was not it at all. He was probing Jesus’s understanding of theology.
What Is Written in the Law?
Jesus, as He typically did, and as all Jews in all history have done, answered a question with a question. Do you know why Jews answered questions with questions? Why not answer a question with a question? It is a tremendously insightful method of debate. In any case, the man asked Jesus, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
In response to the lawyer, Jesus said, “What is written in the law?” This is kind of insulting: “You’re a lawyer, and you’re asking me this simple question? What is written in the law? You know what is written in the law.” Then He said, “What is your understanding and your reading of it?”
The attorney answered Jesus by going right back to the most basic of the laws of Israel, found principally in the Shema: “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one God,” and so on, “and you should love your God with all your mind and soul.”
He said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, will all your strength, and with all your mind.” That is the Great Commandment. By the way, dear friends, as a matter parenthesis, What is the great transgression? The great transgression is to fail to obey the Great Commandment, which tells us to love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our strength, with all our mind, and with all our soul. Jesus said to him: “Good job, congratulations. You’ve answered rightly. You do this and you will live.”
Jesus knew very well that the lawyer had not kept the Great Commandment since he got out of his bed that morning. He never kept the Great Commandment fully for a single minute or second from the day he was born. In that regard, this lawyer was no different from us, because none of us have ever kept the Great Commandment fully from the day we were born.
The Law as a Mirror
Luke makes the editorial comment that the lawyer responds “wanting to justify himself.” Jesus had put the basic law right in front of this man. When we look at the question of the meaning and significance of God’s law, in Reformed theology we follow John Calvin’s idea of the threefold use of the law.
There are three basic functions that the law performs for us, one of the most important of which is to act as a mirror by which we see ourselves. The mirror of God’s law functions as a measuring rod for us. It is a terrible thing to look at, because our tendency is to not judge ourselves by the law of God but to judge ourselves in comparison to the behavior of our friends and neighbors, and we come out thinking highly of ourselves.
As Calvin said, we tend to keep our gaze leveled on the horizontal plane. Just gazing around at each other, we begin to address ourselves as demigods. However, once we lift our gaze to heaven and consider what kind of being God is as we look into the mirror of His law, not only do we discover who God is, but we discover who we are.
The Apostle Paul tells us that the function of the law is as a school master to drive us to Christ, because the law reveals our sin. That is why we cover the law in one of the Ten Commandments almost every week at Saint Andrew’s Chapel. You cannot understand grace if you do not understand the law. You will never understand the mercy of God until you understand the law of God and how the law of God reveals our sin and our hopeless inability to justify ourselves. The law drives us to Christ, who alone can justify sinners who are unjust. The lawyer made the worst mistake he could possibly make. He thought he could justify himself.
I would be willing to say that at least ninety percent—and I think that is a weak estimate—of people in America today believe that on the day of judgment, they can justify themselves by saying, “I led a good life.” Compared to what? Compared to the law of God? Not a chance.
God does not have to pull out all the Ten Commandments. He does not have to pull out all the holiness code of Exodus. He can simply say on the day of judgment: “Did you love Me with all your heart? Did you love Me with all your soul? Did you apply your mind every day, seeking the deepest possible understanding of My Word?” If anybody should have known better, it should have been the man in this text, a lawyer.
Luther’s Burden under the Law
I think it is ironic that the two most prominent figures of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation were Martin Luther and John Calvin. Both studied the law before they studied theology. Luther was a student in law school when he was almost killed by a lightning bolt in 1505 that filled him with fear. He said, “Help me Saint Anne; I’ll become a monk.”
Luther entered the monastery at Erfurt and went to confession every day. He went not for ten, fifteen, or twenty minutes but two, three, or four hours, until the father superior in the monastery began to think he was either shirking his duties or he was psychotic: “What is wrong with you, Luther? You come here with serious sins, how much trouble can you get in in a monastery?”
Luther would confess, “I coveted Brother Jonathan’s extra piece of bread at dinner last night,” or, “I stayed up reading my Bible past lights out.” For four hours he confessed the sins he had committed in the last twenty-four hours, and he would get his absolution and walk out of the confessional.
On his way back to the cell, Luther would go into despair because he remembered a sin he forgot to confess. Was he sick, or astute? Luther said: “You asked me, do I love God? Love God? Sometimes I hate him.” Why did he feel that way? He was under the burden of the law, and he knew he could not justify himself.
Who Is My Neighbor?
The lawyer thought he could justify himself. He was finally going to trip Jesus up with his question: “I’m supposed to love God, but then I’m supposed to love my neighbor as myself. Jesus, tell me, who is my neighbor? Is it the man who lives next door to me in my community? How broad, how wide, how expansive is my neighborhood, and how many people in it am I commanded to love like I love myself?”
Jewish tradition said that only the Jewish community was in view. Those who were unclean, such as the gentiles and the Samaritans outside of the Jewish community, were not to be included in the mandate to love as neighbors. Trying to trip Jesus up, the lawyer said, “I love my neighbor, but who is my neighbor?”
Jesus could have answered the lawyer plainly. He could have said: “Everybody in the world is your neighbor. Every human being that you have ever come across, you must love as much as you love yourself.” That could have been the end of the discussion. Instead, He said, “Let me tell you a story.” Any time a teacher says, “I’m going to tell you a story,” the attention level immediately increases. The world loves a story, and so Jesus gave them the story.
Jericho, the Dangerous Oasis
Jesus said, “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho.” It is just a few miles from Jerusalem to Jericho. If you have ever been to the Holy Land and to Jerusalem, maybe you have had the opportunity to visit New Testament Jericho. This is a different city from Old Testament Jericho, whose walls came tumbling down under the onslaught of Joshua and his troops. New Testament Jericho is a fascinating town.
If you take a trip from Jerusalem to Jericho, just a few miles, you are in the desert. You travel through the barren wilderness under the heat of the sun. You have seen the movies or read the stories of people perishing in the desert when they see a mirage in the distance. They see water and rush to it, assuming it is an oasis, but when they arrive there is only sand. Can you imagine a more discouraging experience than to be fooled by a mirage?
Jericho was not a mirage; Jericho was a bona fide oasis. It still is today. When you cross the wilderness, you see green trees in the distance. There is water running in streams and canals, and you see a whole town built around a place of refreshment, where there is water in abundance.
You can imagine the traffic that took place between Jerusalem and Jericho. The problem was that the road between Jerusalem and Jericho was isolated, and it was a perfect place for ambush. Predators and robbers would hide in the hills along the way. If they saw somebody coming unprotected, it was not uncommon to attack them, as happened in this case.
The Priest and Levite Pass By
Jesus said that a single man was making the journey from Jerusalem to Jericho, and on the way, he fell among thieves. They attacked the man, stripped him of his clothing, took all his possessions, beat him, mugged him, and left him on the side of the road half-dead.
“Now by chance a certain priest came down the road.” One of the favorite residences for priests who served different communities round and about was Jericho, for the reasons I mentioned above. So, a priest came down the road, saw the man lying on the side of the road half-dead, and passed by on the other side.
Jesus did not say why the priest passed by on the other side. New Testament scholars love to speculate on this point. They think the priest thought the man was dead, and if he were dead and the priest walked over and touched him, then one school of theologians in Israel said that he would contaminate himself by touching a corpse. The other school of thought was that it still would not contaminate him if he was ministering to the dead by preparing him for burial. The scholars say: “Maybe that’s why he walked on the other side. He didn’t want to be made impure by contact with the corpse.”
Others say, “No, he walked on the other side because he thought the robbers might still be nearby, and he didn’t want to meet the same fate that his poor fellow Jew had met.” The man who fell among thieves was not a Samaritan, and it was not that the priest was avoiding him because he was a Samaritan. He was a fellow Jew. Still others say that the priest was just too busy. He had an appointment in Jericho, and he did not want to be late. He did not want to be inconvenienced or bothered, so he passed along the other side.
“Likewise, a Levite when he arrived at the place, came and looked, and passed on the other side.” Some people ask: “First it’s a priest and then it’s a Levite. Aren’t they all the same?” No, “Levite” refers to the tribe, and all priests are Levites, but not all Levites are priests. There were other duties in the cultus assigned to Levites besides the priesthood. They would take care of the buildings, take care of the liturgies, and so on without rising to the level of the priesthood. Both the priest and the Levite, however, were professional church workers. Both left the dying man on the side of the road.
The Compassionate Samaritan
As He continued, Jesus got to the crux of the matter. He said, “But a certain Samaritan…” Those who describe this parable call it “The Parable of the Good Samaritan.” In the understanding of the Jew and the lawyer, the term “Good Samaritan” was an oxymoron, because the Samaritan was still alive. For the Jew, the only good Samaritan was a dead Samaritan. In their view, there was no such thing as a good Samaritan.
The Jews had no dealings with the Samaritans, but Jesus said it was the Samaritan who came down the road. When he saw the man, listen to this: “He had compassion.” What does that mean? If we break down the word compassio, it means “with feeling.”
How we cheapen this concept in our culture today. We say, “I feel your pain,” and walk down the other side of the street. True compassion goes far beyond feelings. Real compassion never stops at the feeling level. If a person really has compassion, he does not just feel it, he shows it.
We sang a hymn this morning titled “Children of the Heavenly Father,” and it is based on the text of Psalm 103:13. Part of the text of the hymn reads this way: “As the Father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear Him.” What father would leave his son half dead in a ditch because he had an appointment somewhere else?
God’s compassion for His children took Jesus to the cross. God did not just feel bad for us. Jesus did not just take care of us, but He demonstrated that compassion by doing everything He could to heal us and redeem us. The Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where the man was and when he saw him, he had compassion.
Christ for Your Neighbor
The Samaritan had compassion, then what? He went to him. See the different directions. The man was in the ditch, and the priest went the other way. The man was in the ditch, and the Levite went the other way. The man was in the ditch, and the Samaritan went toward the man.
The Samaritan went to the man and bandaged his wounds. He poured oil and wine on his wounds, then he helped him up and put him on his beast of burden. He walked alongside the man who was now on the beast belonging to the Samaritan. He guided the animal bearing the wounded man to an inn, and he did not leave him at the front door and go about his business. He took him inside the inn and—listen to what it says: “He took care of him.”
The next day, the Samaritan was still there. He had to go, and so he departed. He took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said: “Here is enough money to take care of him for several days. I don’t know how long it’s going to take until he is fully recovered, but if this doesn’t cover it, I’ll be back. Run the tab and I’ll pay every cent that it takes to get him well.” We have a hymn titled, “Jesus Paid it All,” and here the Samaritan reminds me of Jesus.
Luther had an expression. When he was asked what it means to love your neighbor, he said it means that you must be Christ for your neighbor. Now, Luther was never so crass, as he may have been in other things, to imagine that you could ever save your neighbor or offer an atonement for your neighbor. When Luther said that you must be Christ to your neighbor, he did not suppose that you could be the substitute for Jesus in bringing salvation. Rather, this was the original WWJD, “What would Jesus do?” Luther said, “You do for your neighbor what Jesus would do in His compassion so that your neighbor will see Jesus working through you.” The Samaritan said, “Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.”
The Universal Neighborhood
Now, the moral of the story. Jesus said to the lawyer, “Which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?” Jesus never asked another human being an easier question. The attorney got it right. He said, “He who showed mercy on him.” It was the Samaritan who was the neighbor. Then Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.”
In the nineteenth century, it seemed like all the theologians in Germany were writing on the vision of things, the being or essence of things. A famous nineteenth-century church historian from Germany, Adolf von Harnack, wrote a little book on the essence of Christianity, translated into English as What Is Christianity? He tried to reduce the whole of the Christian faith to two primary theses: the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man—that was what Christianity was all about. God is the universal Father of all men, and we are all brothers of one another. As brilliant as Adolf von Harnack was, he was wrong on both counts.
The Bible does not teach the universal fatherhood of God. God is the Creator of all people, but not the Father of all people. The filial image of fatherhood is restricted. Ultimately, He is the Father of one, His monogenēs, His only-begotten Son. Penultimately, all those who are in His Son are then adopted into the family of God.
No one is born a Christian. You are not a child of God by nature; you are a child of the devil by nature. The only way you can be a child of God is to be adopted, and the only way you can be adopted is through the Son. That is how we enter the family of God.
What about the universal brotherhood? All men and all women are not my brothers and my sisters. The image in Scripture is that only those who are in Christ are in the brotherhood and sisterhood. You are my brother if you have the same father that I do. If your father is God and my father is God, we are brothers.
The Bible does not teach the universal brotherhood. It does teach the universal neighborhood of God. All men are not my brothers, but all men are my neighbors. All men and all women are my neighbors, which means I must love everybody according to the Great Commandment. In biblical terms, love is a verb more than a noun. I do not have to like everybody. I do not like everybody. To love everybody means to be loving to everybody, to do what love demands for everyone you come across, whether you like him or do not, whether he is a Jew or a Samaritan.
Jesus was teaching this lawyer the ABCs of the law of God. The expert failed his final exam because he did not understand who his neighbor was until he heard this story. Let us pray.
Father, help us not only to feel compassion, but to show it, to do it as the man in the parable did and as Jesus did like none other. We ask it in His name. Amen.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.