The Test of the Good Samaritan
I’m going to begin this sermon the same way I began last week’s sermon.
Last week I said that I grew up hearing certain things about the gospel, and about salvation. I grew up hearing that on the cross Jesus made it possible for us to be saved, but that it was up to us to make the right decision and accept that gift of salvation, and that everyone is able to do this. So when I read my Bible, I would occasionally come across texts like the one we saw last week, and have no idea what to do with them.
Last week we heard Jesus say (in v. 22),
…no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
So it’s impossible to know God unless the Son reveals the Father to us. That, we can handle. But just before, in v. 20, he tells the disciples to rejoice that:
…your names are written in heaven.
And in Revelation 13.8, we are told that if our names are written in heaven, they were written there before the foundation of the world.
These are things most Christians don’t like to talk about, and they are all over the Bible.
The Bible tells us:
• that human beings are all totally unable to come to God, because we are dead in our sin (Eph. 2.1-3);
• that before the foundation of the world, God sovereignly chose those he would save (Eph. 1.4-5, 11);
• it tells us that those whom God chose to save, he absolutely will save, because the work of Christ purchased their salvation (Ezekiel 36.25-27, Rom. 3.25-26);
• it tells us that those whom the Father draws to himself will irresistibly come to him (John 10.4-16);
• and that those who are saved will stay saved, because God will cause them to persevere until the very end (Rom. 8.30).
When I finally discovered these truths around the age of 25, all these texts that confused me before made sense for the first time. I welcomed these truths, and I love them still, and I was a joyful Christian for the first time in my life. (I don’t know how a Christian can be happy without believing these things.)
But then I kept reading, and I got confused again.
Because as I read there seemed to be other texts—the texts most Christians do like to talk about—that seemed to go in the other direction.
Today’s text is one of those texts.
It’s one even non-Christians know well—in today’s text Jesus is going to tell the parable of the Good Samaritan.
Since the parable is well-known, we’re going to do things a little differently today. We’re going to read the text from beginning to end, and then we’re going to look at it in three different ways. We’re going to talk about how people usually understand this text; then we’re going to ask ourselves why Luke, the author of this gospel, made the choices that he made when writing this text; and finally, we’re going to talk about what it actually means.
The Text (10.25-37)
25 And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” 27 And he answered, “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.” 28 And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”
29 But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. 34 He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”
How People Usually Understand It
No big surprises there; it’s so simple a child can grasp it. People think they know the story. A man asks Jesus how to be saved; Jesus reminds him of the two major components of the Law; and he illustrates it by talking about a man who is beaten and robbed, then two of his fellow countrymen—pious men at that—who pass by without helping him, and a Samaritan—the mortal enemies of the Jews—who helps him and cares for him.
And Jesus says, “You go, and do likewise.”
So here, in a nutshell, is what people usually take from this story: loving other people is more important than believing in any particular faith or obeying any particular religious code. Love other people, and you will prove the good in your heart, and God will accept you—no matter what you believe.
And if we read it superficially and out of context, that does seem to be the drift of what Jesus is saying. He does say, “Love the Lord your God,” sure, but in the story—the example he gives to illustrate his point—he doesn’t talk about God at all. And his conclusion to the whole thing, after the lawyer recognizes that the good neighbor in the story is the one who showed mercy, is to say, “Do the same—show mercy to others. Love your neighbor.”
Unbelievers love this text, because it gives them a reason to say that Jesus was a wonderful moral teacher, and the problem with Christianity lies in what Jesus’s believers have made of him. They say that to be a true follower of Christ, then we need to do what he did: love other people. Take care of those who can’t take care of themselves. That’s an honorable way to live—it’s something everyone should aspire to.
That last part’s not wrong—it is an honorable way to live, and it’s something everyone should aspire to. It’s the first part that’s the problem. The parable is not placing altruism above faith. This is not a way for us to “earn” our salvation through kindness. If you want that to be the message of this parable, you have to take this text entirely out of the context of everything that comes before it and everything that comes after it.
So what’s the alternative?
Luke the Theologian
To answer that question we need to take a step back—a step way back. We need to talk about the way the Bible was actually written. In 2 Timothy 3.16, the apostle Paul tells Timothy:
16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
When Paul says that all Scripture was “breathed out by God,” what he means is that the Holy Spirit divinely inspired human authors to write exactly what he meant them to write, while allowing them to use their own methods and personalities to get his message across. It’s the ultimate partnership. Human authors, with their own brains, under the inspiration of the Spirit, writing exactly what God wanted them to write, in exactly the way he wanted them to write it.
So when we read Scripture, and this passage in particular, it’s important that we not only ask, “What is God trying to tell us in this text?”, but we must also ask, “What is Luke trying to tell us in this text?” William Taylor helpfully reminds us that as he was writing the gospel, Luke was not simply an author recording what happened; he was a theologian. Luke is our guide for interpreting his gospel. He was writing what happened, but he was also writing it in a specific way, putting things in a specific order, so that we would understand something specific about God and about the gospel.
And anyone who reads knows that that’s how books work: the order of events in a book is often just as important as the events themselves; and it’s not always helpful to write things down chronologically. If the author recounts a story from a character’s past in the beginning of a book, it may not make a lot of sense or seem that important. If he recounts the exact same story at the end of a book, it can take on a whole new meaning because of everything that has come before.
So here’s the question we need to ask ourselves, before we can dive into what Luke is trying to tell us: Why did Luke choose to put this event here, just after the passage we saw last week? It’s not just a question of chronology—and we know that because the two texts are so closely related.
The passage we saw last week puts a lot of emphasis on God’s sovereignty over salvation, as we saw before. Jesus rejoices that it was God’s gracious will to hide his plan of salvation from some and reveal them to others. He tells us that if we come to the Father, it is because the Son chose to reveal the Father to us. In v. 17-24, he’s talking about how salvation works.
And then we come to v. 25, and Luke doesn’t change subjects—the question that the lawyer asks Jesus also concerns how salvation works: he says, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” It’s the same subject.
Now, given what came last week, we would expect Jesus to say, “If you want to inherit eternal life, I have to reveal the Father to you.”
That’s true—but that’s not what he says. He asks the lawyer (v. 26), “What is written in the Law?”, so in v. 27, the lawyer gives a summary of the Law:
“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 (v. 28),
“You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”
Did Luke forget what he wrote just before? Did he simply overlook this glaring contradiction?
Of course not—God does not contradict himself.
When you come across two texts that seem to be at odds with each other, you don’t accept one and reject the other. You rather interpret one text in light of the other, and both texts in light of the whole Bible.
Luke put this parable about the choices we make and the love we show others here, just after last week’s text about the sovereignty of God over salvation, to force us to do that work: to see how God’s choice, on the one hand, and our choice on the other, fit together.
The Fruit of Sovereign Grace
So the lawyer comes to Jesus and asks him (v. 25):
“Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
Great question. I wish more people would ask it.
Jesus, as he so often does, answers the question with another question (v. 26):
He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” 27 And he answered, “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.”
This is a quote from the text we read this morning during worship—it comes from Deuteronomy 6, which (as Loanne rightly said) contains a kind of confession of faith for the people of Israel. All the Law can be summed up in those two statements—love God, love others.
And Jesus says that’s absolutely right.
The question is, what does it mean to love God, and what does it mean to love our neighbor? Or rather, that should be the question. But that’s not the question the lawyer asks. Luke says in v. 29:
29 But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
In other words, this man knew perfectly well that there were people whom he would have a very hard time—if not an impossible time—loving. He knew perfectly well that he obeyed this Law toward certain people, but not others. So he’s hoping Jesus will confirm that this is okay: there are certain people who fall under the category of “my neighbors,” and other people who don’t.
But Jesus sorely disappoints him by recounting his parable.
A man is traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, Jesus says—so presumably he is a Jew, like the lawyer—and is attacked, beaten and robbed. He’s left for dead. In the following minutes, along comes a priest. Priests were descendants of Aaron, and had responsibilities in the temple of Jerusalem. So he was a Jew too. And he passes by on the other side. After that comes a Levite—Levites were from the tribe of Levi, and served as assistants to the priests. So he was also a Jew. And he passes by too.
Two Jewish men, members of the religious elite, leaving one of their fellow countrymen to die.
And in v. 33 Jesus pronounces three words that were sure to get the lawyer’s hackles up:
But a Samaritan...
Samaritans and Jews hated each other. They had the same ancestral roots, but they had separated from each other centuries before and the animosity had been building ever since.
With those three words, the lawyer would have thought, No way Jesus is making the Samaritan the GOOD guy in this story! Because a Samaritan was precisely the sort of person this distinguished Israelite would have been trying to justify himself for, the sort of person he could never bring himself to love.
And yet, it is the Samaritan in Jesus’s story who comes alongside this Jew, who binds his wounds and cares for him and pays his bills and nurses him back to health.
And in v. 36, when Jesus concludes his story, he spins it around on the lawyer. He asks,
36 Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.”
Do you see what he did? The lawyer, seeking to justify himself, had asked, Who is my neighbor? In other words, Whom should I feel obliged to love?
But Jesus turns it around on him: in his story, it wasn’t the one who received love who is the “neighbor,” but the one who gave it.
In other words, when the lawyer asks “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds, “You are. You are the neighbor. Who they are is inconsequential.”
The implications of this are shocking. From what Jesus is saying, the lawyer would have understood that it is possible for a Samaritan—someone the Jews saw as unfaithful and idolatrous—to love God better than a priest or a Levite. The proof is that he loved this man whom he had every social and cultural reason to hate.
Do you see that? If the Law can be summed up in those two statements—love God and love others—those two things go together. You can’t love God without loving your neighbor. You may be able to love your neighbor without loving God—out of simple altruism—but you can’t love God without loving others.
So the lawyer now had the answer to the question he never asked: What does it mean to love God and love my neighbor?
Loving God means knowing him for who he is, being appropriately thankful for who he is, and giving him the honor and respect and love which is due him. And if we know him for who he is, we will know the grace that he has shown us, and we will recognize his grace toward us as an absolute good.
And here’s the thing: human beings always aspire to what they see as good. Whatever we think is good is what we will want to be and do. If I see having children as good, I will want to have children. If I see helping the poor as good, I will want to help the poor. If I think hedonistic pleasure is good, I will want to obtain as much pleasure for myself as possible. People always aspire to what they see as good.
So if we know God for who he is, and we know the grace that he has shown us, we will see how good his grace to us is, and we will want to show that same grace to others. If we know the love and grace God has shown us, we will love him in response, and our love for God will naturally overflow in love for others.
Or, to put it backwards: if we don’t love others, we will know that we don’t really love God either, because if we loved him, that love would naturally overflow in love for others.
You see, Jesus’s parable is not a story; it is a test. This lawyer wants to include some and exclude others from his love; but in so doing, he is revealing what his love for God is like. Jesus says, “Your love for those who are unlovable is the measure of your love for God. However you love others—no matter who they are—that’s how much you love God, and no more.”
Now, the question is, what does this have to do with salvation? That was the question the lawyer asked. How is it that Jesus can tell him that if he loves God and loves others, he will inherit eternal life?
To answer that question, we have to remember what has come before.
Loving others is an absolutely necessary characteristic of someone who loves God. Loving God is an absolutely necessary characteristic of someone who knows God. Knowing God is an absolutely necessary characteristic of someone who belongs to him.
And we cannot know God unless the Son reveals him to us. We cannot know God unless our names were written in heaven before the foundation of the world.
You see, loving God and loving others is not a condition for salvation; it is a result of salvation.
You love the Father when the Son reveals him to you. As you grow in your knowledge and understanding of him, in your relationship with him, you love him more and more.
And the proof of your love for him—one proof that the Son has truly revealed God to you—is that your love for God overflows in love for others.
Do this—see and hear what the Son has given you to see and hear; thank him for his grace and grow in your understanding of it; remember that the person you love the least is loved by God as much as you are—and you will live.
You don’t do this to live; you do this because you live.
When babies are born, if they are alive, they take a first breath. If they never take that first breath, they will die. But their breathing is instinctive. It is a reflex of their living body being born. They don’t force themselves to breathe; that first, painful breath comes all by itself, and from that point on, they grow in it. Their breathing comes easier; their lungs become stronger.
Babies don’t breathe in order to live; they breathe because they live.
We don’t love God and love others in order to be saved. We love others because we love God, and we love God because the Son saved us, and revealed his Father to us through his Spirit.
So this text puts us in front of the same test today.
It’s not a huge secret: in this church we hold to doctrines that are typically called “Calvinist.” I prefer to just call these doctrines “biblical.” Calvinists are simply people who believe what the Bible says about God’s sovereignty over salvation—who believe all the things we affirmed last week.
But a lot of people hate the term “Calvinist” because they know that Calvinists have the reputation of being some of the most unloving people in Christianity.
And although I hate to say it, they’re not entirely wrong. As opposed to, for example, their more exuberant and happier charismatic brothers and sisters, Calvinists can often be cold, analytical, and severe.
Why is that? Part of it is that while Calvinists grasp the truth of God’s sovereignty, they tend to miss the point of God’s sovereignty. They reduce it to a cold calculation: God has chosen his children, so he will save them, and that’s it.
If that is all you take from the doctrine of God’s sovereignty, you are totally missing the point.
Last week I was talking to a few people after the service, and one of them mentioned her first response after hearing about these truths for the first time. Most people’s reaction is, “Why would God choose something like that? Why wouldn’t he choose to save everyone?” It’s a good question, but it’s not the first reaction those truths are meant to produce in us.
This sister said, “All I could think was, It’s INSANE, how much God must love me, if he would choose to save ME like that!”
THAT is the point. All the Bible’s talk of God’s sovereignty is meant to drive us in that one direction—awe at God’s love to undeserving sinners, and awe at his power to give them the grace they needed. Those who understand everything that God did, not just to make salvation possible for them, but to actually save them, should be positively overwhelmed with God’s love and grace to them.
And if they are, their love for this gracious God will inevitably overflow in love for others.
Those who believe in God’s sovereignty over our salvation should be the most loving and faithful Christians on the planet.
So this parable puts us before a test today.
Try to think of where your love for people would meet its limits. What Jesus says is far more specific than simply telling us to “love other people.”
He’s saying, “Love those people you don’t love.”
Which person—or type of person—do you have a hard time loving? What people bother you? What type of person do you feel a natural resistance toward? What people would you find it difficult to help? to be kind to? to be patient with? to care for?
You need to know, because the way you love those people is the measure of your love for God.
And if your love for God is as small as that, then you don’t understand his sovereignty—you don’t understand who he IS—nearly as well as you think you do.
I’m not saying all this to condemn you or judge you or make you feel bad. Look at what Jesus did—he asks the lawyer which of the three travelers proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers. The lawyer responds, “The one who showed him mercy.”
And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”
He doesn’t condemn the man, or suggest that he doesn’t love God. He points out the discrepancy; he points out the man’s weak love for God; and he points him in the right direction.
He says, “No matter how hard love is for you, work at it. Go do it. GROW in your love for others; GROW in your love for God.”
Test yourselves, brothers and sisters, against this parable. Let your good doctrine drive you in the right direction. Go, and do like the Good Samaritan—know God as he is; know the grace that he showed you in Christ before the world began; love him, and let your love for him overflow in love for others.