By William M. Cwirla
Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) does not come with an official interpretation from Jesus (like we see with the Parable of the Sower) and so interpretations vary. Some see Jesus in the figure of the Good Samaritan who rescued us from the ditch of Sin and Death, bound our wounds, and brought us to the inn of the Church for our healing. That’s a good Gospel way of reading it. But it’s not the only way.
This parable comes in response to questions from a synagogue lawyer, an expert in the Torah of Moses. He wants to test Jesus, check up on His orthodoxy, and so he asks the probing question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” It’s a question of works. Jesus answers the question with a question of His own. “What is written in the Torah? You’re the expert. How do you read it?” The lawyer is now on trial.
“Love God and love your neighbor,” he says. And he is correct. Love is the fulfilling of the Law. Jesus approves. “Correct! Do this, and you will live.”
But the lawyer isn’t satisfied. Something bothers him about his otherwise orthodox answer. He can’t seem to find the comfort and assurance he’s looking for. When is enough enough? How do you know you’ve done enough to satisfy the Law of Moses? There’s only so much love to go around, so whom do you love as your neighbor? Seeking to justify himself (never a good idea!), the lawyer asks Jesus, “Who then is my neighbor?”
Ask a self-justifying question and will get a Law answer–the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
Three men had the opportunity to be a neighbor to the man who fell among thieves, lying in the ditch at the side of the road: a priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan.
The priest and Levite both avoid the man, going as far as they can on the other side of the road. Were they bad or heartless in doing this? No, they were simply trying to keep the Law of Moses which said if they touched something unclean, they would become unclean and not be able to do their duties. They would have to go through a costly rite of purification to regain their purity.
Just imagine if your pastor had a strict rule that he had to have absolutely clean fingernails to administer the Sacrament. On the way to church, he sees someone with a flat tire on the side of the road. Would he stop to help or keep moving on to church? What would you do?
Of the three, only the Samaritan stopped, bent down, and came to the aid of the man in the ditch. In all likelihood, the man in the ditch was a Jew, a pilgrim returning from Jerusalem. Jews and Samaritans didn’t care for each other very much. They wouldn’t even greet one other on the road. But this Samaritan went the extra mile to be a neighbor to this stranger in need. Not only did he bind his wounds, he took him to a local inn, put him up for the night and left his credit card to cover any expenses!
Who, then, was a neighbor to the man who fell among the thieves? The synagogue lawyer must have been red in the face when he had to answer such an obvious question. “The one who showed him mercy.” He alone was a neighbor to the man in the ditch. What must you do to inherit eternal life? Be the Samaritan in the parable. “Go and do likewise.”
The Law question receives a Law answer. Who is my neighbor? Anyone whom God places in your path, anyone who needs you, regardless of who he is. And you will never be justified in doing so. That is the way of the Law.
I find it interesting that Jesus never calls the Samaritan “good.” We call him good because he did a good thing. But before the Samaritan could do a good thing, he had to be free. The priest and Levite were not free; they were bound by the Law of Moses with its rules and regulations concerning purity. But the Samaritan did not have a care in the world about purity or his own self-justification. All he cared about was this stranger in the ditch, and so in freedom, he became a neighbor to him.
PUT THEM TOGETHER AND WHAT HAVE YOU GOT?
Now let’s bring the two readings together. Jesus became our neighbor in His incarnation. In His Baptism, He joined us in the ditch of Sin and became Sin for us. Sin, Death, devil, and the Law left us beaten and bloody, but Jesus came to bind our wounds and bring us to the Church, our inn and sanctuary.
He came to be our Christ and has made us to be Christ for our neighbor. “Little Christs,” the way Luther put it. Like the Samaritan, we are free to love without regard for reward or punishment: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1), to bend our backs and knees in service, to wash feet and bind wounds, to reach across boundaries of race and ethnicity, to break down walls of hatred and hostility, to be a neighbor to that broken stranger in the ditch.
As we bend down and draw closer, we see a familiar face looking back at us. He’s no stranger, after all. He’s Jesus incognito–the One crucified among thieves to save us. “For as often as you have done it to the least of these, my brothers, you have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40).
I often wonder about that man who fell among thieves on the road to Jericho. Did he go home and tell his family about this generous Samaritan who saved his life? Was his heart changed toward Samaritans? Did he stop to greet them on the road? I’d like to think that he did. And if he saw someone in need at the side of the road, I can’t help but think he would do as the Samaritan had done for him. And he wouldn’t need a law to tell him to do it.
Rev. William M. Cwirla is a “pastor emeritus” in the LCMS, having retired from congregational ministry after 30 years of service in one congregation. He has also served as president of Higher Things. He continues to pray, study, and write in retirement, and also speak, when coaxed out of the woods of Port Angeles, WA on the beautiful Olympic Peninsula where he resides with his wife, Karen. He is also an artisanal bread maker, gourmet cook, master of the grill, maker of fine wood craft, and musician.