On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?” He answered, “‘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.’” “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
Luke 10: 25-37
The Good Samaritan. This term has worked its way into modern-day vernacular. You’ll hear it in news stories, in political rhetoric, even in the naming of hospitals. A Good Samaritan is generally known as a giver, not a taker. When this story is told, culture actually affirms it. But the original question posed by the lawyer is a theological question: “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Overall, society approves of the ethics that Jesus teaches but struggles with the theology.
In answering the “Who is my neighbor?” question, Jesus tells a story with 4 different characters. This story uncovers 4 different approaches to people and situations.
Approaching People as a Taker
The “robbers” refers to takers. This is a ‘what’s yours is mine and I’ll take it’ attitude. Most people assume that they don’t fit the description of a taker. They consider a taker as someone who steals – who takes property that doesn’t belong to them. But there are many less obvious ways of being a taker:
- Borrow without returning (Psalm 37:21)
- Misrepresent reality to gain an advantage (Proverbs 11:1)
- Withhold what’s due to another (Titus 2:16)
- Squander another’s possessions (Luke 16:1)
- Take credit for another’s work
- Take an intangible possession, like running down a person’s good name or taking another’s purity (Proverbs 22:1)
- Take what belongs to God (Malachi 3:8-10)
- Be part of a system of evil by actively participating in something that oppresses another
Approaching People as a Keeper
The “Priest” and “Levite” both refer to a keeper. This is a ‘what’s mine is mine and I’ll keep it’ approach. Though we don’t know all their motivations, we can guess that the priest may have been afraid of becoming ceremonially unclean. He didn’t want to be inconvenienced or risk stopping. Similarly, the Levite lacked availability or flexibility. There are times when we are keepers. It can manifest by wanting to keep your time or schedule for yourself. It’s seen when you don’t want to make a change in plans in order to benefit another. When we protect anything that we feel belongs to us, whether tangible or intangible, we become a keeper.
Approaching People as a Trader
The “Innkeeper” was a trader. This is an ‘if you give something to me, then I’ll give something to you’ approach. If you give me nothing, then I’ll give you nothing. The Samaritan paid the Innkeeper for taking care of the injured man. The innkeeper gave because he was compensated. This is often how people approach work and marriage as a way of negotiating how much you will do or give based on how much you get. It can become a game of trading and makes us a trader.
Approaching People as a Giver
The “Samaritan” was a giver. This is a ‘what’s mine is yours and I’ll give it’ approach. A giver is willing to give even if it’s inconvenient and even when it’s dangerous. This story depicts a situation that was very dangerous for the Samaritan. The racial tension between Jew and Samaritan was very great. It would be equivalent to giving refuge to a Nazi during World War II or taking in an ISIS Jihadist today. By choosing a Samaritan, Jesus was introducing a person least expected to see the need, have compassion, and do something about it. We like to give ourselves credit for feeling something, but the Samaritan went beyond feeling and got something done.
In many ways, people like this story because of the ethics. No matter where you are spiritually, it’s good to take care of people and to be a giver. But if we focus only on the ethics, we miss the theology.
In the first conversation, the lawyer answers his own question of how to inherit eternal life: “‘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.’” But the lawyer wasn’t done. Because he wanted to justify himself, he took the question further by asking “And who is my neighbor?” He wanted to know exactly what to do to attain the standard without doing more. We like to think that if we give some, then we’ll reach the standard.
But Jesus tells a story in reply that is challenging. Jesus is saying more than go and do. Jesus tells a story that we can’t possibly live out at all times in our lives. That doesn’t mean we don’t try to live out the law, but it means we understand that we will never meet it perfectly. Even when we do good things, we often want the accolades for doing it. So we can’t even accomplish something good with pure motives. The theology shows the difference between a moralist and a follower of Jesus Christ. Moralists think they can obtain Jesus’ standard and followers know they cannot do what only Jesus can do. Jesus is driving the theology home through the ethics.
It’s important to recognize that there will be times that you’re a taker. There will be times that you are a keeper. There will be times that you are a trader. And there will be times that you are a giver, but don’t fall for the trap that if you give a little more, then you are justified. You are only justified by what Jesus has done on your behalf. When you see yourself as Jesus sees you, then you will be able to see others as Jesus sees them. That will give you the motivation to be a giver – not to feel good about yourself, but in response to all that Jesus has given to you. Jesus is the ultimate giver. He has done for you what you could never do for yourself. You are like the person lying on the road hopeless. When you have nowhere else to go and no ability to do anything for yourself, Jesus is the one who will give to you. When that consumes you, you will naturally want to be a giver.