While the way of Jesus sounds easy and we understand that it is the best way to live, we rarely live up to the commandments. To truly love people is far more difficult than it sounds, and we cannot love God without loving the people created in His image. If we are expecting to justify ourselves, then we are out of luck.
Luke 10:25-31 is the account of one of Jesus’ best known parables: the parable of the Good Samaritan. When we look at the entire context of what Jesus taught, I think we will see that Jesus’ point was greater than having compassion on those in need.
And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” 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.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”
But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 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. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. 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. 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.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.” (Luke 10:25- 37; ESV)
The parable itself is pretty straight forward, but remember Jesus told the parable in response to two questions: how do I inherit eternal life? and who is my neighbor? When we look remember these questions we will see that the message of Jesus is larger than having compassion on the needy.
What did the lawyer, the man who was educated in Jewish law, mean when he asked Jesus, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Remember the lawyer is trying to test Jesus with this question, so while it may seem like an easy question for us, it was a debated issue in the day of Jesus.
There are two basic elements that make of the lawyers question. The first is whether or not there is resurrection. For those first century Jews who believed in resurrection they did not see eternal life in the same terms that we tend to see it. For them resurrection and eternal life was about vindication for keeping the Law and ruling in God’s Kingdom. Which shows us the second element of the lawyer’s question: how can I keep the entire law? So is it really surprising that the lawyer came up with the same answer that Jesus would later give to a similar question: what is the greatest commandment?
The lawyer, after answering correctly, asks a followup question, “Who is my neighbor?” The first question was to test Jesus, this question was to justify himself. He wanted to be able to tell Jesus that he was loving his neighbor and thus deserved to be vindicated by resurrection when God’s Kingdom came. The problem is that Jesus wouldn’t allow the lawyer to justify himself. Instead, he challenged the lawyers assumptions about God’s love and God’s Kingdom. While there was a debate about who was included by the term neighbor in first century Judaism, none of those debates would have included a Samaritan. Samaritans were outsiders and defilers of Judaism, and thus would never be included in God’s Kingdom. Yet, it is a Samaritan, rather than the Jewish religious elite, who is the hero of the story. He proved to be the neighbor of the man in need.
What does Jesus tell the lawyer to do? The lawyer, if he is going to inherit eternal life, needs to follow the example of the Samaritan: “You go, and do likewise.” Not only does this parable remind us of the great importance of showing compassion to people in need and reminding us of the universal nature of God’s Kingdom, but it also shows us that we are in trouble. The parable made it impossible for the lawyer to justify himself, and it makes it impossible for us to justify ourselves. If the way to inherit eternal life is by loving people, even our enemies, we are in trouble. There are days when we cannot even love those who we are closest to, let alone those people whom we dislike. I believe one of the points Jesus wants us to take away from this parable is that it is impossible for us to inherit eternal life on our own. We cannot shrink the circle of our neighbor small enough to be justified. So if we cannot accomplish this impossible task, what is our hope?
Later on in the book of Luke we run across another parable of Jesus that provides the answer.
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14; ESV)
The Pharisee in the parable tried to justify himself through all the things he had done, just like the lawyer to justify himself by showing Jesus all the people he loved, and both failed to realize that no amount of good in a person’s life can overcome the bad. So we meet the tax collector, a man’s whose whole life was filled with bad, and he pleads for God’s mercy. He is the person who is justified, not based on what he did, but based on God’s mercy.
Here is my point: we need to plead for God’s mercy. We cannot justify ourselves because we cannot love like we should and we cannot overcome the bad we have already done in our lives. Our only hope is to fall on our face before Jesus and ask for mercy, which not only includes eternal life, but also transformation. We need to be in prayer asking for God’s mercy so we will be transformed into people who can love the way God created us to love. Instead of seeking to justify ourselves we need to plead for mercy. That is our only hope.