A Parable of the Gospel

St. Luke 10:23-37

by The Rt. Rev. Daniel R. Morse

Trinity Season 2007

Someone once said that your life is the first Bible non-Christians will ever read—unfortunately, it may also be the last. Throughout the Gospels, our Lord called people to active and obedient faith. His message declared that if we are to know God at all, and especially if we are to grow in that knowledge, we must do what He has told us in His Word—we must put into habitual practice that which we learn in the Scriptures.

The object, however, of our habitual and obedient practice is not a code of ethics or a set of rules or even a holy order. The object of our habitual and obedient practice is a living Person, God Himself. The essence of the Gospel is not an external law, but an internal relationship with God through Christ. As such, God Himself is the ultimate standard for life in His Kingdom and He is the One to Whom we all are accountable. This is the reason why our Lord asked His followers, “Why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord’ and not do the things which I say?” (St. Luke 6:46).

In our Gospel lesson for today, an expert in the law approached our Lord to put Him to the test. Now, we need to remember that these lawyers were focused in on abstract theology, not practical theology, and his question was no doubt raised in order to stir up debate. He secretly hoped to entangle our Lord in sophisticated words, phrases, and speculations and to expose the Galilean Carpenter’s naiveté with his brilliant intellectual arguments. He had probably rehearsed many counter responses to an anticipated reply, but apparently not the reply he got.

I. Who Is The Main Character?

The central figure in the parable is not the Samaritan. He is simply one of the three characters in the story who have the opportunity to display neighborliness as Jesus defines it. The defining character—the one to whom the other three respond by being non-neighbor or neighbor—is the man who fell among thieves. The actual Christ-figure in the story, therefore, is a loser, yet another down-and-outer who, by just lying there in his lostness and proximity to death (“practically dead,” is the way Jesus describes him), is in fact the closest thing to Jesus in the parable.

That runs counter, of course, to the better part of two thousand years’ worth of interpretation. This parable, like so many of Jesus’ most telling ones, has been egregiously misnamed. It is not primarily about the Samaritan but about the man on the ground (just as the Prodigal Son is not about a boy’s sins but about his father’s forgiveness, and just as the Laborers in the Vineyard is not about the workers but about the beneficent vineyard-owner). This means, incidentally, that Good Samaritan Hospitals have been likewise misnamed. It is the suffering, dying patients in such institutions who look most like Jesus in his redeeming work. Accordingly, it would have been much less misleading to have named them Man-Who-Fell-Among-Thieves Hospitals.

What I am most concerned to skewer at this point is precisely the mischief caused by the misnaming of this parable. Calling it the Good Samaritan inevitably sets up its hearers to take it as a story whose hero offers them a good example for imitation. I am, of course, aware of the fact that Jesus ends the parable precisely on the note of imitation: “You, too, go and do likewise.” But the common, good-works interpretation of the imitation to which Jesus invites us all too easily gives the Gospel a fast shuffle. True enough, we are called to imitation. But imitation of what, exactly? Is it not the following of Jesus? And is not that following of him far more than just a matter of doing kind acts? Is it not the following of him into the only mystery that can save the world, namely, his passion, death, and resurrection? Is it not the taking up of his cross?

Therefore, if you want to say that the parable of the Good Samaritan tells us to imitate the Samaritan in his identifying with and sharing of the passion and near-death of the man who fell among thieves—if you want to read his selfless actions as so many ways in which he took the outcastness and lostness of the Christ-figure on the ground into his own outcast and losing life—then I will let you have imitation as one of the main themes of the parable. But please note that such an interpretation is not at all what people generally have in mind when the subject of imitating the Good Samaritan is broached to them. What their minds instantly go to is something quite different, something that is utterly destructive of the notion of a grace that works only by death and resurrection. Because what they imagine themselves called upon to imitate is not a mystery of lostness and death, but the performance of good works.

The main character, then, is not the Samaritan, though his actions are commendable, but the dying man by the side of the road.

What is wrong with saying that the Samaritan is the main character? Quite simply, it blows the Good News right out of the water. For if the world could have been saved by providing good examples to which we could respond with appropriately good works, it would have been saved an hour and twenty minutes after Moses came down from Mt. Sinai. “For if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law. But the Scripture has concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe” (Gal. 3:21-22). Do you see the problem? Salvation is not some fortunate state to which we can lift ourselves by our own bootstraps after meditating on good examples. It is an utterly new creation into which we are brought by our death in Jesus’ death and our resurrection in his resurrection. It comes not out of our own efforts, however well-inspired or successfully pursued, but out of the shipwreck of all human effort whatsoever. And therefore if there is any ministering to be imitated in the Good Samaritan’s example, it is the ministry to Jesus in his passion, as that passion is to be found in the least of his brethren, namely, in the hungry, the thirsty, the outcast, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned in whom he dwells and through whom he invites us to become his neighbors in death and resurrection.

II. What Is This Parable About?

Neither the Samaritan nor Jesus is an example of some broader, saving truth about the power of human niceness. Jesus is an example of nothing of the sort. He is the incarnation of the unique, saving mystery of death and resurrection. We do not move from him to some deeper reality called “love” or “goodness” that will finally do the trick and make the world go round. No human virtues, however exalted or diligently practiced, will ever save us. Love, as we so regularly mismanage it, is the largest single factor in making our personal worlds go down the drain, and goodness is the mainspring of all the really great evils of the world. Rather, we move from the disasters of our loving and the bankruptcies of our goodness into the passion of Jesus where alone we can be saved. Niceness has nothing to do with the price of our salvation.

Scripture has concluded—locked up—all under sin. The consequences of our sinfulness cannot be broken by good examples, even if we could follow them. Quite the contrary, the Gospel says clearly that we can be saved only by bad examples: by the stupid example of a Samaritan who spends his livelihood on a loser, and by the horrible example of a Savior who, in an excruciating death, lays down his life for his friends. That is the model for our behavior. On to the parable, then, for a look at its details through fresh eyes.

“A certain man,” Jesus says, “went down from Jerusalem to Jericho.” Consider first the physical remarkability of the journey. It is downhill all the way. Jerusalem stands 2,500 feet above the level of the Mediterranean and Jericho lies 825 feet below it. That’s a drop of the better part of three-fifths of a mile and it takes the man in question down into increasingly depressing territory. Without making too much of it, I am disposed to take Jesus’ postulation of such a descent as a parable in itself of his own downhill journey to his passion and death, and thus into the lastness, lostness, etc., that he now sees as the heart of his saving work. And as if to underscore the allusion, he adds a whole string of details that mark the man as a loser par excellence: “he fell among thieves who stripped him and beat him up and went away, leaving him half dead.” The man who fell among thieves is the authentic Christ-figure in the parable of the Good Samaritan.

“By chance,” Jesus continues, “a certain priest was going down that road and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side.” So too, Jesus says, did a Levite when he came to the place. Note the nature of these first two candidates for the possible role of neighbor to the unfortunate who is this parable’s surrogate for the Messiah. These two official representatives of atonement as understood by the religious authorities of Jesus’ day find themselves unable or unwilling to see a wounded loser as having any claim on their attention or any relevance to their work. In short, they think of themselves as winners. They have all their vocational ducks in a row and they see no point in allowing either their lives or their spiritual, moral, or physical plans for the season to be ruined by attention to some outcast. How like the reaction Jesus himself received! He came to his own country and his own people did not receive him (John 1:11). He was despised and rejected (Isa. 53:3) for dying as a common criminal.

He himself, in other words, was as unrecognizable a Christ-figure as the man who fell among thieves. Admittedly, it was eventually claimed of him that on the third day he rose from the dead. But rising from the dead was a totally insufficient apology for the abysmally bad messianic taste he had shown by dying in the first place. Real Messiahs don’t die.

Finally, though, Jesus brings on the Good Samaritan. Note once again the nature of the character introduced as the man of the hour: he is an outcast come to deal with an outcast, a loser come to minister to another loser. The man who fell among thieves presumably was a Jew; therefore, if either the priest or the Levite had bothered to make his acquaintance, they would have recognized him as one of their own. But since the shipwreck of his life had made him unrecognizable to them, he might as well not have been a Jew at all. He, like Jesus, seemed only reproachable. They could not bring themselves to go forth out of their safe theological and psychological camp to meet him and bear his reproach (Heb. 13:13).

But the Samaritan, already under reproach himself (cf. John 4:9), has no such problem. Instead, he goes to the man on the ground—the surrogate for the Savior—and he involves himself in his passion. He binds up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine—all acts of kindness, to be sure, but also acts that any normal person would find inconveniencing, distasteful, and depriving, not to mention expensive of both time and resources. Moreover, he puts the man on his own animal, thus effectively dying to his own comfort and to whatever prospects he may have had of accomplishing his journey in good time. Next, he brings him to an inn and takes care of him for the whole night, further interrupting his own progress and frustrating his traveling man’s dearest wish, namely, an early, quiet bed after a hard day on the road. And as if all that weren’t enough, he gets up in the morning, goes down to the front desk, and books the mugging victim in for an indefinite stay, all expenses paid—room, meals, doctors, nurses, medicines, health club, and limo if needed and no questions asked. To sum it up, he lays down a very good approximation of his life for someone who isn’t even his friend, simply because he, as an outcast, finally has found someone who lives in his own neighborhood, namely, the place where the discards of respectable religiosity are burned outside the camp (again, Heb. 13:11-13)—the dump, in other words, to which are consigned the last, the lost, the least, the little, and the dead.

And having said all that, Jesus invites the lawyer to answer his own question. “Which one of these three,” he asks, “seems to you to have been a neighbor to the one who fell among thieves?” It is a setup, of course, and the lawyer gives the only possible reply: “He who showed kindness to him”—which leads Jesus to the punch line of the parable, “You go and do the same.”

As I said, I take that to be light-years away from an exhortation to general human niceness. Jesus’ whole parable, especially with its piling up of detail after detail of extreme, even irrational, behavior on the part of the Samaritan, points not to meritorious exercises of good will but to the sharing of the passion as the main thrust of the story. What is to be imitated in the Samaritan’s action is not his moral uprightness in doing good deeds but his spiritual insight into the truly bizarre working of the mystery of redemption. The lawyer is told by Jesus, in effect, to stop trying to live and to be willing to die, to be willing to be lost rather than to be found—to be, in short, a neighbor to the One who, in the least of his brethren, is already neighbor to the whole world of losers.

III. What Should We Do?

Christianity is not a philosophical exercise—it is an obedient lifestyle intimately connected with life on the ground level in the pursuit of being an image of Christ, a witness to Him, an ambassador of His Kingdom. Christianity is living what God has revealed to us in His Word.

We are once more about to partake of the greatest image of obedient living, our Lord’s obedience unto death. Let us remember then that St. Paul tells us that we are to imitate the humble mind of the One Who was obedient even unto death on the cross. The Scriptures do not tell us that God convened a heavenly council to debate the intricate complexities of man’s rebellion and sin. Rather we are told that God did something about it—He sent his only begotten Son into the world to die in our stead. So, today, as we feast upon the life giving Body and Blood of this obedient Son, let us beseech His Majesty to grant that we too might live Christianity, not just think or talk about it—that we might put into habitual practice that which we learn in the Scriptures—that we might go from here and do likewise.