A sermon by Dr Donald T. Williams - donaldtwilliams.com
Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 3/26/95
Few of Jesus' parables are more familiar or more superficially understood than the story of The Good Samaritan. It is usually interpreted as an object lesson on the duty of benevolence--and so it is. But it is also much more. To study it profitably, we need to see it in the context of the conversation with the lawyer, to look at the two questions he asked--and the answers Jesus didn't give!I. QUESTION NUMBER ONE (vss. 25-28) A. The Question
The first question is, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" It is in some ways a very good question, but it probably was not asked because the lawyer wanted to know the answer. He asked it to "test" Jesus. This implies that he already thought he knew the answer, and he wanted to see if Jesus did too. We usually look down on him for that, and indeed there were a number of Pharisees and Scribes who did ask Jesus questions from ignoble motives, trying to trip him up. But I am willing to give this fellow the benefit of the doubt. There were a lot of people starting messianic movements in those days. I probably would have wanted to ask a few questions before signing up with one of them myself! When the group that started this church was thinking of asking me to serve as its pastor, they had some pretty serious questions for me, and rightly so. So this man may have been sincere--but sincerity is not enough. What will he do with the answer? That is the bottom line. And what will we do with it?
The lawyer probably thought he had come up with a pretty good question: it would simultaneously elicit Jesus' theology and make the questioner sound spiritual. But the question ironically shows the limitations of the lawyer's thinking. In fact, at one level he hasn't been thinking at all. "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" You can't "do" anything to inherit something! An inheritance depends entirely on the relationship you have with the giver, and on his will as expressed in his Will. The question may also reveal something more about the lawyer's spiritual state than he realized. As a lawyer (or Scribe), he was an expert in the Law of Moses, and he was probably very conscientious in keeping it. But all this had brought him no peace. If the question wasn't purely theoretical, it probably meant he was looking for some one thing he could do that would be so meritorious that it would give him an unshakable assurance of acceptance by God. The aorist participle he uses could be translated, "What one thing, having done it, will I inherit eternal life." If he was truly seeking, his question illustrates the failure of Jewish theology at this point, and it illustrates Paul's principle that "By the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified in His sight, for by the Law comes the knowledge of sin" (Rom. 3:20).B. The Answer
Jesus hardly ever gave anybody a direct answer to anything. He would usually either answer a question with a question or say, "Let me tell you a story." He uses the first of those tactics with the first question, and the other one with the second. Here he answers the question with a question: "What do you think?" Or, actually, the form of that question appropriate for a Jewish lawyer: "What does the Old Testament Say?"
Jesus is setting us a very good example for our own witnessing here. Don't be too quick to just give your spiel and leave. Jesus always wanted to make the people he was talking with think for themselves, in order to give them the opportunity to think with him. We should pay close attention to his method here. Until a person is thinking with you, it is no good to give him the Four Spiritual Laws or take him down the Roman Road, or do whatever it is you use to present the Gospel. Once you have got them to that point, there are many good methods. So how do we get people thinking with us? It really helps to master the art of asking good Socratic questions. And to know what the right ones are going to be, we have to listen as well as talk. As you read Jesus' encounters with people in the Gospels, have an eye to how he does this. He is the best role model you're ever going to find.
Well, Jesus answers the question with a question, and the lawyer's answer to that question is in vs. 27: Keep the Law! Now Jesus has him on the way to finding an answer to his original question. And so Jesus agrees with him: Do this and you will live. Why does Jesus agree? Why doesn't he carefully explain that salvation does not come by the works of the Law but by faith? First, because the lawyer was not just plain wrong. After all, Jesus had quoted the very same Old Testament passages himself in answer to the question about what was the greatest commandment. If a person loved God with his whole heart, mind, soul, and strength, and his neighbor as himself, he would indeed merit eternal life. The trouble is that none of us has. The trouble is that none of us does. The trouble is that none of us can. So what kind of salvation can there be for sinners? But you can't ask--or answer--that question until you have come to see yourself as a sinner.
So why doesn't Jesus carefully explain that salvation does not come by the works of the Law but by faith? Perhaps because it does no good to explain such things until a person has learned by experience that law-keeping as the path to salvation must inevitably fail. The theology of Grace is the answer to our experience of failure at keeping the Law. Until we admit that failure, we have no ear for Grace. Jesus agrees because the Law precedes the Gospel. It has to. We must see the Law's inability before we are ready for another solution. Man's pride will not allow him to accept a Savior who does all as long as man has any hope left of doing something. That hope must first be destroyed. That is why Spurgeon said that "The iron needle of the Law must make a way for the scarlet thread of the Gospel." So Jesus hits the ball right back into the lawyer's side of the court. "Do this and you will live. You are, aren't you?" Well, not exactly. Not with all his heart, not all the time. The lawyer now feels acutely a need that may have been only latent at the beginning of the conversation: the need to be justified! Now we are getting somewhere. Unfortunately, he is still trying to justify himself.II. QUESTION NUMBER TWO (vss. 29-36) A. The Question
The second question is truly unfortunate. "But, wishing to justify himself, he said to Jesus, 'And who is my neighbor?'" It is the wrong question, absolutely wrong. The proper response should be, "But I can't love God and my neighbor perfectly. Now what?" That would have been the response of a person ready to hear the Gospel. Instead, the lawyer tries to wiggle off the hook. Just who are these neighbors I am supposed to love? Maybe I can eliminate some of them and come closer to passing the test! He is looking for a loophole. The Pharisees, by the way, had defined the neighbor in this context as only one's fellow Israelite--which may help explain why Jesus chose a Samaritan as his example. The lawyer is trying to divert the conversation from his own need of Grace to a technical point of Jewish ethics. You can bet that Jesus is not going to let him get away with it!B. The Answer
The answer to this question is the familiar story of The Good Samaritan. But of course it is, again, not an answer--that is, not an answer to the question the lawyer had asked. He wanted to know the answer to the question, "Who is my neighbor?" Instead, Jesus answers the question, "To whom should I be a neighbor?" But the most important thing for us to understand today is the way this answer is a pointed attack on the two things standing between this lawyer and salvation, the two things standing between him and his ability to appreciate the Gospel: his pride and his trust in the Law.
First, it was a frontal attack on the lawyer's pride. The hero of the story is a Samaritan. Most of you probably know that the Samaritans were a race of half-breeds despised by pure Jews. But you probably cannot imagine the true shock value of Jesus' choice of hero. I have often heard it compared to making a black person the hero in the pre-integration South. But it was much worse than that, for it was theoretically (and actually) possible even for a Southern white who was a segregationist to have respect and admiration and even affection for a particular black person. This was more like making a Jew the hero in a story told to Nazis, or a Nazi the hero in a story told to Jews. Do you think I am exaggerating? The Mishnah says that "He who eats the bread of Samaritans is like to one who eats swine's flesh." I can tell you as a personal eye witness that whites who employed black cooks in the old South did not feel the least bit defiled by eating their fried chicken. And it gets even worse. The synagogue prayer service at this time included a prayer that Samaritans not be partakers of eternal life! Segregationists in the old South neither thought all blacks were going to Hell nor wanted them to. Forget blacks and whites. As bad as that racial discrimination was, there was not enough hatred there to make this story work. To get the impact, you have to imagine yourself telling this story to modern Israelis with a member of the PLO or Fatah as the hero.
What is my point? In order to get an answer to his question, the lawyer is forced to identify with the Samaritan! The Samaritan is the good neighbor, the one the lawyer has to be like if he wants to go to heaven. Gulp. When Jesus puts him on the spot, he cannot even bring himself to say that the Samaritan was the neighbor. He is forced into circumlocution, not to mention beating around the bush: "Er, the one who showed mercy." What is Jesus really asking him? "Can you put yourself on the same spiritual footing as a Samaritan? Can you accept the proposition that you may actually be farther from the kingdom than he is? Can you accept, in other words, the proposition that all men have to come by grace?" Unfortunately, he could not.
In the second place, this answer was a frontal assault on the lawyer's trust in the Law. This is another point that is obscured for modern readers unless they know something about ancient Jewish culture. Why didn't the priest stop to help the wounded man? It wasn't just that he was being callous. From a distance, the victim looked dead. He might be dead. And of course if the priest touched a corpse, he would become unclean. Check out Numbers 19:11-13 to see what he would have had to go through--a weeklong process--to become eligible to minister again. Otherwise he would defile the sanctuary of the Lord and be cut off from Israel. Do you see what the Lord is doing here? The lawyer has rightly quoted the Law of Love as the summary of the Law. But the very rigid adherence to the letter of the Law for which his party was known, symbolized here by the priest and the Levite, is in direct contradiction to the very spirit of the Law on which he had so rightly focused. To cling to Law-keeping as the path to eternal life is contrary to his own definition of salvation. Salvation by the works of the Law has self destructed right in front of his very own eyes. And then Jesus concludes by telling him to be like a Samaritan. A more efficient method of calling into question every assumption of this man's whole religious life could hardly have been devised. Unfortunately, Jesus never gets to the Gospel as such. But the whole conversation is a classic example of what we have come to call "pre-evangelism." Instead of answering the lawyer's questions, Jesus has just made them harder, and he has done it in a way that sets up Paul's later clarity in Romans 3:20: By the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified.CONCLUSION
We miss the pre-evangelism of Jesus' non-answers because of our ignorance of the First-Century Palestinian context and also because we have become used to the technical vocabulary for these same ideas that was later developed by the Apostle Paul in Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians, which of course Jesus does not use here. I do not think I am reading Paul back into the Gospels; rather, I hope I have shown that Jesus' questions are the ones ultimately answered by Paul's theology of Grace. Missing all of that, we have reduced this story to a Sunday-School lesson on helping the needy. And it is that, of course, but it is so much more. The main point of it is to anticipate Romans 3:20. By the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified. The Law says, as the lawyer realized, "Love perfectly and you will live." The Gospel says, "I will give you my life that you may love." It takes an awful lot of work sometimes to get people to the place where they are ready to hear the Gospel. We can learn a lot by watching our Lord do some of that work here. Let us first make sure that we are people who can hear the Gospel ourselves. Why are there so many half-Christians? Maybe because many have accepted the Gospel without being ready to hear it. They are not completely convinced that apart from Christ they can do nothing. At some level they are still trying to "Love perfectly and you will live." But the Gospel says, "I will give you my life that you may love." You can't have it both ways; only one way works. and that is the way of the Gospel of Grace. Let us understand it and believe it so that we may be able to live it and proclaim it. Amen.
Here endeth the lesson. Dr. Donald T. Williams