The dramatic tale of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:30–37 is one of the most beloved and interesting of all Jesus’ parables. It is so well known that it has become a common idiom for lavish, sacrificial kindness. To call someone a good Samaritan is a noble compliment. But our familiarity with this parable may cause us to think we know the story better than we really do. Lots of people assume they understand exactly what this story is about and what it was intended to convey, when in fact, most don’t.
The lesson of the Good Samaritan is not merely an exhortation to help those in need. It is far too simplistic to say that Jesus’ main point is about showing kindness to strangers. Rather, He told this story to illustrate how far we all fall short of what God’s law actually demands. He explains why all our good works and religious merit are never sufficient to gain favor with God. He shows what the law really demands of us—and thereby He systematically deflates the hopes of superfastidious religious people who think they can merit eternal life by meticulously following rabbinical traditions, obsessing over the minutiae in God’s law, and inventing ways around all the truly important principles and hard parts of Scripture.
The real point of the parable becomes clear when we pay attention to the immediate context in Luke 10.
A Trick Question
During Jesus’ ministry in Galilee (the region where He grew up), He met with relentless opposition from key religious leaders and their followers. In Luke 10, Jesus delivers some curt words of condemnation for three specific towns where He had already spent a great deal of time during His early Galilean ministry: Chorazin, Bethsaida, and (most significantly) Capernaum, hometown to many of the disciples (Luke 10:13–16). His words of condemnation to those cities are some of the harshest words Jesus ever uttered.
Predictably, that short prophetic discourse further angered the religious leaders who already opposed Him. At that point, a legal expert (one of the hostile religious leaders, not a civil lawyer), stepped forward and asked Jesus a question about eternal life in an attempt to trap or embarrass Him.
Luke records the exchange: “And a lawyer stood up and put Him to the test, saying, ‘Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’” (Luke 10:25). Scripture makes a point of noting the man’s insincerity. This was not an honest question from someone seeking to learn; it was a test—a challenge, or a ruse to try to trap Jesus or confound Him by posing a moral dilemma or paradox that the lawyer believed had no clear answer. This was just the first in a series of questions the lawyer planned to ask, and it’s clear where he was going. He wanted to embarrass Jesus and impress the crowd with his own supposedly superior skills as a legal sophist and quibbler over theological fine points.
Despite the lawyer’s evil motive, the first question he raised is a fine question. It is in fact the greatest question ever asked or answered, and it was frequently on the minds and the hearts of those who approached Jesus to learn from Him. It’s what was on the heart of Nicodemus when he came to Jesus under cover of darkness in John 3. It is the very same question the rich young ruler raised in Matthew 19. In fact, that same question was posed frequently to Jesus and appears several places in the Gospels.
This time, Jesus answered the question with a question of His own. “And He said to him, ‘What is written in the Law? How does it read to you?’” (Luke 10:26). Jesus was referring to the Keri’at Shema, the daily reading aloud of Deuteronomy 6:4–5: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”
In reply, the lawyer quoted from that very passage, adding the last half of Leviticus 19:18 as well. “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’” (Luke 10:27). That was a perfect summary of the law’s moral demands. It is precisely the same answer Jesus gave on another occasion in Matthew 22:37–40 when a different lawyer asked Him, “Which is the great commandment in the Law?” (v. 36). In that context Jesus Himself said Deuteronomy 6:5 (“love . . . God with all your heart”) is the first and greatest commandment and Leviticus 19:18 (“love your neighbor as yourself”) ranks a close second. Then he added, “On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:40).
Of course, the Ten Commandments are divided into those same two categories. The first through fourth commandments spell out what is entailed in loving God and honoring Him properly. The fifth through tenth commandments outline what love for one’s neighbor looks like. So the entire moral content of the law is summarized and comprised in those two simple commandments. The lawyer in Luke 10 got it exactly right: love God with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself. If we did those two things perfectly, we would not need any other rules. All the other commandments—all the moral precepts in the Mosaic covenant—simply explain in detail what is truly involved in loving God and loving one’s neighbor.
So Jesus said to the lawyer, “You have answered correctly” (Luke 10:28). Then our Lord added, “Do this and you will live.” You want eternal life?Obey the law.
That is reminiscent of Jesus’ answer to the rich young ruler. It’s not gospel, but law. Scripture elsewhere says, “By the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20). In fact, Jesus’ reply would seem at first glance to contradict the very heart of gospel truth: “A man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus . . . we [are] justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified” (Galatians 2:16).
What’s going on here? Why did Jesus not preach the gospel rather than the law to this man?
A Hard Heart
Jesus was simply holding the mirror of the law up to this legal “expert” to demonstrate how the law condemned him. If the lawyer were an honest man, he ought to have acknowledged that he did not love God as he should; he didn’t even love his neighbors as he should. This man, steeped in the study of God’s law, should have been broken by the law’s message. He should have felt deep conviction. He should have been penitent, contrite, humble. His follow-up question ought to have been something like this: “I know from bitter experience that I cannot fulfill even the most basic commandments of the law; where can I find redemption?”
Instead, he doused the fire of his conscience with the water of self-righteous pride. “But wishing to justify himself, he said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” (Luke 10:29, emphasis added).
He wanted to convince people that he was righteous, although he knew he wasn’t. He wanted to maintain the façade. This was the whole problem with the legalists, Pharisees, and other self-righteous religious bullies who constantly challenged Jesus. They “trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt” (Luke 18:9). It was Jesus’ central criticism of the Pharisees’ brand of religion. He told them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of men, but God knows your hearts” (Luke 16:15). This particular legalist was desperate to make himself look good in others’ eyes, regardless of what God thought of him.
So instead of asking the question Jesus’ reply ought to have prompted from him, he asked, “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29).
Notice, first of all, that he skipped right over the part about loving God with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength. Instead, he wants to discuss a technical point about the identity of one’s neighbor. Because, as Jesus says elsewhere, the traditional rabbinical and popular interpretation of Leviticus 19:18 (“Love your neighbor as yourself”) is “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy” (Matthew 5:43). That takes all the force out of the command, because if you’re free to hate your enemy, then you’re relieved from the duty of loving anyone whom you decide to regard as an enemy. Under that interpretation, you have no legal or moral obligation to love anyone you don’t really want to.
It is obvious where this lawyer was going. He wanted to entangle Jesus in a petty debate about who is a neighbor and who isn’t. He figured he could “justify himself” if he could make a convincing defense of the traditional notion that one’s enemy is not one’s “neighbor.”
At that point, Jesus could have just dismissed him. He could have left him standing there in self-righteous pride. But Jesus shows gentle compassion to this stubborn, self-righteous man. Our Lord actually models for us the very same principle He is about to illustrate with a parable. It is a precept He both taught and lived: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).
And even though this lawyer managed to rebuff Christ’s attempt to bring conviction to his heart; even though the man’s sole motive in the first place was to try to elevate himself while putting Jesus down, the Savior replies to him with tenderhearted, longsuffering kindness. It’s not the harsh rebuke the man deserves. Jesus tells him a story.
And the story our Lord tells is one of His most poignant, powerful parables. It would certainly have been enough to shatter the pride of any sensitive, spiritually minded truth seeker. It is a crushing story that produces immense conviction.
This is not a simple lesson in etiquette or a manual on how to help the less fortunate (though it certainly has implications for both charity and good manners). This is not a lesson for children about how to share their toys and be kind to the new kid in class. This was a story told to a religious nonbeliever, a self-righteous man, as an evangelistic effort to bring him to the true sense of his sinfulness and his need for mercy. It was Jesus’ appeal to a doomed (but deeply religious) soul. Jesus was urging the man to wake up and see how lost he really was.