“WHAT SHALL I DO TO INHERIT ETERNAL LIFE?” A Closer Look at the Parable of the Good Samaritan

© 2017, by John Tors. All Rights Reserved.

 And behold, a certain lawyer stood up and tested Him, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”

 He said to him, “What is written in the law? What is your reading of it?”

So he answered and said, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,’ and ‘your neighbor as yourself.’

And He said to him, “You have answered rightly; do this and you will live.”

But he, wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Then Jesus answered and said: “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a certain priest came down that road. And when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.  Likewise a Levite, when he arrived at the place, came and looked, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was. And when he saw him, he had compassion. So he went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; and he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said to him, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you.’ So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?”

And he said, “He who showed mercy on him.”

Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do so.” (Luke 10:25-37)

One of the best known and best loved parables that Jesus told is the parable of the Good Samaritan, recorded in Luke 10:25-37.  And, of course, the meaning of the parable is well known: it teaches us that we are to view all as neighbours and we are to love them all, and to do so by means of practical actions.  The parable, then, focuses not on who is one’s neighbour but on how to be a neighbour to others.

Commentators present an all but universal front on this.  According to The New Bible Commentary[1], “If a Samaritan could prove himself a true neighbor to a Jew by showing mercy to him, then all men are neighbors.”  I. Howard Marshall says that “The lesson is hardly the mere point that love appears in unlikely places; it is obvious that the Samaritan is presented as an example to be followed.”[2]  And William Baird comments that “the commandment is clear: show love to those who need it.”[3]

And yet, for all this agreement, there remains a troubling aspect.  According to MacDonald, “The story of the good Samaritan had an unexpected twist to it.  It started off to answer the question “Who is my neighbor?”  But it ended by posing the questions “To whom do you prove yourself a neighbor?”[4]

Other commentators also take note of this.  Eric Franklin, in The Oxford Bible Commentary, speaks of “the twist that occurs between the lawyer’s question and Jesus’ reshaping of it; the parable itself does not follow on from the lawyer’s question.”[5]

Baird, in The Interpreter’s One-volume Commentary on the Bible, also notes this, saying, “The question of the lawyer was, Who is my neighbor?  The question of the parable is, Who acted like a neighbor?  Perhaps Jesus changed the question.”[6]

This twist is significant, so much so that at least some Biblical scholars contend that the account has been placed into the wrong context by Luke.[7]  Marshall is reduced to suggesting that

The effect of the parable is to state that enquiries regarding the meaning of ‘neighbour’ as the object of love are irrelevant and impossible; what matters is the subjective side of the relationship of neighbourliness.  In other words, the effect of the parable is to demonstrate that the question asked in v. 29 is a false one; in fact the parable expounds the meaning of love rather than of ‘neighbour’[8]

Something is wrong here.  Prima facie, there is nothing “false” or “irrelevant and impossible” about the lawyer’s question; it seems very reasonable if one is to love his neighbor to ask who qualifies.  Moreover, after speaking the parable, Jesus asks, “So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?” and that makes it indubitable that Jesus spoke the parable precisely in order to answer the question posed by the lawyer.  There was no “twist.”  Jesus did not “change the question”; He answered the question, so it was obviously not “irrelevant,” “impossible,” or “false.”

Why then do so many commentators claim that there was such a twist?  There can be only one reason: because their interpretation of the parable – everyone is your neighbor, love your neighbor by helping him – does not align with what Jesus actually said in the passage.  So the commentator is faced with two options here: either (1) insist that the question was twisted, in violation of the actual text, or (2) contemplate the possibility that the near ubiquitous understanding of the meaning of the parable is wrong.  And since our understanding must be based on what the text says, and not vice versa, we must choose the latter option.

When we come to the parable with preconceived notions discarded, other key facts become noticeable.  First, there are at least a half dozen people besides the victim in the parable (a priest, a Levite, a Samaritan, an innkeeper, and at least two thieves) – and only one of them is designated “neighbor.”  So whatever the intended meaning of the parable, it certainly not that “everyone is your neighbor.”[9]

Another interesting thing to notice is that the parable features a priest and a Levite.  More than forty parables of Jesus’ are recorded in the Gospel books, and this is the only one that features a priest and/or a Levite.  That, too, may be significant.

Perhaps the most noteworthy thing, however, is to look carefully at the question asked the answer given, and the resulting instruction:

  • – “Love your neighbor as yourself”

  • – “And who is my neighbor?”

  • – “Which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?”

  • -“He who showed mercy on him.”

 

So this says:

  • -“Love (your neighbor) as yourself.”

  • -“Your neighbor is (He who showed mercy on him.)”

Which leads to the following ineluctable conclusion:

 “Love (Him who showed mercy on you) as yourself.”

 Wow; “love Him who showed mercy on you.” Now, that is certainly very different from what the commentators say.  No wonder they feel a need to “twist” the parable (while ascribing that twist to Jesus); the actual conclusion is not all in keeping with the ubiquitous understanding.

So what does the parable mean?  Let us take a close look, remembering that it is of crucial importance to look at the context of the parable.  It is told in response to the lawyer’s question “Who is my neighbor?” but that was itself a subsidiary question to the lawyer’s overarching question “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”  That is the question Jesus is answering, and it would be highly problematic if He taught here that one inherits eternal life by loving his neighbor, thus contradicting the clear Gospel that He teaches elsewhere (e.g. John 3:16-18).  On the contrary, we should expect the answer to point to Him in some way.  It is strange that so many evangelicals miss this fact.

Now, let us consider the elements of the parable in detail.  We see the following:

  • – There is a man who is wounded and half-dead, in need of help.

  • – The priest and the Levite (the mediators of the Old Covenant) are of no help.

  • – A Samaritan, having compassion, bound up his wounds and delivered him to safety.

  • – The Samaritan promises to pay whatever the man will owe when he comes again.

 

In light of these elements, it becomes difficult not to see this as a parabolic description of Jesus’ saving mission.  The man who wants to inherit eternal life is in fact wounded and half-dead and in need of help.  The Old Covenant with its Levitical priesthood will not provide him with what he needs; it is the “Samaritan” who binds up his wounds and delivers him to safety and pays what he owes.

The Samaritan, then, is Jesus Himself, the One who has mercy upon us, and He is the One we are to love and so inherit eternal life.  It all coheres.  And we note that around the same time as Jesus spoke this parable, His foes were accusing Him of being (wait for it) a Samaritan (John 8:48)![10]  This may have made the point of the parable that much clearer.

We could also point out that the Samaritan “bound the wounds” of the man in need.  Binding wounds is used twice in the Old Testament of God healing His people (Psalm 147:3 and Isaiah 30:26), and is not used in any other way.  And “pouring on wine” may be an allusion to “the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for you” (Luke 22:20b), which was symbolized by wine at the Last Supper.[11]

Prima facie, this understanding of the parable is far more feasible than the usual understanding.   One might object, however, that Jesus would not give such an oblique teaching to the lawyer.  Yet that is exactly what Jesus said He would do, and that is what He did.  His reference to His death and resurrection, symbolized by the destruction and rebuilding of the “temple” (John 2:18-21) was certainly an oblique reference to His own death and resurrection.  So, too, was His appeal to “the sign of Jonah” (Matthew 12:39-40, 16:4; Luke 11:29-30) as a foretelling of His own death and resurrection.[12]

And Jesus Himself told us He uses this method:

Then He taught them many things by parables … And He said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”  But when He was alone, those around Him with the twelve asked Him about the parable. And He said to them, “To you it has been given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God; but to those who are outside, all things come in parables, so that ‘Seeing they may see and not perceive, and hearing they may hear and not understand; lest they should turn, and their sins be forgiven them.’” (Mark 4:2a, 9-12)

This obviates any protestation on the basis that this understanding of the parable is oblique and veiled.

A final objection that comes up is that the lawyer was simply testing Jesus and seeking to justify himself.  The relevancy of this is difficult to see.  Certainly, sometimes Jesus would not give an answer to an insincere question (e.g. Mark 11:27-33), but in this case He clearly gave an answer regardless of the sincerity or lack thereof of the lawyer,[13] and if He gives an answer, it will certainly be the correct one.

In sum, then, there are two understandings of the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  According to the common, nearly ubiquitous understanding, Jesus is urging the lawyer to love everyone, as they are all neighbours, and to love them by helping those in need.  According to our understanding, Jesus is giving a parabolic reference to His own saving mission.

The common understanding means that Jesus did not actually answer the question He was asked; that Jesus taught salvation by works, in contradiction to what He taught elsewhere; that there must be a “twist” that is required to make the understanding work – a twist that is not even hinted at in the account and is rendered impossible by Jesus’ own question at the end of the parable; that we are supposed to accept that Jesus was herein teaching that all are our neighbours though only one out of the six or more people appearing with the victim in the parable is identified as the “neighbour.”

The latter understanding of the parable as a parabolic reference to Jesus and the need to love Him for eternal life, on the other hand, teaches a way to inherit eternal life that is consistent with Jesus’ teaching everywhere else; sees Jesus answering the questions He was actually asked and needs no imaginary twist; that coheres perfectly in all the elements of the parable; and that is consistent with the way Jesus taught in the Gospel books.

It is difficult to see how the common, nearly ubiquitous understanding became common and nearly ubiquitous.  Indeed, it is difficult to see how anyone continues to hold to it.


 

[1] Davidson, Francis. ed. The New Bible Commentary. Chicago: The InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, 1953, p.851.  Cited in MacDonald, William. Believers Bible Commentary. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995, p.1460

[2] Marshall, I. Howard. NIGTC Commentary on Luke. Exeter: The Paternoster Press and Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978, p.445

[3] Baird, William. “The Gospel According to Luke.” In Charles Laymon M. ed. The Interpreter’s One-volume Commentary on the Bible. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1971, p.689

[4] MacDonald, op.cit., p.1410

[5] Franklin, Eric. “59. Luke” in Barton, John and John Muddiman. eds. The Oxford Bible Commentary. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2001, p.942 (Bolding and italics added)

[6] Baird, op.cit., p.689 (Bolding and italics added)

[7] ibid.

[8] Marshall, op.cit., p.445

[9] Elsewhere, of course, Jesus tells us to love even our enemies (Matthew 5:43-45, Luke 6:27-28, 35), but that does not seem to be the message of this parable.

[10] Then the Jews answered and said to Him, “Do we not say rightly that You are a Samaritan and have a demon?” (John 8:48)

[11] Whether all of these allusions were intended by Jesus or some were coincidental cannot be known with certainty.

[12] As will be explained in our forthcoming article, Jonah died before he was swallowed by the great fish and resurrected on the third day.  The sign was not simply comparing the length of Jesus’ stay in the tomb to the length of Jonah’s sojourn inside the great fish.

[13] As He did at other times that He was asked questions to test Him, e.g. Matthew 19:3-9; 22:15-22, 34-40.

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