THE GOOD SAMARITAN
BY: HARRY R. FOX, JR.
AUGUST 16, 1996
Speech given to the Sunstone Symposium in the Hilton Hotel
Salt Lake City, Utah
One of the least understood and most misapplied parables taught by Jesus is that of the Good Samaritan. Not until I read a commentary on this parable by the late Professor Karl Barth in 1957, was I made aware of how I had failed to see the main point it was designed to teach. The best way to discern that point is to pay careful attention to the question from the lawyer which prompted Jesus to tell the parable of the Good Samaritan as recorded in Luke 10:25-37.
The lawyer asks two questions: 1) “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” and 2) “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus answers the first of these questions by asking the lawyer, “What is written in the law?” To that question, the lawyer answers, “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.” Although Jesus immediately tells the lawyer that he gave the right answer, the scripture says that the lawyer, “desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?'” It was precisely the attitude with which he asked this second question that the lawyer placed himself in a position to be unable to perceive the answer which Jesus gave in the parable of the Good Samaritan. And what was that attitude? It was the attitude of “seeking to justify himself.”
Not only did this attitude blind the lawyer to the answer which Jesus gave him in the parable under consideration, but it is an attitude toward the word of God which too often characterizes us in relation to the scriptures. We, too, tend to read our Bibles from the standpoint of seeking to justify ourselves, that is, we seek to find in the Bible confirmation that we are right in contrast to others, who are wrong. An example of this is Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the publican who went up to the Temple to pray. I feel certain that you are well acquainted with that parable which is recorded in Luke 18:9-14. Interestingly enough, Luke prefaces it by saying that the reason Jesus told the parable was to expose “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others.” Without my reading that parable to you, I believe you remember the bottom line in which Jesus turns the tables on the conventional estimate of these two men and lets us see that the “good” Pharisee is actually the “bad guy” and the despised publican is the “good guy.” But if we approach that parable with the attitude of seeking to justify ourselves, we will fail to experience the judgment on us that it was designed to convey and instead, will go away feeling smug about ourselves and ironically thanking God that we are not like “that self-righteous Pharisee.”
Unfortunately, we not only approach the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican with the attitude of seeking to justify ourselves, but we also, along with the lawyer, approach the parable of the Good Samaritan with that same attitude. That is why he and we are blinded to the answer that Jesus gave in that parable, and it partly explains why Jesus said He taught certain kinds of people in parables, namely, “because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.” (Matthew 13:13) I believe that the people Jesus had in mind were precisely the kind of people exemplified by the lawyer to whom he addressed the parable of the good Samaritan.
So now let’s take a close look at that parable to see why its meaning is missed if we approach it with a self-righteous attitude and how, by the grace of God, we may otherwise be opened to its meaning. Since I believe that all of you are well acquainted with this parable, I shall not repeat it to you in detail. It speaks to us of four men: 1) a man who went down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell among robbers, who stripped and beat him, and left him half dead on the side of the road; 2) a priest and, 3) a Levite, both of whom later went down that same road, but who passed the wounded man and left him lying on the side of the road; and last of all, 4) a Samaritan, who instead of passing the victim by, administered healing to his wounds and placed him in the keeping of an inn keeper.
Upon ending this parable, Jesus asked the lawyer, “Which of these three do you think proved to be neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” To this the lawyer correctly replied, “The one who showed mercy on him.” Now, if we have paid careful enough attention to the lawyer’s question to Jesus as to “who is my neighbor?” We should not have too much trouble applying the lawyer’s correct answer to ourselves. But when we hear Jesus’ final admonition to the lawyer to “Go and do likewise,” we jump the track and fail to connect the answer to the question to which it is the answer. And once again, what was the question? It was, “Who is my neighbor?” And why was the lawyer concerned to know who his neighbor was? Because he wanted to know who it was that he was supposed to love.
I believe that the reason we miss the answer to this question is because we trip over Jesus’ admonition to “Go and do likewise.” And the reason this trips us up is because we are looking for Jesus to tell us to do something that will be meritorious. And what could be more meritorious than to do what the Samaritan did? So, when we hear Jesus tell us to “do likewise,” we skip a cog and kid ourselves into believing that we already are “good Samaritans” who only need an occasional reminder to be even better Samaritans. And so we miss the answer the parable gives us as to who is the neighbor we are to love? Instead of seeing that the neighbor to be loved is the Samaritan, we take it to be the man in the ditch. And if we actually believe that we are practitioners of such love, then we are indeed men and women who chronically seek to justify ourselves, and are blind to who we really are.
By what I have said thus far, am I implying that the parable is not admonishing us to be good Samaritans to persons who are seriously in need of help? By no means! What I am saying is that the first teaching of the parable is that we become aware of ourselves as being “in the ditch” and therefore, are so seriously in need that we must first receive help from whomever God chooses to help us. Only after receiving help can we be ready to give the help that Jesus says we are to give to other “in-the-ditch” people! In other words, before we can be good Samaritans, we must be recipients of help from Samaritans. But that is precisely what most of us would rather die than do. And why is that? Because it is too humiliating to receive help from people we despise, people to whom we feel superior. That is precisely why Jesus deliberately chose as his central character a Samaritan, a member of a race of people who were heartily despised by the Jewish people to whom he addressed his teaching. Had Jesus lived in modern Japan, his central character would have been “The Good Korean.” If in America, he would have been “The Good Afro-American,” or the “Good Russian Communist.” If in Iran, he would have been “The Good American.” We could extend this list endlessly. What each of us must do is ask ourselves, who are the people I most despise? Who are the people from whom I would never want to receive help?
Until we get our eyes opened to how seriously in need we are, we will be inclined to be choosy about whom we will look to for help, if we ever look for help at all. But if we are ever in an actual “half dead in the ditch” condition, we won’t be able to ask for help from anyone since we will be beyond taking any initiative. We will be at the mercy of whomever God sends to our rescue.
And that is exactly what the Apostle Paul tells us about ourselves in Romans 5:6 where he says that “While we were yet HELPLESS,” God came to our rescue “at the right time” in the person of Christ, who “died for the ungodly” (Emphasis mine). The prophet Isaiah foresaw that this Christ “had no form or comeliness that . . . we would desire him.” And he was “despised and rejected by men.” (Isaiah 53:2-3) If there was ever a man who truly functioned as a “Good Samaritan,” it was Jesus of despised Nazareth. On one occasion, even so guileless a man as Nathaniel asked the question, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (Jn. 1:46) when he was told that Jesus was a man from Nazareth, which shows how despised and looked down upon was that backwoods town!
Many times I have had to learn this lesson of willingness to receive help from sources that I had despised. Probably my most memorable occasion was when I was seriously in need of expert counseling in connection with one of my sons who had been expelled from high school for having violated school rules. I didn’t know where to turn for help. If I could have afforded to pay for it, I would have chosen to go for counseling to the elite psychiatrists in Beverly Hills or Sherman Oaks near where I then lived in Los Angeles. Instead, I was referred by a preacher who served a church I despised to a counseling center in a town I despised sixty-five miles from home. Like Nathaniel, I wondered if any good thing could come to me from such sources and through such channels. I very reluctantly drove the 130 mile round trip through rush hour freeway traffic because that was all I could afford. And what was even more humiliating, the only reason I could afford it at all was because the director of that counseling center gave me a 65% discount on his standard fees. But to my pleasant surprise, the quality of counseling was so good that I received all of the help I so desperately needed. And I learned to love the preacher and church I had despised as I increasingly acknowledged them to be the “Good Samaritan neighbors” that Jesus said I should love.
Another similar learning experience came to me during the same time I was receiving the counseling help. It came to me through an itinerant preacher I had never before heard of, who was conducting an evangelistic meeting in an old auditorium in downtown Los Angeles, an auditorium that was so old and run-down that only second or third-rate people would rent it for any purpose. My wife dragged me down there one night to hear what I couldn’t help but anticipate as a second-rate sermon from a third-rate preacher. But to my amazement, he proclaimed the very message I most needed to hear. He chose as his text Jeremiah 31:10-17. At that time, I was in despair over having apparently “lost” all four of my teen-age sons to the devil, for that was in the decade of the 1960’s when it seemed to me that all hell had broken loose and the training I had received from my Bible teachers was proving to be inadequate in coping with the complexities of rearing teen age boys. So when the preacher began reading and expounding the text, it spoke directly to my deepest need, namely, for hope that all would not be lost, that my sons would not be permanently lost, that they would return to God. For here is what was read to me from Jeremiah: “Hear the word of the Lord, O nations, and declare it to the coastlands afar off; ‘He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd keeps his flock.’ For the Lord has ransomed Jacob, and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him.” (Jer. 31:10) Surely, the situation in which I found myself in the 1960’s could be characterized as being that of “hands too strong for me.” So I was like the situation described by Jeremiah regarding Rameh: “Rachel weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are not” (Jer. 31:15) And to this dire situation, Jeremiah quotes the Lord as saying, “Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for your work shall be rewarded, says the Lord! and they shall come back from the land of the enemy. There is hope for your future says the Lord, and your children shall come back to their own country.“ (Jer. 31:16)
You can well imagine the joy I felt as new hope surged into my soul. This was true not only of me but of the whole assembly of men and women in attendance that night! When the preacher finished reading and commenting on this text, he burst into ecstatic praise and dancing, and all in the audience joined him in dancing all over the auditorium. In the church I had grown up in such conduct was regarded as disgraceful, and people who conducted themselves in such manner were regarded as “holy rollers” and were despised, looked down upon in the same way Samaritans were regarded in Jesus’ day. But you can imagine after receiving the help I received from those Samaritans that night how I was transformed from despising them into loving them. They were among the Samaritan neighbors Jesus told me to love.
A corollary to all of this inability to love or to be a good Samaritan is to be found in our facing up to why we despise them. They symbolize for us anyone we regard as second-rate or lower than we, the non-elite. In the parable of the “Good Samaritan,” we are told that the two men who did nothing to help the man in the ditch were a “priest” and a “Levite.” They symbolized the “righteous elite,” and their failure to lend a hand to the man in the ditch may be taken to mean that they had regarded him as a man who didn’t deserve help; a man they despised. Why? Because they may have seen him as having been a fool who should have known better than to travel the dangerous road from Jerusalem to Jericho at the wrong time (when traffic may have been light and therefore the risk of being targeted by robbers much greater). They may have felt that he got what he deserved! Whatever their reasons were for passing by the man in the ditch, we need to ask ourselves why we too often pass such people by. I’m not referring here to the trend during the last 30 years of being afraid to assist hitchhikers. Proper caution does need to be exercised in deciding whether or how to help such people. What I’m talking about is the much broader phenomenon of our judgmental tendency to divide people up into “deserving,” and “undeserving,” and thereby violate one of Jesus’ most fundamental teachings, namely that we judge not, lest we be judged (Matthew 7:1 and following).
This brings us to a very important consideration in this connection, namely, why we engage in such judgmental conduct. The answer is given by Jesus in verses following Matthew 7:1. It is because we are unaware of the “log” in our own eye when we seek to remove a “speck” from our brother’s eye. This is a way of calling our attention to how unconscious we are of our own condition while being too critical of the imperfections of others. In psychotherapeutic terminology, this is called “projection.” Being unable to face up to our own deficiencies, we project them on to other people and work on them there from a safe distance. Well known author of the best-selling book, The Road Less Traveled, Scott Peck, calls such persons, “People of the lie.“ They are people who are blind to their own evil and blame all their troubles on others. The well known Danish critic, Soren Kierkegaard, said that such people are “sick unto death,” because they are in despair and don’t know it. When Jesus was castigated by the Pharisees for being compassionate toward those whom they regarded as “sinners,” he replied, “They that are whole have no need of a physician, but they that are sick” (Matthew 9:12) He implied that the ones criticizing him were the least aware of their own unhealthy condition and most in need of his healing attention. A similar situation is described in Revelation 3:14-20 where Jesus addresses the church in Laodicea and says that they say of themselves, “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.” He says the truth about them, which is that they know not that they are “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked.” They are a classic example of the kind of people to whom Jesus addresses the parable of the good Samaritan, a parable designed to open our eyes to how much we are represented by the man in the ditch while all the time imagining ourselves to be in no need of help and being fully capable of helping those we deem to be deserving of help. No, we will never understand the parable of the Good Samaritan nor be really able to serve as Good Samaritans until we have first allowed that parable to show us our own need to be helped by “Samaritans.” Only then, will we be in a position to obey Jesus’ admonition for us to “Go and do likewise.”
GOOD SAMARITAN, THE [Harry R. Fox, Jr.] 1