Devotion Mercy

Jesus is our Good Samaritan

Written by Pr. Phil Booe

What shall I do to inherit eternal life? That was the question the religious lawyer asked Jesus. What shall I do? He was trying to test Jesus. He was counting on his own provenance as a child of Abraham, a card-carrying Hebrew to qualify him to inherit the kingdom. Would Jesus say different? This is the context in which we hear the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37.

People want to know, what are the necessary things we must do to keep God happy? How often is often enough to come to church, how often is often enough for Bible study, how much is enough to give in the offering plate and is that before or after taxes? Even the Apostle Peter once asked Jesus just how often he had to forgive his brother when he sinned against him. People want to know how much is enough and how little can I get by with?

Wesley Autrey: Subway Samaritan

In 2006, an astonishing thing happened in New York City. A construction worker named Wesley Autrey was standing on a subway platform with his two young daughters, ages four and six, waiting on a train. Suddenly another man nearby, apparently suffering from a seizure, stumbled and fell off down onto the tracks. Just at that moment the headlight of a rapidly approaching train appeared in the tunnel. Acting quickly, and with no thought for himself, Wesley Autrey jumped down onto the tracks to rescue the stricken man by dragging him out of the way of the train.

After he jumped, he immediately realized that the train was coming too fast and there wasn’t time to pull the man off the tracks. So Wesley pressed the man into the hollowed-out space between the rails and spread his own body over him to protect him as the train passed over the two of them. The train cleared Wesley by mere inches, coming close enough to leave grease marks on his knit cap. When the train came to a halt, Wesley called up to the frightened onlookers on the platform. “There are two little girls up there. Let them know their Daddy is OK!”

Immediately, and for good reason, Wesley Autrey became a national hero. People were deeply moved by his selflessness and they marveled at his bravery. What Autrey had done was a remarkable deed of concern for another person. He had no obvious reason to help this stranger. He didn’t know the man. He had his young daughters and even his own life to consider. But a human being was in desperate need, he saw it and did what he could to save him. “The Subway Superman,” that’s what the press called him, the “Harlem Hero.” But the headline in one newspaper described this brave rescuer in biblical terms. It read, “Good Samaritan Saves Man on Subway Tracks.” Welsey Autrey was the “Subway Samaritan.”

Wesley Autrey was indeed a Good Samaritan on that day, and not too long after that, there was a story in the news about another person who fell into the tracks, but this time, several people jumped to his aid. I don’t know about you but when I hear about these stories, I have to wonder, “If I had been the one on the subway platform that day, what would I have done? Would I have been that courageous? Would I have had what it takes to jump down in front of that train, to help that man? Would I have been a ‘Good Samaritan’ that day?”

Princeton Seminary Good Samaritan Experiment

This text–the parable of the Good Samaritan–is often seen as a call by Jesus for us to go out into the world to be Good Samaritans. So much so that in 1973 two researchers staged a psychological behavior experiment to find out just how people would react to a Good Samaritan situation. What they expected was that people who were familiar with and thinking about the good Samaritan story would stop to help someone in distress more than those who were not. They also presumed that someone who was in a hurry would be less likely to help. So at Princeton Theological Seminary they setup the experiment. Half of the Seminarians, that is people who were in training to be pastors and theologians, were told that they needed to go to a building to give a talk on the Good Samaritan and the other half were told they had to go speak on something about vocations. They also set it up in such a way that some of the seminarians would be in a big hurry, some only moderately so, and some would take a leisurely pace to their destination. Along the way, the researches staged a man who appeared hurt, slumped over, and coughing in an apparent need of medical help. The experiment was to see who would stop to help and who wouldn’t.  Only an average of 40% of the seminaries stopped to help the man in need.

Part of the overall results were that only 10% of those who were in a hurry stopped. Only about half of those who were going to speak on the Good Samaritan stopped to help, too focused or too much in a hurry to actually be a Good Samaritan.

Are We Always Good Samaritans?

Is that what the Story of the Good Samaritan is all about? That we need to always be like the good Samaritan? Many people believe that this is exactly the question that Jesus wants us to ponder. The Parable of the Good Samaritan is the most famous parable Jesus taught and the way we usually hear it is as Jesus’ way of getting us to ask ourselves, “Am I willing, when the circumstances arise, to be a Good Samaritan to other people? If I see a person lying in a ditch, or bleeding in an ally, if I see someone somewhere in trouble on the highway or on subway tracks in distress, would I risk myself to be of help? Am I a Good Samaritan?” Is that what Jesus is wanting us to ask?

Well, although we are certainly called by God to be kind to one another and help our neighbors in need, that is not what this parable is all about. There is a better interpretation which is much deeper, and much more meaningful.

Another Look at the Parable

Let’s take another look at the parable. It all began when Jesus got into a conversation with a local religious lawyer. Lutheran’s don’t really have an equivalent, but think of him like a seminary professor. He was someone you might go to for a well-educated opinion regarding the Scriptures. In order to test Jesus, the lawyer asked, “What do I need to do to inherit eternal life?” Undoubtedly knowing that the man was seeking to test him and knowing the man put his faith, hope, and trust in his own heritage for salvation, Jesus said, “You’re the lawyer, what does it say in the law?” Well, the lawyer knowing the law, quoted it saying, “Love God with all your heart and soul and strength and mind and also love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Jesus replied “You are correct, do this and you will live.”

That’s it. All the lawyer had to do was love God perfectly and love his neighbor perfectly and heaven was his. Now loving God is one thing because God is perfect, holy, and merciful. He provides for all our needs. Loving him seems to be easy. On the other hand, there was the neighbor. Loving some of our neighbors is easy too–some of them. The people who are friendly, easy to talk to, and not quick to find fault with you. The neighbors who are honest and are both respectful and respectable are easy to love. But let’s face it, some neighbors are hard to love. Harsh personalities and argumentative people are hard to get along with. People who are always focused on the negative, scheming, and are quick to gossip, how are we to love them? It’s really, really hard to love those neighbors. But God calls us to love everyone.

If you are honest, you’ll admit that you simply can’t love all your neighbors as you love yourself. The lawyer must have been honest with himself for he, like us, was desperately trying to figure out a way to make it so that those hateful, irritating people were not really his neighbors at all! Surely, they didn’t count. For the lawyer he must have been thinking, “surely gentiles don’t count!” So he asked Jesus, “Uhmm, just who is my neighbor?”

Now note carefully: it was in response to this that Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan. It is in a conversation about how one inherits eternal life that Jesus brought up this teaching. He began by telling a story about a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. The man was mugged by robbers and left bleeding and near death beside the road. He was a man in desperate need of help. Two genuinely shocking things happened next. The first shock was that two people who could have helped, who might have been expected to help like those seminarians at Princeton in 1973, a priest and a Levite, came up the road and saw the man in trouble, but they did nothing. They intentionally avoided the man by crossing over to the other side of the road and continuing on their journey.

The second and even bigger shock is that the last person in the world we would count on for help was the one who in fact mercifully and bravely rescued the injured man. We wouldn’t expect it, and the lawyer most certainly wouldn’t have expected it, because in the parable Jesus described the hero as a Samaritan. Jews and Samaritans had a bitter history of racial and religious hatred. They had nothing to do with each other. Jews and Samaritans were enemies. But it was  this Samaritan, despised and rejected, who was nevertheless moved with compassion and who tenderly cared for the injured man.

Having told that story, Jesus now says to the lawyer, “Who proved to be the neighbor I this story?” The lawyer couldn’t even bring himself to spit out the word “Samaritan.” He simply mumbled, “The one who showed mercy.”

The purpose of this parable is not to show us how we should be like the Samaritan and not like the priest and Levite. If we are to identify with anyone in this story, it should be the the robbed and beaten man left on the road to die.  The question the lawyer asked about how to inherit eternal life was answered in this parable: We inherit eternal life in the same way this robbed and dying man received his life back, because of what the Good Samaritan did for him. Think about it, when you were born into this world, you were born an enemy of God, lost in your sin, dead in your trespasses. What could you do save yourself? What could you do to inherit eternal life? The answer is: Not a thing. The message to the lawyer, and to us, is that without rescue, you’re going to die the same way you were born, broken and naked.

It seems that whenever we hear this parable, we try to place ourselves in any position but that of the beaten man. It rarely occurs to us that we are the ones in trouble, but that’s us lying in the ditch and in need of a Savior. This parable is not about us being a Good Samaritan, it’s about looking to the true Good Samaritan who came and rescued us from death. Just like the Samaritan in the story, Jesus too was despised and rejected, and yet he entered this world to rescue us. Self-righteousness and salvation by the law, represented by the priest and Levite, do absolutely nothing to save your soul.

Jesus is the Good Samaritan

Jesus is the true Good Samaritan has rescued you from death. He has healed you of your wounds and has brought you to into the fold of the church. There he has given the church, represented by the innkeeper, all of the means needed to restore you. He even promises to return for you. Simply put, this parable is not about what you are supposed to do, but rather what God through Christ has done for you.

The inheritance of eternal life is already yours. Our Good Samaritan, Jesus Christ, has already earned your forgiveness. He has healed your wounds, paid your debt in full, and promises to return for you. When it comes to our salvation, God has done all the work. He is our true Good Samaritan. In response to this glorious good news, the next time you see a neighbor in need, you’ll know what to do because you’ll know what has been done for you.

About the author

Pr. Phil Booe

The Rev. Dr. Phil Booe is a husband to Becky and father to Alex and Katie. Originally from North Carolina, he currently serves as pastor of St. John Lutheran Church in Luverne, Minnesota (LCMS). He holds a B.S. in Criminal Justice from Western Carolina University, an M.Div. from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, and a D.Min. from Bethel University in Congregational Counseling and Catechetics.

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