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The parable of the Good Samaritan is one of the most popular and well known parables of the Bible. It is so well known that the phrase “good Samaritan” has worked itself into our culture to describe anyone who goes out of their way to help a stranger in need. As well known as that parable is, what sometimes goes unnoticed is the motivation behind Jesus’ telling of the parable.

The narrative account — found in Luke 10:25-37 — begins with a lawyer coming up to Jesus and asking him what he must do to inherit eternal life. There are several things to note right off the bat. First, this man is a lawyer. The concept of a lawyer back then in first century Palestine is much different than the concept of a lawyer here and now. A lawyer in Jesus’ time was someone who was an expert in Jewish law — more of a scholar than a lawyer in the modern understanding.

Secondly, this lawyer was putting Jesus to the test (v. 25). In other words, as an expert in Jewish law, he wanted to see how Jesus would answer his question; whether or not he would give the orthodox reply. This highlights the tension that existed between Jesus and the religious authorities. Oftentimes when Jesus taught, the crowd was astounded at the authority with which he taught. It was said that Jesus taught unlike the Pharisees; he spoke with his own authority. It is clear that this lawyer’s motives in asking this question were not honest. He wasn’t truly seeking an answer to the question. Rather he wished to discredit Jesus and expose him as a false teacher.

Thirdly, note the lawyer’s question: “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” It should be clear that from the wording of this question that Jewish religious life had devolved into a works righteousness program. The law was seen as a means of salvation and keeping the law was the way one “inherited” eternal life. After being asked this question, Jesus — more than likely perceiving that this man was a lawyer and that this was a trick question — turns the tables on him by asking him what is in the law. The lawyer replies by reciting the Great Commandment: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus commends him on his reply!

This is important! Despite the false intentions of the lawyer, he responds correctly. Jesus’ reply was “Do this and you will live.” In other words, if one could indeed love God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength and their neighbor as themselves, they would inherit eternal life. Of course, the unspoken rejoinder to that is no one is capable of fulfilling these commands. The law of love is impossible for human beings to fulfill in their fallen state.

The lawyer’s response to Jesus is very telling. Luke tells us that the lawyer, desiring to justify himself, asks Jesus “Who is my neighbor?” At this point, I want to explore this question, and the motivation behind it, a little more. We all know the rest of the story. Jesus tells a parable to expose the man’s sinful rationalizations. This story is shocking to its hearers because it depicts the religious leaders — priests and levites — as more concerned with their religious observances than in helping a man in dire need. It also portrays a Samaritan (unclean half-breeds from the Jewish point of view) as the hero who saves the day at great cost to himself. The ‘moral’ of the story is that one’s neighbor is everyone we come across.

Back to the lawyer’s motivation. Notice his question was asked in an attempt to justify himself. Self-justification is the hallmark of religious self-righteousness. The lawyer was more concerned with who is my neighbor rather than asking how can I love my neighbor. Self-justification always seeks the loopholes in the moral code. How close can I get to the edge of sin without sinning? This false way of thinking was demolished in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. After the Beatitudes, Jesus expounds on the law by saying “You have heard it said, but I say unto you…” In other words, Jesus corrects many misunderstandings regarding the law. Take for example, murder. The Jews thought that as long as they didn’t actually kill anyone, they were okay regarding the 6th commandment; it didn’t matter if they harbored all kinds of hatred toward their brother as long as they didn’t act on it. Similarly with the 7th commandment, as long as they didn’t actually commit adultery, they were blameless according to the law; even though they lusted after women left and right. Jesus tore that facade of false thinking down because they all flow from a mentality of self-justification (how close can I get to sin without sinning).

Bottom Line: Ultimately what it all comes down to is this: Self-justification has too low a view of the law and God’s holiness and too high a view of man and his ability to keep the law. That is why Jesus confronts self-justifiers with the full force of the law. Self-justifiers will rationalize and maneuver around the law, but in the end they cannot escape the law. Take a moment on what it means to truly love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself. How long can you go in a given day before you violate one or both of those commandments? In private, when it’s just you and God, there is no deception. There is no “how close to the edge of sin can I get and still not sin” with God. He knows the thoughts and intentions of our hearts, and he measures that against his holy standard. We will never justify ourselves through the law; it can only reveal our sin. Justification comes from faith in Jesus Christ who is the only one who perfectly fulfilled the law of love.