The point we are seeking to establish becomes so clear that we deny ourselves the layers of meaning waiting to be discovered and we are insensitive to situation, tone, and intent. To the Pharisees, who had great facility in memorizing and quoting Scripture, Jesus said, “But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’ ” (Matthew 8:13 cf Hosea 6:6). To the experts the citation was well known but its meaning eluded them. “Go and learn” is our motto whenever we open our copies of the Word of God, and the Spirit of God is sought as our Teacher. The Bible is dangerous territory without our divine guide.
Words have meaning and situational and grammatical context are keys to their significance and nuance. Words are easy to scan and recite but not so easy to comprehend without reflection and appropriation. They may become symbols unaccompanied by insight. Frequent and flippant usage reduces their force. Great truths become trifles. Jesus detects this in persons he encountered who repeat expressions of profound worth and seriousness in terms of triteness and sentimentality e.g. “‘Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and raised you.’ He replied, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it’ ” (Luke 11: 27-28). “Blessed is the man who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God” (Luke14:15). This statement elicited the Parable of the Great Banquet, a warning against presumption.
The Parable of the Good Samaritan, in its setting and direction, is demonstrative of the adventurous and explorative approach to Scripture that investigates and peruses the word for the gains that it can yield – and these can never be exhausted. No one ever really knows the Bible, just as a swimmer can never cover every inch of the Pacific Ocean. We are always just dipping our toes. The lawyer approaches Jesus with the cocky air of the expert and with no sense of his ignorance and grave deficiencies moral and intellectual. His arrogance is not mere second nature, it is his first and essential nature that has no grasp of the necessity of its salvation. Jesus has no regard for his assumed expertise as a scholar. Head knowledge may or may not be of value. It can be a great asset or it may be the possession of an ass who doesn’t have the sense to profit from it.
Jesus never resorts to flattery on the basis of appearance or reputation. He aims only and always at the heart. That is where the truth of and about person actually resides. He knows our person and makes it known to us. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart” (Luke 10:27). Everyone, in the light of this summons, knows that they do not and cannot comply. Haters of the Lord do not care. People of shallow conviction cast the matter aside and hope for the best. Lovers of the Lord mourn the littleness and inconstancy of their love. Our Godward obligation immediately casts us in the category of sinner. The lawyer knows he is caught out and becomes evasive. His proud self esteem is under threat and he must defend it with what is a blatantly revealing giveaway. He shirks the matter of his relationship to God and retorts, “Who is my neighbour?” when Jesus advises that an evidence of true godliness is love to “neighbour as yourself”. The defensive ploy discloses that he is callous at heart and complacent as to his condition. A child of God is instinctively merciful to his fellows. Ultimately the word of God gouges out of us, readily or reluctantly, our true spiritual disposition and Jesus has the lawyer hopping from foot to foot with discomfort. He is in fact a legalist without any notion of grace, grace as a gift and graciousness as a virtue. His approval with God, and the rewards he expects, are calculated on the basis of performance (sacrifices rendered).
Jesus wants to bring the lawyer to the point of felt and admitted helplessness and moral destitution, for nothing is of moral worth without pure love toward God and man, and this is now a natural impossibility to sinful, selfish, men who are turned in upon themselves and have no authentic, disinterested, concern for others. The heart of man has to be stripped of all self righteousness and evacuated of all self reliance. Humbleness is the preparation for eternal life and that attitude is a God wrought miracle within the human heart. The deeply ingrained hubris of the Jewish legalist, his sense of superiority and personal success as a human being, has to be demolished and Jesus assails it with a parable that verges on insult.
The Lord’s example of mercy, divine mercy through human agency, is not another Jew whom the lawyer could naturally respect and even applaud, but an individual whom he would immediately despise. The lawyer boasts rectitude on his supposed conformity to the law. In his view the Samaritan stands outside the sphere of the law and therefore outside the love of God. He has no possibility of acceptance with God and is to be loathed. Jesus is showing the type of person whose heart is closer to God than that of the self congratulating Jew. His example contradicts every Jewish expectation. It is the heart that matters. This is what Jesus is teaching, and the heart’s fundamental inclination is a gauge of its proximity to (justified state), or distance from God.
And more than this, Jesus is asserting that the heart that is truly humbled and rendered lowly recognizes grace in, and receives grace from, human instruments that it would normally regard as beneath contempt. When we are truly aware of our poverty, and are down and out, we receive help from wherever it comes. The egotistical stuffing that fills us has been knocked out of us. This is why we welcome strangers and bother with visitors as congregations. They may be possessors and bearers of grace if given an opening. They may even be angels. It is a simple Samaritan ministry to extend a kindly greeting and proceed to greater compassion if necessary. This is the mark of saintliness, not fussy exclusiveness and selectivity as to whom we associate with, as Jesus shows in the strange bonding of Jew and Samaritan in the Jew’s dependence and the Samaritan’s lack of discrimination.
There is a wideness in God’s mercy and Christian behaviour reflects that fact. Go and do likewise is the Christian mandate (v.37). But Christian action and obedience is not meritorious in terms of winning the favour of God. It is the fruit of grace. If people understand the parable as law-keeping that obtains a reward in the Pharisaic sense – a claim for commendation – then they stand where the lawyer stood in the doomed zone of legalism. The parable points to Jesus as an “unlikely” Saviour from our perspective, human and humble, but he is our only helper, and being utterly helpless ourselves we must submit ourselves to his hands and extend the hand of compassion to others. This parable is more than moral instruction; it treats of moral reconstruction and speaks of “outsiders” being accepted in the kingdom – not of works but by grace, not of merit but by mercy.