The message of the Good Samaritan is not “try harder”

August 25, 2017

I started a new Bible study last Sunday morning at my church on the parables of Jesus. The first one we looked at was the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37. At one point, I asked the group what they thought the main difference was between the priest and the Levite, on the one hand, and the Samaritan on the other. They gave me the expected answer: “The Samaritan stopped and helped the injured victim.”

But is that true? Is that the main difference?

I don’t think so. The main difference is Jesus’ words in verse 33: “But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion.” He had compassion. As I told the class, Jesus was constantly teaching—see the Sermon on the Mount, for instance—that what counts is not our actions so much as our heart. Even good things we do—giving alms, praying, tithing, obeying the Law—can be corrupted by sin. And even seemingly small sins are worse because of the condition of our hearts: Lust, for example, is the spiritual equivalent of adultery. Anger is on the same spectrum as murder.

Therefore, the biggest difference between the Samaritan and the two clergymen was also the condition of the Samaritan’s heart. By all means, he stopped to help, and the help he offered was risky, costly, and self-sacrificial. But he did so because he had compassion. As I told the class, he could have done everything that he did, for example, to prove to himself or to others that he was a virtuous person—from a place of pride. In which case, his actions, as good and costly as they were, wouldn’t count in God’s eyes. You can’t fake compassion, after all. Either you have it or you don’t.

This interpretation helps me. Like many, if not most, preachers, I’ve often boiled down Jesus’ message in this parable to this: “Try harder!” How many “try harder” sermons have you heard on this parable? And since “trying harder,” like all my efforts at self-improvement, is doomed to fail in the long run, I just feel guilty. “Why am I such a failure as a Christian?”

But this parable reminds me that the problem is in my heart. A change there will require miraculous intervention. “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”

This got me thinking about another parable (or close enough to a parable), The Sheep and the Goats. The message there is often construed as “try harder” but it’s much worse: “Try harder or else burn in hell!” And again, I’ve heard those sermons before.

Before I go further, please don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. Good works must accompany genuine faith in Christ, but they will do so as evidence of that faith. They are, as Jesus says in Matthew 7:17, “good fruit.” The fruit itself doesn’t make a tree healthy; it is, rather, a sign of a healthy tree. The relationship of good works to saving faith is the same.

So I’m happy to say that, at the very least, the Sheep and the Goats, like the Good Samaritan, teaches that good works must accompany saving faith. But it says more than that. Notice verses 37-39: “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you,” etc. Those people identified as sheep were unaware that they were serving Jesus when they “did it unto the least.”

So the message of the parable can’t simply be, “Be like the sheep in this parable or else,” because the very act of trying to be like the sheep is self-defeating: the sheep, please notice, weren’t trying. Whatever loving service they offered, they did so unselfconsciously. They weren’t aware that they were serving the Lord.

Believe me, when I manage to “do it unto the least of these,” I’m often acutely aware that I’m doing it!

My point is, the “sheep” do what they do for the same reason the Good Samaritan does what he does: because they have compassion. The condition of their hearts motivates their actions.

Inasmuch as we fail to do good works, the problem lies in our hearts. Only God can change us there. Let’s pray that he will.

4 Responses to “The message of the Good Samaritan is not “try harder””

  1. Grant Essex Says:

    This is so true. But, it is the linkage between “having compassion” and “getting involved personally” that I like.

    Anyone can see suffering and feel bad for the victim. Getting involved in a way that requires personal sacrifice and commitment is the hard part. It’s not just “proof” of sincerity, it’s the thing that actually helps ease the suffering.

    • brentwhite Says:

      I don’t disagree, although we have no reason to think that the priest and Levite didn’t “feel bad” for the man. As Jesus sees it, compassion, literally “suffering alongside” someone, seems deeper than that: it motivates action.

  2. Tom Harkins Says:

    I like your side point that, to put the matter in James’ terms, “Faith without works is dead.” As James says, what does it profit if someone sees a brother in need, and says, “Be warmed and filled,” but does not provide for those needs? Can such faith save him? So, if there are no “works following,” then our hearts do not “care enough.”

    One difficulty is in “dissecting” between the “feeling” (compassion) and the “proof” of the feeling (actually helping somebody). More importantly, I think, is how do we go about making our hearts “compassionate”? Can’t changing the state of one’s heart take every bit as much “effort” as “putting him on one’s donkey”?

    I take the answer to that problem from what I recall C.S. Lewis to have said about that point. He illustrated from someone struggling to learn Greek. At the start, it is simply hard work and one’s primary motivation for it is to pass the course or make good marks, as opposed to from “a love of Greek.” But what happens then is that upon doing that hard labor long enough, one is enabled to read Homer in the original and enjoy it. At that point, he continues his study primarily for “love of the subject” more so than for “grades.”

    In the same way, it may well be that we “start off” in the direction of love by taking “helpful” actions towards others because “that’s what the Bible says to do,” or “for rewards.” But what we find is that upon doing so to a point, we see what those efforts have accomplished in the person we are helping, and “love for others” begins to “well up inside” as a consequence. So, there is nothing wrong with starting off with a course of conduct that one may care very little for “in and of itself,” but “out of obedience,” or because God promises to reward such efforts. It is in the doing of it that the love is generated, in many instances. Of course, if someone “starts right out” with a heart full of “compassion,” very well for them! But for many, taking the actions may well be the “catalyst” for a loving heart to result.

  3. Grant Essex Says:

    Good points Tom. Good deeds can generate a rewarding feeling within the doer that is totally unexpected. It’s evident whenever we have folks coming back from mission trips saying “I got more out of it than I gave!”

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