Parable of The Good Samaritan, by Father Basil William Maturin

Jesus replied, “A man fell victim to robbers as he went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. They stripped and beat him and went off leaving him half-dead. A priest happened to be going down that road, but when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. Likewise a Levite came to the place, and when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. But a Samaritan traveler who came upon him was moved with compassion at the sight. He approached the victim, poured oil and wine over his wounds and bandaged them. Then he lifted him up on his own animal, took him to an inn and cared for him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper with the instruction, ‘Take care of him. If you spend more than what I have given you, I shall repay you on my way back.’ Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?”

He answered, “The one who treated him with mercy.”

Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

– Luke 10:30-37

* * *

The Parable of the Good Samaritan was spoken by our Lord in answer to the question, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ But that question itself was asked by the Lawyer who put it with a view to evading a difficulty. He had asked of Christ the question that had been put to Him on several occasions by different inquirers, ‘What shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ Our Lord’s answer was a surprise to him by its simplicity and its directness. It was probably put as a kind of leading question, rather in a controversial spirit than for the purpose of receiving any instruction from the Great Teacher. He asked it ‘tempting Him,’ not necessarily with any malicious intention, but rather with a view to opening an interesting religious discussion.

But our Lord’s answer did not lend itself to such a discussion. It was too simple, too practical, and quite impossible to controvert ‘You, a scribe, a student of the Law, need not ask such a question. You know what the Law commands; do it and you shall live. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and your neighbour as yourself. The standard which you have set yourself is a true one; live up to it’ But the Lawyer will not let the matter end here. This following out of the Law in its lofty and wide-reaching commands, presented a difficulty to him. It was not as we might have supposed, and as would have been natural, a moral difficulty; it was an intellectual one. He was able, he felt, to satisfy the requirements of the Law as to loving God with all his heart and soul and strength, and he was able, too, to love his neighbour as himself; the only difficulty he had found in his effort to live up to this exalted standard lay in the question Who is my neighbour? The heart that could rise to so perfect a love to God as the Law required and so well regulated a love for man, was held in check by an intellectual difficulty as to the limit and extent to which this love was to reach. ‘Who is my neighbour?’ No one cares to waste his love on unworthy objects: that, indeed, is only natural; but this man did not care to give his love outside of the limits of the Law’s requirements; he would love those whom it was necessary to love in order that he might keep the letter of the Law and inherit eternal life, but not one other.

He had, it appeared, no real desire to love at all. He did not love men because he found them so lovable and because the spontaneous utterance of his heart bade him love them; he could go in and out amongst his fellow creatures, this man who found no difficulty in loving God with all his heart and soul and strength, with no natural outflow of love towards them; but so completely had he his heart under control, that any whom the Law commanded him to love he could and did love, but none else! This was the idea of love which possessed his mind when he gave so admirable a summary of the Law, the same, indeed, as our Lord Himself had given. But it is obvious that his conception of the love to be given, whether to God or man, was a very different one from our Lord’s. His question was verily a revelation of the state of his soul. It seems almost incredible that a man should have expressed in such noble words the true inner meaning of the Law and should have so mean and poor a conception of what it involved. Had he asked another question, not ‘Who is my neighbour?’ but, ‘How shall I get this power of loving him?’ he would but have put into words the question that every devout man and woman longs to have answered. But this scribe found no such difficulty as that He had all the love that God or man could demand of him; it flowed at full flood. His only difficulty was the intellectual one, as to what persons he was under the obligation of loving and whom he might leave out unloved – perhaps hated!

How different is this concise, prim, self-satisfied Jew in face of the wide-sweeping and unyielding requirements of the Law, from Saint Paul. This man had apparently succeeded in bringing the vast and complex powers of his nature under the measure of the Law’s requirements, to his own complete satisfaction. He had stretched himself to the letter of its commands, or, rather, cramped himself within the limits of the letter, and had found within it the serenity of moral self-approval. Whatever difficulties arose in his mind were of a purely intellectual character as to the meaning of certain terms which it used. There was no moral dissatisfaction wakened in his soul as it stood before the stem words written upon stone, at once commanding and condemning. Saint Paul, on the contrary, though he, too, ‘as touching the Law,’ was ‘blameless,’ felt how utterly it failed to give him any deliverance from the sense of moral condemnation; ‘it became to him rather the deadliest and most terrible of evils.’ When it ‘came’ to him, when he really came to understand what Law was, the sin he once thought dead in him revived in the presence of this restraining law and ‘slew him,’ so that the commandment, ‘ordained to life,’ he found to be unto death. (Romans 7:9) For this Law, with all its awful power, wakes in him another and a mightier law, ‘a law in his members,’ a law of lawlessness, an intolerance of all restraint, a force of resistance that no mechanical power of repression can restrain. And this lawlessness, this impossibility of subjection to Law, is the very bent of his nature. It is his very self, and yet it is not himself There is in him another and a better self that delights in Law, longs to obey it, and yet cannot enable him, the whole man, to obey it. And so he finds within him a terrible strife, a conflict between good and evil, light and darkness, law and lawlessness, conscience and will, that rends him in twain and forces from him, in the misery that it wakes in every fibre of his moral being, the exceeding great and bitter cry, ‘Oh, wretched man that I am, who will deliver me?’

Truly, these two Jews, who each of them lived under the same Law, and each with a certain amount of self-approval as to the observance of its letter, had gained very different experiences in the same school. The one, struggling with this Law that showed him the depth of evil that was within him, and also its own incapacity to help, face to face with Christ, cries out for deliverance; the other has but a little flutter of intellectual perplexity, that ruffles the surface of a nature otherwise at rest in its mild self-complacency.

Now, how was such a man to be dealt with, and how was his question to be answered? He was doubtless sincere and, in perfect unconsciousness of the situation; ‘willing to justify himself,’ he put a question which exposed him for all time to the most severe condemnation.

How, then, was such a question as he proposed, and manifestly conceived worthy of consideration, to be answered? No doubt our Lord might have told him that such a question implied a lack of love, or he might have answered his question categorically by telling him that every man whom he met was his neighbour. But such an answer would, in fact, have proved useless, for if he was prepared to extend to everyone in the world in obedience to our Lord the kind of love which he imagined the Law demanded, the only love apparently he knew anything about, neither he nor the world would have been any the better for it.

No, the answer to his question, if it is to do him any good, must go deeper than removing any imagined difficulties as to the limit or range of the claim of neighbourship. His was one of those many cases in which men, honestly no doubt, but very mistakenly, attribute their difficulties to intellectual perplexities, when they are, in fact, moral.

It would do this man no good to be told who is his neighbour. He imagines, if only he had a satisfactory answer to that question, he would not lack in fulfilling towards his neighbour all the stem and exacting requirements of the Law; but his question shows how hopelessly he had deceived himself, and that what he needs to learn is not who is his neighbour, but what is the neighbourly spirit He misunderstood the cause of his difficulty in fulfilling the Law. It was not instruction he needed; it was conversion. The difficulty lay in the heart, not in the head.

And, therefore, our Lord does not answer his question; he doesn’t touch upon what this man thought was his one great difficulty; but quietly and with extraordinary insight and tact, scarcely allowing the man at the moment to perceive the fulness of the rebuke He was ministering to him, he appeals directly to his heart and human instincts. He draws for this stultified Jew, whose nature was fast losing all that was freshest and most human, stiffened and stifled by legal technicalities, an exquisite picture of human nature, warm and overflowing with kindliness and pity, putting to itself no chilling questions of whether such acts are necessary or whether this wounded and bleeding fellow-creature comes under the legal definition of a neighbour or not, but giving full play to all the best instincts of his nature. How fresh the picture is; how bracing the atmosphere for this cramped, self-conscious Jew. How healthy and invigorating. All the petty squabbles between Jew and Samaritan, all the national and religious bitterness in a moment are forgotten; a true and healthy human heart is touched by the sight of human suffering, and, yielding to the spontaneous impulses of nature, stoops to help the sufferer. Every detail of this exquisite picture stands in quiet and rebuking contrast to the Lawyer’s question; there is in it all no question of fulfilling what is required or obeying a command, each act comes fresh from the heart; he does what he does because it is a pleasure to him to do it – he ‘bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee.’ He lavishes upon him his care, never feeling he has done enough; this suffering man appeals to his heart, and the heart answers fully, spontaneously, royally.

With one master-stroke our Lord draws the contrast between such men as His questioner and such a spirit as he displayed, and this fresh and vigorous Samaritan. The priest and the Levite, the representatives of legalism as well as the impersonation of its spirit, ‘came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side.’ There is a refinement, and at the same time a contrast, so ludicrous as almost to amount to satire in the way in which our Lord revealed the Jew to himself in this episode; he did not say that is what you would do, still puzzling your brains over the question whether this man, bleeding to death, is your neighbour or not; but it would have been impossible for the man not to have felt the meaning and to have acknowledged the truth of what it implied. And in the depths of the Lawyer’s nature, almost crushed and stifled by the false method of his system, the spark of true human-kindness and sympathy still burnt, however feebly. Our Lord makes a bold appeal to it and it responds: ‘Which of these three was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves, and he said. He that showed mercy on him.’ When the appeal was made directly to his moral nature, and the revelation was made to him at once of what he was and what he ought to be, he saw the truth and acknowledged it

This was indeed the very method of the Incarnation itself; when men blinded and misusing their lives and wasting their strength in unprofitable speculations were brought face to face with the true ideal of manhood, they bowed before it and accepted it

So our Lord, instead of answering this Jew who was perplexing his mind with intellectual quibbles, brings before him a warm and living picture of true human-kindness and neighbourliness, and he recognized it and no doubt perceived that the secret reason of his question was that he himself was altogether wanting in it.

But we may proceed to inquire. What was the cause of such a strange spiritual condition as the Lawyer’s question implied? How is it possible for a man, evidently desiring to do right, to get into such an unreal state as he displayed, living under the Law of God, striving to obey it, and doing so in such a way as to defeat its whole purpose? The Law had developed in this man just the very spirit that was most opposed to it He himself said truly that the Law might be summed up under the twofold duty of love to God and love to man, and, scarcely had he given this admirable and spiritual summary of the Law, than by a leading question he proceeds to display not only an ignorance of what that love is which the Law was meant to develop, but an entire misapprehension of its whole character. What he understood by love was not love at all, unless, indeed, it was a refined form of self-love.

On the other hand, the despised Samaritan, who had not the spiritual advantage, of the Jew, had that in which the Jew was so signally lacking. As Saint Paul said, ‘the Gentiles, which followed not after righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness, which is of faith. But Israel, which followed after the law of righteousness, hath not attained to the law of righteousness.’ (Romans 9:30)

The Jew which followed after the Law, which bade him love his neighbour, shows in the Parable an entire lack of such love, and the Samaritan steps to the front and teaches the Jew the very chief lesson of his own Law.

The reason is surely not far to seek. All external laws of restraint and prohibition are only of value in so far as they help to develop a strong, positive, healthy life. The Law implies an unhealthy condition, it checks the unhealthy and morbid action of nature, but only that its currents may be directed into their proper channels. Passion is ever trying to find fresh outlets for its own indulgence; the Law stands over them and says, ‘Thou shalt not.’ But the purpose of all these restraints is that that life which thus tries to find for itself wrong ways of indulgence, being checked and held back by the Law, may flow out freely and fully in its own deep channels of positive and healthy action; if it is not doing this the Law is only a meaningless restraint, curbing and cramping, not developing, life. We bandage a broken limb that the bone may knit underneath, and that at last it may regain its own healthy life; when the bandages have done their work, we take them off. We put ourselves under a rule of prayer that we may develop a prayerful spirit We check our tongues from uncharitable gossip, that we may develop the spirit of charity; we force ourselves to give conscientiously that we may develop the spirit of liberality. But if we merely do these external acts and never try to develop the interior spirit, which gives to them their only real value, then we make these acts an end in themselves, and we never advance any further; the very Law which was meant to lead us on blocks the way; we get entangled in its meshes, and instead of developing it stifles all higher aspirations; we become satisfied, proud, boastful of doing and not doing things which are purposeless except in so far as they are preparatory to something else. The positive movements of life become checked and stifled by those very things which were intended to clear the way for their action.

This was the great cause of the failure of the Jews: they rested in the Law, they ‘made their boast in the Law.’ The Law was meant to be ‘a schoolmaster to bring them to Christ,’ they allowed it to come between them and Him of Whom it spoke, towards Whom it pointed and for Whom it was meant to be a preparation. They made it an end in itself, discussed its details, rested in it, as if in the mere observance of its letter they were fulfilling its end. And thus that which ought to have developed the positive life of action and directed all its currents to their proper end stopped the flow and turned it inward upon itself.

So with this scribe. He failed to grasp the meaning of his own summary of the Law, he had no doubt learnt it by rote without understanding it; had he really understood it he could not have asked the question he did. For what his own words really meant was this: The Law forbids me to do anything that checks or injures, or is directly opposed to love. But the reason it forbids all this is, that love may flow forth, pure, strong, unadulterated. The meaning of the last six commandments is. Restrain yourself from all that can injure your neighbour, so as to make room for the outrush of the mighty stream of love in all its strength. The discipline of the Law is to destroy every unneighbourly act or feeling, that the neighbourly spirit may flow out unrestrained. But this scribe grasped nothing of this; he had never got beyond details. He could do what he was told; he could never initiate. He could not see great principles, principles of positive energetic action, underlying the details of the legal prohibitions; when, somehow or other, he had got hold of a principle he didn’t understand it, he couldn’t apply it. It was too large a thing for his mind to grasp or his hands to handle; it was crushed, lifeless and powerless, into the narrowing influence of his negative system of morality. His mind was like the undeveloped mind of a child, he could not generalize, he could not see beyond the details of the immediate command. If his question, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ meant anything, it must have meant, Whom may I not murder, or steal from, or bear false witness against? For, if these things meant love, and if this love could be limited in its application and be applied only to a few select persons to be found here and there through life, then he was free from all these restrictions towards the rest of mankind.

He looks at the wounded traveller with untouched sympathies; this was an extraordinary case; if he was not commanded to help wounded travellers, there was no spontaneous instinct that bid him do it Probably in the act of returning from the service of the Temple, he passes by on the other side. The Law, as he failed to enter into its spirit, crushed and stifled him. Truly these Jews needed to be set free from the Law, and that could be done for them only in one way – by bringing them into personal contact with the Lawgiver. And then their hearts are stirred and wakened with all the sweet freedom of men that waken from a long and dreary slavery. For they learn that in loving Him their whole nature is set free for all that is best and noblest in it; if they love they can do what they pleases.