Tullian Tchividjian, senior pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, provided a notable explication of the parable of the Good Samaritan this week. Tchividjian argues for a corrective to the popular understanding of the parable: “Jesus wants us to identify with every person in the parable except the good Samaritan. He reserves that role for himself.”
As Tchividjian puts it, the priest and the Levite pass by the stricken man, “preferring not to get their hands dirty.” As the title of my latest book might suggest, I take the positive lesson from this parable that we are called to not be like the priest and the Levite, and are to be a church, as Pope Francis recently put it, that is “bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.” I have, in fact, previously lauded the Good Samaritan as an exemplar of effective compassion.
But this common interpretation is precisely what Tchividjian wants to correct. For Tchividjian, this story is about the vertical aspect of justification, not the horizontally, other-focused reality of sanctification. This understanding, says Tchividjian, “puts Jesus’ final exhortation to ‘go and do likewise’ in perspective.” This imperative, “Go and do likewise,” is then “not a word of invitation to be nice. It’s a word of condemnation” in answer to the lawyer’s self-justifying question.
Pastor Tchividjian emphasizes the parable as a condemning, first use of the Law kind of story. I think this is a legitimate understanding of the story, and he’s right to point to the kind of righteousness that would be required to be justified: perfect righteousness. Only Jesus has that, and in that sense it is true that “Jesus and Jesus alone is the Good Samaritan.”
And yet to stop there and take this to be the exclusive and sole import of the parable seems wrong. Tchividjian is right to make us stop for a moment to consider our own propensity for self-justification and works righteousness.
But the church doesn’t stop at proclamation of the first use of the Law. There’s also a use of the Law that calls us to follow the Good Samaritan, to get our hands dirty in his service, and however imperfectly and impartially to be as much like him as we can. And Jesus Christ himself stands in between these two uses.
Tchividjian’s reading of the imperative “Go and do likewise” simply as a condemnation reminded me of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s reflections on discipleship and cheap grace. Bonhoeffer inveighed against what he called modern sophistry’s evasion of discipleship. “Thus, Jesus would call: come out!–but we would understand that he actually meant: stay in!–of course, as one who has inwardly come out,” wrote Bonhoeffer.
In his context, Bonhoeffer was concerned with a particular Lutheran temptation to radically emphasize grace to an extent that left no room, in his view, for Christian discipleship: “Being Lutheran should mean that discipleship is left to the legalists, the Reformed, or the enthusiasts, all for the sake of grace.”
Tchividjian is right to temper the common tendency to moralize the parables too quickly and easily. These are difficult teachings and our inability to “go and do likewise” in any kind of proper fashion ought to be convicting. But neither should we take Jesus’ command to “go and do likewise” to mean that we should simply “stay in,” albeit as ones who have “inwardly come out.”
There’s a way in which the first and the third uses of the Law work together in the life of the believer, dying to self and rising to Christ daily. We need both, not just one or the other, and the one leads to the other and back again. That is the rhythm of the Christian life, a life following the Good Samaritan.
Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012), and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness (Christian’s Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous volumes. Jordan also serves as associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research of Calvin Theological Seminary.
The Calvinist International is a forum for research, resourcement, and renewal of Christian wisdom.