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Following the Good Samaritan

Vincent Willem van Gogh 022-2Tullian 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.

By Jordan Ballor

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.

9 replies on “Following the Good Samaritan”

I think you are closer than Tullian here, although both of you are more learned scholars than myself. I think Andrew Perriman’s narrative-historical perspective gets us closer to what this parable was getting at then the moralistic allegory (

“The parable of the good Samaritan, for example, in its “literal” sense, is not a general allegory about religious hypocrisy and irreligious compassion, though it can easily be read to such effect. Jesus’ point was much more precise and much more political: establishment Judaism had failed in its calling to embody—among other things—the compassion of YHWH; indeed, the Jews were likely to be put to shame by the righteousness of the Samaritans. It is one of the ways in which Jesus explains his conviction that establishment Judaism would soon find its house left desolate. Paul was to make the same argument in Romans: the Jews of the diaspora should have set a shining example of ethical-religious rectitude throughout the pagan world; instead, they would be put to shame on the day of wrath by the instinctive righteousness of Lawless pagans.”

Jesus was calling out the Jews because their actions not longer matched their calling and they were soon to pay the price for that failure. The lawyer wanted to know what was required to enter life in the age to come and Jesus was highlighting the gap between the call of God on the people of Israel and the actions of the corrupt generation who had valued political stability and ethnic identity over faithfulness.

In the same way, the church today is called to be a witness to the one true and living God, maker of heaven and earth. We are likewise called to reflect the love and compassion of God into the world.

Right. You can then take this parable as a kind of explication of Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees in Matthew 23:23: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.”

When Jesus told Zacheus that salvation had come to his house that day when Zacheus practiced the repentant fruits of mercy and justice in how he disposed of his goods to the poor and oppressed, I doubt Jesus was teaching about self- justification or the impossiblity of performance of the law. I admire Tullian’s desire to exalt the grace of God in justification. The lengths of interpretation he goes to do so really rob God of His glorious grace in what he does when the Lord changes a man’s heart to desire what God desires which are mercy and justice (that truth is stated more eloquently by God in Jeremiah ).

[…] Jordan Ballor’s Response to Tullian Tchividjian’s Take on the Good Samaritan Parable Ballor writes, “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’.” I would agree with Ballor here. […]

Jesus set the parable on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, a journey he was about to make, his last journey. He is the outcast by whom we are saved. He was answering the lawyer’s question. ‘ What shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ which otherwise goes unanswered. He paints a picture of our condition without Christ, and shows the that we must allow him to pick us up and bind our wounds and set us right. Of course, in doing so he also shows us how the church is to follow after him, but that is not the primary purpose of the parable.

Surely the Good Samaritan parable is a teaching on mercy as reflected the nature of God in Christ, and what Christ came to accomplish as One rich in mercy to sinners. It is also a rebuke to those in practice that actually opposed largeness of God’s mercy by way of protective screens of mechanical scruples or ceremonial trivia. They had in fact violated the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy and faithfulness. This parable in my mind is an extension of Matthew 5:7, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” (The woes as well as blessing of it added in Luke 6 can also be seen in the negative points of this same parable)..The justification approach, in my mind, it to read theological Paul into fundamental Jesus as a way to avoid the (his?) bug-a-boo of moralism. Tchividjian thus has the right biblical truth, as well as concern, but he has the wrong text to promote it.

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