I’ve recently heard two messages back-to-back on the Good Samaritan. Both of them taught the traditional interpretation: be the Good Samaritan and don’t be the priest and Levite. That interpretation churns my stomach because it ignores a couple very important contextual markers.
1. Jesus is answering a question about inheriting eternal life, specifically, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The question drips with the Law: “How can I justify myself?” Luke even tells us that the lawyer was seeking to justify himself by asking who his neighbor was (10:29). That is to say, he wanted to hear that he was on the right track. Jesus’ answer was so far beyond what the man expected as to leave anybody disheartened, especially someone looking for “Atta boy!”
2. It’s easy to vilify the priest and the Levite, but it leaves out their obligation to the Law. The two religious leaders would become unclean if they touched a dead body (see Numbers 19:11 ff.). Further, the priest was specifically forbidden to touch a dead body, except those closest to him, as part of being consecrated (see Leviticus 21:1 ff.). Though the man was not dead, the description of him being “half-dead” indicates that it probably would be an easy mistake to make. In order to be made right with God, the religious leaders had to follow the Law.
If anything, I think this parable points out the folly of trying to do good works to be made right with God. We can easily miss the big picture in trying to justify ourselves through our actions. Teaching this parable as what Christians ought to do simply replaces the old Law (with its insurmountable limitations) for a new one with insurmountable limitations.
Replacing the law of grace with demands for good works replaces Jesus, which is a mistake I do not want to make in my life or teaching.