This essay was originally published at Theologia.
The story of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10:25-37) is one of the best known and most loved of Jesus’ parables. I am not going to attempt to exegete the passage, as that has been done admirably and ably by others. Rather, I want to briefly examine what bearing the passage might have on current debates over the biblical doctrine of justification. In particular, I want to connect Jesus’ teaching with the Pauline epistles.
The passage begins with a question about inheriting eternal life. Jesus points the inquisitor to the law. For Jesus, the Mosaic Torah spelled out the path to eternal blessing, and when the lawyer quotes the two great commandments, Jesus commends him for responding correctly . But from there, the story takes a different twist.
When the Jewish lawyer asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” (Lk. 10:29), Luke tells us he desired to justify himself. In this context, the kind of self-justification in view might mean no more than the fact that the lawyer wanted to win his debate with Jesus, to be vindicated in the court of public Israelite opinion by trapping the Teacher in some heresy. But I think we are right to see Luke referring to justification in the full theological sense. The whole discussion, after all, revolves around inheriting eternal life (Lk. 10:25). The man was hoping to be justified before God at the last day and so he asked a question he thought might secure that .
How so? The lawyer focuses on the second greatest commandment: love your neighbor as yourself. When the lawyer asks, “Who is my neighbor?” he is obviously thinking he can limit his obligations to love to his Jewish neighbors (or more specifically, Jews who are ritually clean). He is suggesting that Jesus has been neighborly to all the wrong sorts of people (cf. Lk. 15:1-2). He is distorting the law so that it comes to mean in practice the opposite of what it actually says.
We can derive this from the story that Jesus tells in response to the lawyer’s question. In the parable, the priest and the Levite avoid the mugged traveler because they cannot tell if he is dead or alive. (It goes without saying that the priest and Levite in the parable represent the lawyer and those like him.) These two Jewish men in the story dare not risk ritual impurity by touching a corpse! Only the clean are “neighbors” to be loved in their view. For them, the obligations to love are hemmed in by Jewish exclusivism. The desire to preserve Jewishness trumps the demand to love neighbor. They put Jewishness ahead of faithfulness and in doing so pervert the real covenantal meaning of being Jewish and become unfaithful.
The parable Jesus tells stands this narrow view on its head. The Samaritan ends up helping the Jew! The Samaritan shows he is a true Jew, though he is uncircumcised. And the Jews in the story prove themselves to be non-Jews (cf. Rom. 2:25-29). According to Jesus, the love of Israel and Israel’s God is not to be restricted only to ritually pure Jews. Rather, God’s love for the whole world is to manifest itself through Israel’s service on behalf of the nations. In other words, Jews should be good neighbors to Samaritans and in this manner will fulfill their God-given vocation of serving as a conduit of blessing to Gentiles (cf. Gen. 12:1ff).
Thus, Jesus is presenting the lawyer with a different way of being Israel, and in doing so, implicitly warns that Israel herself might end up half-dead in a ditch if she does not adopt Jesus’ alternate way of living as the covenant people . God will ensure his love is shown to the world, even if he has to recruit Gentiles to do so! If the Jews reject their covenantal calling, they will be cast off and judged while others will come and take their place in the kingdom (cf. Lk. 13:22-30).
The lawyer believes justification is only available for Jews. He wants to justify himself as a good, Torah-abiding citizen of Israel. He desires to be justified “by works of the law,” to use a Pauline phrase — even if these works keep one from helping a stranger in need. He hopes to find eternal life within the sphere of Judaism. His mistake actually parallels Peter’s in Galatians 2:11-21. Just as the lawyer desired to insulate himself from Gentiles (or any who were unclean) and restrict God’s love and favor to the circle of Judaism, so Peter withdrew from table fellowship with the Gentiles. In both cases, the covenant was disfigured by ethnic exclusivism and the Lord of all creation was degraded into a national mascot for Israel.
But for Jesus, justification is apart from works of Torah. Justification is not found in doing anything particularly Jewish (e.g., maintaining Jewish purity laws). Israel had a special role to play in redemptive history, to be sure, but she never had a monopoly on God’s blessing. The boundary of God’s grace cannot be confined to those the lawyer regarded as his neighbors; it breaks those boundaries and spills over to the nations. The Samaritan — despite being a half-breed outside the nation of Israel — has clearly received the grace of God and is fulfilling Israel’s task of passing it along to others.
In other words, this whole encounter in Luke 10 teaches the same great truths about justification that Paul hammers home in more didactic fashion in Romans 3-4, 10-11 and Galatians 2-4. In those epistles, Paul argues that justification must be apart from works of Torah because if it was by works of Torah it would only be available to one people group – Israel – since she alone possessed Torah. God’s desire, though, is to bless all the families of the earth with the same gift of righteousness he credited to Abraham even before he became a Jew (Rom. 4:1-12; Gal. 3:8). God’s intention is to be known not as the God of the Jews only, but as the God of the Gentiles as well (Rom. 3:27-30) .
Jesus and Paul make the same point, then. Jesus shows justification is not by works of Torah. It is not by living Jewishly, by maintaining barriers between Israel and the nations. In fact, justification is the very doctrine that breaks down those barriers. The parable of the Good Samaritan reveals a righteousness received apart from the Torah, even though Torah and the prophets bear witness to it (cf. Rom. 3:21ff). As Paul argues, a justification that is by faith is a justification that is available to all, Jew and Gentile alike. The lawyer (like the priest and Levite in the parable), being ignorant of God’s righteousness in Christ, sought to establish a righteousness of his own marked out by his understanding of Torah (Rom. 10:1-4). He sought righteousness (that is, right status in the covenant) in Judaism rather than in Christ (cf. Phil. 3:1-11). For Paul, as for Jesus, the advent of the kingdom of God has brought about a crisis for Israel: Will she choose Torah, which has now been made obsolete, or Christ, who offers a full and complete salvation to all who believe? Will the Jews be loyal to their national identity and insist on maintaining covenant privileges for themselves to the exclusion of Gentiles? Or will they move into God’s new creation and be loyal to his Messiah and the new community he is forming around himself?
But the story Jesus spins ties into Paul’s teaching in another way as well. The lawyer’s attitude to the Torah reveals that he believes hearing the law is enough. Jesus unmasks this by showing it is the doer of the law who is justified. The priest and Levite were not justified in the story because they failed to act on behalf of a stranger in need. The Samaritan was justified because he was good neighbor. Merely possessing Torah and other badges of Jewish identity will not avail in God’s law court at the last day; these precious gifts had to be combined with a living, loving, obedient faith.
This is the consistent teaching of Scripture: at the last day, those who have loved and obeyed by faith will be justified (cf. Mt. 7:13-27; 25:31-46; 2 Cor. 5:10). Those who have shown mercy will receive mercy in the judgment (cf. Mt. 7:2; Jas. 2:12-13). Those who have forgiven others will receive forgiveness themselves (cf. Mt. 6:15-15). Our works do not form the ground of (or basis of) our final acquittal and vindication – that always rests in God’s covenant promise, fulfilled in Christ — but our works are necessary as signs and tokens of our union with Christ by faith.
The whole story of the Good Samaritan is about how to obtain eternal life, how to be justified at the last day. Jesus is laying out the path that leads to salvation for both Jews and Gentiles. We cannot sap the passage of soteriological significance by turning it into an ethical lesson. Jesus is not another Aesop, telling cute fables with clever morals at the end. We must not forget the broader context of the parable. Jesus is dealing with matters of life and death, of heaven and hell, of the new creation and the lake of fire. Who shall be justified at the last day? The Good Samaritans! Those who have been good neighbors! Those who have practiced love towards others, regardless of race or class! 
Paul translates the story of the Good Samaritan into theological discourse in Romans 2 (“The doers of the law will be justified”). James translates it into practical exhortation in James 2 (“Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead . . . You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only”). But the point is always the same: Justification will be awarded at the last day to those who have shown forth the obedience of faith. This obedience reveals itself especially in caring for those in need. It manifests itself in the realization that everyone I cross paths with is my neighbor and is to be an object of my love and compassion. God has rescued us and restored us. He has fed and clothed us. If we desire to remain his people, let us go and do likewise towards others. Let us put into practice Jesus’ radical way of being Israel for the sake of the world. Let us be Good Samaritans!
1. Jesus was not proposing the law as a hypothetical way of attempting to merit eternal life so that the lawyer would recognize his sin and his need for some other path to salvation. Perfect obedience is not in view, neither is earning anything from God. Jesus and the lawyer both agree that eternal salvation is an inherited gift and that some form of obedience is necessary to receive that gift. If Jesus was trying to steer the man clear of some form of merit theology, he would have told a very different kind of parable! See my essay “Why the Law-Gospel Paradigm is Flawed” and Mark Horne’s essay “Correcting Two Mistakes of the Law-Gospel Hermeneutic.”
2. In other words, I think we should tie together the lawyer’s original question about eternal life in verse 25 with his desire to be justified in verse 29. His pursuit of eternal life is identical to his pursuit of (eschatological) justification.
3. This theme of “a new way of being Israel” is pervasive in Luke’s gospel. In particular, Luke’s Jesus challenges Jewish nationalism and zeal that desired to cast off Roman rule and claim independence. Much of Jesus’ teaching (e.g., Lk. 6:27ff; 23:27-31) was aimed at steering Israel in a different socio-political direction, but it was counsel that she refused to heed to her own destruction (cf. Lk. 21).
4. In light of Luke 10, we could paraphrase Rom. 3:27ff this way: “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from deeds of Torah. Or is he the God of priests and Levites only? Is he also the God of the Samaritans? Yes, of the Samaritans also, since there is one God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. Do we make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law in its deepest meaning of love for God and neighbor.”
5. The real insult in the passage, of course, is that Jesus suggests that Jews must become like the Samaritan in order to be justified. Jesus is setting aside the entire ethnic wall erected by the Torah, and getting to the heart of covenant fidelity (cf. Eph. 2:11ff).