Don Carson on the Good Samaritan at NWA

I’m at New Word Alive this week, leading seminars on the gospel and the urban poor. I’ll also be doing some live blogging. Here’s my first post, notes on Don Carson’s evening celebration on the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).

It is vital to read any text in its cultural and literary context. The story of the Good Samaritan has often been read outside its context. We might, for example, think it shows who is a true Christians – a true Christian is the one who shows compassion to the needy. But we need to read it in its context.

The parable in its immediate context

Verses 25-37 are structured into two parallel dialogues. 1. The lawyer asks question. 2. Jesus asks a question. 3. The lawyer responds to Jesus’ question. 4. Jesus responds to the lawyer’s question (vv. 25-28). This cycle is then repeated which Jesus inserting the parable as the set up to his second question (vv. 29-37).

The lawyer’s first question is to test Jesus (v. 25). It is also an incoherent question – you cannot ‘do’ anything to inherit something – it is the gift of a family.

The command to love God (which recalls the first commandment of the Decalogue and the ‘shema’ of Deuteronomy 6:4-5) is the one commandment which you always break if your break any other commandment. So the second commandment to love your neighbour is intimately linked to the first. In Leviticus 19, the original context of the command to love your neighbour, the command is grounded in the character of God.

The lawyer wants to know who he is required to love – fellow Jews only, God-fearers, Gentiles? Jesus responds to this question with a question set up by the parable of the good Samaritan. But to understand the response of Jesus it is important to notice, as Luke highlights, that the lawyers wants to justify himself. The lawyers asks in effect, ‘You tell me who my neighbour is so I can ensure I obey the command.’

So Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan to show the futility of self-justification. It is hard for us to grasp the antagonism  between Jews and Gentiles. But Jesus turns the tables on the Samaritan. The lawyer cannot even bring himself to call him a Samaritan, let alone love him. But Jesus also turns the tables on him by switching the question around: it is not ‘Who is my neighbour?’ but ‘Who has been neighbour to me?’ He puts the lawyer in the position of the one in need.

Jesus is not telling us we can inherit eternal life by keeping the first two commandments. The lawyer thinks he can justify himself by keeping commandments, but the story of the good Samaritan shows that this is way beyond us. We cannot consistently love like this.

The parable in its literary context

Luke 9:9:44-45, 51. Jesus is heading resolutely to the cross. Luke 10:17-20. This is what is necessary for eternal life – to have your name written in heaven. Luke 10:38-42. What matters is listening to the words of Jesus. Luke 16:27-31. What you must have is people who heed the word of God.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones achieved so much in Christ’s name. But in the later years of his life his health was failing and he was unable to minister. Asked how he was coping with these restrictions, he answered by quoting Luke 10:20 (‘Rejoice that your names are written in heaven’), adding, ‘I am content’.

Three implications

1. Eternal life is inherited. It is graciously given as a function of being adopted into the God-family. This suggests that the good Samaritan is Jesus himself. He comes to us when we are lost and hopeless. He binds up our wounds and pays the tab.

Jesus reverses the question: it is not ‘Who is my neighbour?’ but ‘Who has been neighbour to me?’ And, reading it in the context of Luke 9-10 and the movement to the cross, the answer is Jesus.

2. Jesus expects his followers to follow his example. The One who goes to the cross expects us to take up our cross daily. We should not reduce the cross to an example, but neither should we ignore its example. We are saved by faith alone, but, as the Reformers said, faith is never alone. We should not make this fruit the ground of our justification, saying, as some do, that we are justified on the basis of the entire life we live. (Though he did not mention him by name, Carson clearly had Tom Wright in mind.) But when someone is born again it changes them radically. By their fruit you will know them.

3. Putting this parable into practice must be done as a function of grace. People today are saying the gospel is the work of the cross plus social involvement – the gospel is all that is demanded in the Bible. But in so doing they confuse the gospel with the effects of the gospel. The gospel is good news. It is an announcement. We proclaim, demand and celebrate the fruit of the gospel – a hatred of sin, a love of justice, compassion on others. But we do not proclaim these as part of the gospel. If we do, then we start moralising.