“Inheriting Eternal Life” by “Doing Likewise”?


Psalm 119:153-160; Luke 10:25-37 (text)

October 23, 2011

If you were one of the more than a dozen people in China who saw the two-year-old baby lying in a pool of blood after she was run over by a hit-and-run van driver, would you help save her life? The video of this incident has generated shock and anger not only in China, but all over the world.

But the Chinese who knew about high-profile cases in which those who helped accident victims ended up being charged or fined put the blame squarely on the courts. Just last June, such a “Good Samaritan” was ordered by a court to compensate an elderly woman, whom he had helped, a hefty amount of yuans. In the United States, there are so-called “Good Samaritan” laws. These laws are based on a legal principle that a person, in good faith, who has voluntarily helped a victim in imminent danger, cannot be sued for wrongdoing or a mistake made during the rescue act. The good intent is to encourage giving aid to a stranger in need without fear of liability.

“Do Likewise,” and Inherit Eternal Life?
Our shock and indignation against the coldheartedness and incivility of the people who did not help the baby girl is not misplaced. We should be, otherwise, we lose all sense of morality and human dignity. As evangelicals, we are reminded of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan who was the very antithesis of the passersby who did not offer any help; they are the real life priest and Levite who both ignored the helpless, beaten man. Citing the Samaritan’s compassion, Jesus ended his parable with a command to the self-righteous lawyer, “Go and do likewise.” And so we believe that the Samaritan is the best example of loving our neighbor.

“And who is my neighbor?” was the lawyer’s follow-up question. His original question, a cynical test to paint Jesus into a corner, was “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” So did Jesus tell this parable to his audience of disciples, Pharisees, lawyers and other detractors to teach that eternal life could be had by “doing likewise”—a selfless good work—as the Samaritan did?

"The Parable of the Good Samaritan" by Jan Wijnants (1670)

Obviously, Jesus wasn’t about to contradict his own teaching of faith in him, not good works, as the path to eternal life (John 3:16). But the law-expert must have also wondered how Jesus could say that the 72 disciples are blessed because they have received what many prophets and kings have not received (verses 23-24). Surely, they must accomplish more than just preaching and casting out demons to get their names registered in the heavenly book of life (verse 20). » 1

In the mind of the lawyer, the most important requirement is missing from the 72 disciples: obedience to the Law of Moses. This is why he quoted Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18—total, unselfish love for God and for neighbor. In answering the law-expert’s first query, Jesus himself affirmed this in Matthew 22:37-40 as the two great commandments in the Law, and added a paraphrase of Leviticus 18:5, “Do this, and you will live.”

The lawyer is now caught in his own trap. Before the whole audience, he, a law-expert, is unmasked as someone who is not able to keep the whole Law, just as all the rest of them. Jesus answered his question, “What shall I do,” squarely: If he is not able to “do this,” he will not receive eternal life. Perfect obedience, of course, is impossible for all mankind (Rom 7:13-20), but this is what God still requires for receiving eternal life. So even a single disobedience, as in Adam’s case, results in the death penalty” (Rom 5:19; Jas 2:10). Therefore, no one will be justified by making the Samaritan’s deed a paradigm for one’s life (Gal 2:16).

In Psalm 119:153-160, the bestowal of life to a person depends not on the person’s “doing,” but on God. Three times, the psalmist prayed, “Give me life,” but all three times, the gift of life was “according to God’s promise (153),” “[God’s] rules” (154), and “[God’s] steadfast love” (159). Even in the Old Testament, this is very clear: there can be no eternal life merited by man’s good works, but only given by a merciful God. If this was not the case, then not a single person would be saved before Jesus’s death and resurrection.

It must also be noted that Luke described the lawyer’s intention as “desiring to justify himself,” thereby condemning the law-expert’s works-righteousness. This is related to his first question about eternal life: justification is salvation, and salvation is inheriting eternal life. Moreover, the first question is flawed since inheriting is not earned by doing. An inheritance is a free gift: the testator is not paying the heir for services rendered. » 2

“Neighbor” Reversal
Seeing that he was snared by his own trap, the law-expert tried to wiggle his way out by asking Jesus for his own definition of who is a “neighbor.” In Jewish thought, a neighbor is a fellow Jew, an idea contrary to the Law, because an alien among them must also be reckoned as a Jew (Lev 19:34). Some perverted the Law to say, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” The Pharisees made the circle of neighbors even smaller—fellow Pharisees— anyone who “does not know the law is accursed” (John 7:49). If he was not responsible to do good to everyone he meets, the lawyer thinks he could prove himself sufficiently good and fit to inherit eternal life.

"The Good Samaritan" by Rembrandt (1630)

"The Good Samaritan" by Rembrandt (1630)

But Jesus explodes the lawyer’s self-justification with this parable, so well-known that the whole world knows that a “good Samaritan” is one who does good to his neighbor. His last question, “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” turns the lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbor” upside down. Instead of focusing on who the lawyer’s neighbor is, Jesus points the finger on the law-expert, “Are you a neighbor to the man?” The man left for dead on the road to Jericho—the one who needs help—is not the neighbor. The Samaritan is the neighbor.

It has now become clear to the law-expert that he will never be able—in fact, he will never be willing—to rescue the helpless man. Because he is not the Samaritan; instead, he is the fallen man. His original question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” is now answered by an emphatic “Nothing!” This is why Luke left us hanging as to the response of the lawyer. Did he acknowledge himself as the naked, beaten up, half dead sinner on the road? Or did he remain as the self-righteous, arrogant lawyer that he was?

The similar story of the rich, young ruler comes to mind. The rich man cannot leave his riches to follow the Savior, and so he went away sorrowful. So his disciples were very concerned. If such a one who declares, “all these (Law) I have kept from my youth,” cannot inherit eternal life, “Then who can be saved?” But Jesus allayed their fears, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God”
(Mark 10:20, 26-27).

The Jew Who was Counted Among the Samaritans
How did God accomplish the seemingly impossible salvation of helpless and hopeless sinners? He sent the pre-eminent Good Samaritan, Jesus Christ, to save his people from sin. To the Pharisees, scribes, lawyers and rulers of the Jews, he was a despised and rejected outcast (Isa 53:3; John 1:11), and they “had no dealings with him” (John 4:9). They actually slandered him by calling him an unclean Samaritan and accused him of being demon-possessed (John 8:48). » 3

The Good Samaritan (from sarcasticlutheran.typepad.com)

The Samaritan demonstrated unexpected compassion by giving to the hapless victim all his resources: oil, wine, cloth bandage, riding animal, time, money and care. His down payment of two denarii to the innkeeper is enough for two weeks’ worth of room and board. He had to pay because if the half-dead man was not able to pay the innkeeper (he was “stripped” of everything), he could be sold as a slave. Above all, by bringing a badly-wounded Jew into a hostile Jewish town and lodging for the night there, he risked being lynched by an angry mob. » 4

Bailey offers striking contrasts between what the priest and the Levite failed to do, and what the Samaritan did. First-century Jewish priests were usually wealthy, which includes owning a riding animal, and many of them lived in Jericho, about 18 miles from Jerusalem. For sure, this priest was riding on his animal when he passed by the wounded victim. Not knowing whether the victim was a Jew or if he was already dead, the priest did not want to be ceremonially unclean by touching the man and transporting him on his animal. The second passerby, a Levite, also had the same concerns, and would not have risked offending the priest before him who did not do anything to help. He could have at the very least bound the wounds with a cloth. » 5 The first two passersby could not discover their duty beyond their code of laws. » 6

Conclusion: Victims “Doing Likewise”
Redeeming his people from sin and his Father’s wrath cost Jesus everything—his honor, power and glory in heaven—he “made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant … humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:6-8). Everyone of us is the half-dead man who cannot do anything to save himself, “fallen” and not able to do anything good. The requirement of the Law, “Do this and you will live,” that sinners cannot possibly meet is fulfilled by Christ, by whose “obedience the many will be made righteous” (Rom 5:19). This is why Jesus repeatedly said that he came to obey his Father’s will and to fulfill the Law (Matt 5:17) all the way to his death, this perfect obedience being the ground for bequeathing eternal life to those who believe in him. Nick Lannon summarizes the imputation of the obedience of Jesus the Compassionate Samaritan to us who cannot be:

This is the gospel: that Jesus Christ gives his righteousness, his law-keeping, to us, and takes our sin, our law-breaking, onto himself. Jesus is the Good Samaritan because we cannot be. Hearing this word of grace, we can go out into the world, secure in our righteousness that comes, not from effort expended to “go and do likewise,” but from the Savior of the world. » 7

"The Good Samaritan" (from kingsenglish.info)

The Samaritan was moved to help the fallen man by his “compassion.”  In Greek, this word is a mouthful, σπλαγχνίζομαι (splagchnizomai), and used only of Jesus’ (e.g., Matt 9:36; Luke 7:13) or the Father’s pity (Matt 18:27; Luke 15:20) on others in all 12 instances in the New Testament.

He paid not only two denarii, but the ultimate price—his life-blood—“as a ransom for many” (Matt 20:28); and again, “[Y]ou were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Pet 1:18-19). Finding his people afflicted by Satan and dead in sin, “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds”
(Psa 147:3). In fact, Isaiah prophesied that the Messiah would come “to bring good news to the afflicted … to bind up the brokenhearted” (Isa 61:1; Luke 4:18).

With his death on the cross, he paid for our “room and board” in this earthly dwelling place while we travel as pilgrims on the way to a permanent dwelling place that he has prepared for us in his Father’s house
(John 14:2), where he will finally take us when he returns.

But what are you to do as you await the “Good Samaritan’s” return? Because Christ has saved you from deathly sin and misery, you are to “do likewise” to others. Love the Lord your God with all your being, to the highest extent possible in your “fallen” condition. Be a neighbor to others by showing unconditional love to others along your path. » 8 But the greatest compassion you can show to others in your own “neighborhood” is by proclaiming the good news of salvation through faith alone in Christ alone. In this way, you are saving them from sure eternal death. As Stein points out, Luke’s portrayal of Jesus’ ministry is this:

[T]he time of salvation had come and that whereas the religious elite (such as the priest and the Levite) have rejected their invitation, the outcasts of Israel (such as the Samaritan) have accepted and now share in the Messianic banquet (Luke 14:15-24; cf. also Luke 7:29-30)! In return these outcasts love their neighbors and exhibit in miniature the love and mercy that their heavenly Father has exhibited toward them (6:36). » 9

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another”
(John 13:34-35).



  1. William Hendriksen, Luke: Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1975), 533.
  2. Kenneth Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 286.
  3. This interpretation was favored by the early church and medieval age theologians, although by seeking to define every little detail of the parables, they fell into allegorical interpretations, such as this one by Origen (ca. 184-ca. 253):

    The “fallen” man: Adam
    Jerusalem: Paradise
    Jericho: The world
    Robbers: Hostile influences and enemies of man
    Wounds: Disobedience or sins
    Priest: Law
    Levite: Prophets
    Samaritan: Christ
    Riding Animal: Body of Christ
    Inn: Church
    Two denarii: Knowledge of the Father and the Son
    Innkeeper: Angels in charge of the church
    Return of the Samaritan: Second Coming of Christ
    (Robert H. Stein, An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1981), 45.

    John Calvin strongly opposed allegorical interpretation, especially of this parable. In his Harmony of the Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, he commented:

    The allegory which is here contrived by the advocates of free will is too absurd to deserve refutation. According to them, under the figure of a wounded man is described the condition of Adam after the fall; from which they infer that the power of acting well was not wholly extinguished in him; because he is said to be only half-dead. As if it had been the design of Christ, in this passage, to speak of the corruption of human nature, and to inquire whether the wound which Satan inflicted on Adam were deadly or curable; nay, as if he had not plainly, and without a figure, declared in another passage, that all are dead, but those whom he quickens by his voice, (John 5:25). As little plausibility belongs to another allegory, which, however, has been so highly satisfactory, that it has been admitted by almost universal consent, as if it had been a revelation from heaven. This Samaritan they imagine to be Christ, because he is our guardian; and they tell us that wine was poured, along with oil, into the wound, because Christ cures us by repentance and by a promise of grace. They have contrived a third subtlety, that Christ does not immediately restore health, but sends us to the Church, as an innkeeper, to be gradually cured. I acknowledge that I have no liking for any of these interpretations; but we ought to have a deeper reverence for Scripture than to reckon ourselves at liberty to disguise its natural meaning. And, indeed, any one may see that the curiosity of certain men has led them to contrive these speculations, contrary to the intention of Christ.

    It seems from the above that his main reason for arguing against the idea that the Samaritan was an allegorical picture of Christ is the Arminian teaching of free-willism: that the victim was only half-dead, and so if he is a picture of sinful man, he is able to help himself because he is not truly dead in sin. But from the parable, it can be inferred that the man was helpless, and he would have died of his wounds and also from exposure if the Samaritan didn’t help. Only Christ is able to save fallen man from death.

    This is why many theologians and pastors (e.g., Horton, Lannon, Bailey) today kept some parts of the allegorical interpretations: the victim is sinful man, dead in sin; the Samaritan is Jesus Christ; the help given by the Samaritan is salvation; and the Samaritan’s return is the Second Coming of Christ. Even the picture of the inn as the Church is also plausible in this scenario.

  4. Bailey, 295.
  5. Bailey, 291-4.
  6. “Compassion reaches beyond the requirements of any law. The priest and the Levite cannot discover their duty solely by examining their code books. After the failure of the listeners’ religious leaders, the saving agent breaks in from outside to save, disregarding the cost of that salvation.” Bailey, 297.
  7. Nick Lannon, “The Good Samaritan,” Modern Reformation Sept./Oct. 2010 19:5, 38
  8. “This parable operates on two levels. In one sense, it is the purest articulation of the true intent of the law. It is not just a bunch of legislation for external purity, but stipulations that tell us what it means to love God and our neighbors truly, from the heart … In another sense, it is the purest articulation of the gospel. Who among us can say that we fit the description of “neighbor” that Jesus illustrates here in the Good Samaritan? Yet there is one: ‘For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly’ (Rom 5:6).” Michael Horton, “Exploring the Parables of Jesus, Part 4,” White Horse Inn.
  9. Stein, 79.
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