What shall I do to inherit eternal life?
This is the kind of question that is a primary question. We have many questions in life, but only a few are primary. This is one of those questions.
If our lives are but vapors, and if the choices we make in this life—the primary kind of choices related to the primary kinds of questions—have eternal consequences, then above all else, we need to be firmly settled in what we believe, and how we relate, to these kinds of questions.
You may be like me, and at some point in the past, you’ve said to your friend or spouse or parent that you have a question for God. Maybe it’s a question to settle an argument, or a question about life’s purpose, or a question about why God did or did not do something in your life. And you imagine yourself standing before God with the chance to ask your question.
A lawyer in the first century got to do just that. His question was: “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:25). And Jesus answered him, in so many words, by saying he must love God and love his neighbor perfectly.
This answer presented a huge problem for the lawyer—and presents a huge problem for us today—because none of us love God or love our neighbors perfectly. Here is where we desperately need the gospel. But the lawyer’s response didn’t probe Jesus’ words to find the gospel. He instead sought to justify himself (vs. 29), asking who his neighbor was, and in doing so, fell short of gospel soil.
Jesus, as He did with the woman at the well, met this man where he was, inviting him further into the conversation. And He told this amazing story of the good Samaritan in response to the man’s question (vs. 30-37).
As we read this story, we should keep in mind that Jesus is answering the question: “Who is my neighbor?” But more specifically, he is answering the question: “What does it mean to love my neighbor?” Or to say it another way, “How is the sacrificial, giving nature of love put on display towards others?”
When we see the question posed in this way, we will find that there are at least four different kinds of exchanges going on—the kind where love is properly or improperly used as the basis for the exchange.
- Nothing for something. The thieves on the road to Jericho befall this man, beat him, strip him, and leave him for dead. They give nothing and take something from the traveler. They do not love him in the way that consuming does not love.
- Nothing for nothing. The priest and the Levite pass by the man on the road. They may have felt they had good reasons for not stopping, but they give nothing and take nothing from the traveler. They do not love in the way that ignoring does not love.
- Something for something. The innkeeper cares for the injured traveler, likely nursing him back to health. There is a sense of compassion in this act, but he does so because he is asked, and paid, to do so. He gives something to the traveler because he receives something in return. He does not love in the way that bartering does not love.
- Something for nothing. The good Samaritan stops, dresses the man’s wounds, takes him to safety, and pays for his care. He gives something to the traveler but receives nothing in return. He loves in the way that freely giving loves.
Jesus commends the good Samaritan because of the way he loved his neighbor—the traveler he had never met and did not know. He teaches us to love in this kind of way because this is a love that freely gives without expectation of return. We shouldn’t draw from this that we never receive blessing back from God when we freely give this kind of love, but we should see the others-oriented, freely-given kind of love that is put on display as a model for the kind of love that, in fact, gains us eternal life, although it may not be our love by which we profit.
We recognize this when we see the story is not entirely about the good Samaritan, nor is it entirely about giving. It is also about the traveler, and it is also about receiving. This man was as good as dead but received mercy and life from a man he did not know. The traveler himself received something for nothing.
This is grace, is it not? This is the gospel. We receive something—a glorious something, a glorious everything—for nothing. We owe God nothing as payment for grace.
So, in light of the glory of the gospel, may we be good Samaritans, not only to those in need on the side of the road but to everyone we encounter each day, with an others-orientation that seeks to give freely without an expectation of due payment. And may we also recognize we are the traveler, having received a gift of grace from a God who gives freely, and liberally, without demanding payment in return. When we truly, deeply receive this kind of grace, we will find our hearts transformed so that we, in turn, give freely and offer all we have, and all we are, to the One who stopped by the roadside for each of us.