The Good Samaritan, gospel or salvation by works?

What follows is an email I wrote following a stimulating discussion on the parable of the Good Samaritan.  What is Jesus teaching here?

Dear N and N

Further to yesterday’s stimulating discussion about the interpretation of the Good Samaritan and the reading of parables in general, I’ve done some more study and have found a few really useful websites.  This is not me trying to have the last word, but to share the results of my further research for your consideration.

The first website is a quick and helpful summary on how to read the parables, based largely on the teaching of Gordon Fee.  It is well written and supports the view that we should look for the plain meaning of the text, and not allegorise.  The article cites Augustine’s commentary on the Good Samaritan as a particularly poor allegorical interpretation.   Augustine allegoricalises everything in the the parable, which stretches the meaning of the parable for too far, as I did in my sermon with the wine, oil, donkey and the inn.  The point of the first article is, as far as possible, to preach the main point of the parable in context and not to look for layers of hidden meaning, as Augustine did.

There is, however, significant contemporary evangelical support for reading the parable as a clarification of the relationship between the law and the gospel in respect to justification.  The plain reading of the parable is that salvation or justification is by this law not that law, or a new works righteousness, as I will explain.

As I said yesterday, if Jesus meant “Go and do likewise” as the answer to “what must I do to inherit eternal life…love God and love neighbour…do this and you will live.”  Then the Samaritan gains salvation by works.  The main point of the parable may be to teach the expert in the law that his law keeping (not touching a dead body as so, therefore, failing to love his neighbour) does not earn him salvation (i.e. justification is not by the works of that law).  However, if there is no gospel contained within the parable then someone must earn salvation by keeping the law.  The question is only, which law should I keep, “Do not touch a dead body” or “show compassion”.  In contemporary culture, this reading of the parable goes something like, “going to church and keeping moral laws does not earn salvation but being kind to people does, therefore I don’t need to go to church.”  This is a false dichotomy and to avoid it then Christ or the gospel of Christ must be present in the parable.

I have three commentaries on Luke.  Each one discusses how the teacher of the law kept the ceremonial law (would not touch a dead body) and the Samaritan kept the law to love neighbour, so Jesus is teaching the priority of the latter law over the former law.  This is right.  However, each commentator also recognises that the implication of this conclusion contradicts the gospel.  To solve this dilemma, each commentator simply states the doctrine of of salvation by grace through faith as extrinsic to the parable.  In effect, so as to avoid contradiction, they each conclude that Jesus was not answering the question on how to inherit eternal life.

It is entirely possible, though strange, that Jesus could have avoided answering the man’s original question. So, did Jesus duck the question on eternal life?  Or, did he gave the answer on justification within the parable, as parable?

A quick internet search for the Samaritan as a type of Christ has produced these three results, the first of which is by Glen Scrivener, our 3-2-1 Gospel friend.

This second post does the work which you did N, in exposing the expert in the law’s failure to keep the law before discussing the Samaritan as a type of Christ and the victim as a representative of every human.

The third post appears on the Confessing Evangelical blog, as a summary of a sermon by the rev Reg Quick (Chairman of ELCE).  The post is called Law, gospel and the Good Samaritan.

As a type of Christ, the least we can say of the Samaritan is this: he came to the dying man, bound up his wounds, healed him, carried him and paid the price for entry into a place of rest and security.  (cf Ezekiel 34 for example).

I have found others who read the victim as Christ, but I find it hard to see any gospel in that reading.

The question which remains is this.  Can parables which are not expressly allegorical (e.g. the parable of the sower or the parable of the wheat and tares) ever be interpreted in a similar way within a biblical context?  Or, put another way, as the whole of the bible is the word of Christ, can his whole word be used to interpret parables?

I believe that the parable of the good Samaritan insists that we do the biblical theological work, though very carefully so as not to stretch the meanings in the parable too far.  If we don’t use a biblical theological framework then scripture contradicts scripture and we are left to impose extrinsic systematic doctrines on this parable, as contradictions.  But there are no contradictions in scripture and we want to avoid the modern cultural interpretation  “if I am kind to other people I will go to heaven and so I don’t need to be religious.”

The first of the webpages above reminds us that Jesus taught in parables to stir up thinking.  He’s certainly done that.

Happy reading


About neilrobbie

I am a 6'6" formerly ginger Scot, in a cross cultural marriage to my lovely Londoner wife. We've lived in SE Asia and since 2005, I have served as an Anglican minister in Wolverhampton and West Bromwich.
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4 Responses to The Good Samaritan, gospel or salvation by works?

  1. Brian Midmore says:

    I tend to ask the more fundamental question: ‘What is the Gospel?’ If we read Paul with Reformation Spectacles we might conclude that the Gospel was ‘justification by faith alone’. If we read the synoptic Gospels we might decide the Gospel was ‘the kingdom of God is at hand’. I believe the latter provides the better definition. The good news is that the Messiah, the king has come in the person of Jesus. When we think of ‘gospel’ sola fide should not be our controlling paradigm. In the Good Samaritan parable Jesus is saying that to gain eternal life we must go and do likewise. But this doing is not apart from himself. The doing he describes is in the power of God’s Spirit. If we walk in the flesh (and this includes all kind of fleshly religion) we shall die if we walk in spirit we shall live. The parable of the Good Samaritan described the difference between someone who is a Jew outwardly and keeps the letter but not the spirit of the law and someone who is not a Jew outwardly but in secret (in Christ Jesus) who keeps the spirit of the law but not the letter of it. The priests were under the Torah of works but the Samaritan was under the Torah of faith. By faith he kept Torah and thereby gained eternal life.

    • neilrobbie says:

      Dear Brian, thank you for your thoughtful comment and welcone to TG. I like the letter of the law/spirit of the law distinction. I think the problem with it is, as with justification by faith alone, is that we need to impose this on the parable as an extrinsic and controlling doctrine to avoid the aparent contradiction that salvation is by this law and not that law, rather than by the work of Christ or our being in Christ. Interpreting the Samaritan as a type of Christ would fit with the immediate context of the parable, Jesus had just said that the Father choses to whom the Son is revealed. The Samaritan, as a type, reveals the work of Christ; the inaguaration of the kingdom, what it means to be him…go and do likewise.

  2. Brian Midmore says:

    Here is where I diverge from your position somewhat. I would say that salvation IS by the Torah (law) of faith. Justification is by faith alone but salvation comes as we walk in the spirit. If you walk in flesh you die but in the spirit you live, Now the problem is that justification and salvation have become conflated in peoples thinking and faith has been set radically against law. Thus if I say we are saved by the Torah of faith it will be taken to mean by obeying the law in our own effort. Law is always in the flesh in peoples mind, but this is not true for Paul see Rom 3.31 for example. We establish the law by faith we do not abolish it. We have the law written on our hearts to do it. So Jesus really meant what he said that to gain eternal life we must obey the commandments. The first commandment is to love God and we achieve this by submitting to his Messiah Jesus and receiving the Spirit. You of course have extra pastoral issues.

  3. Cherry says:

    Hi Neil, helpful article thank you, found while doing bit research.
    So you know, of the 3 posts to which you link, the second has moved (link is to 404 error but search for samaritan finds the article) and the third is to a site that might be closed. First one still good!

    Thanks for the article, answered exact question I’d been worrying about, it looks like salvation by works, yet you don’t want in response to completely jettison what looks like plain meaning with a hand-waving mention of what wider scripture says – but instead dig deeper into the meaning

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