…Jesus said: ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half-dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he travelled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
‘Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?’
The expert in the law replied, ‘The one who had mercy on him.’
Jesus told him, ‘Go and do likewise.’
We have now already studied the whole of the parable itself. So next we come to the question Jesus asked at the end of it: ‘Who was a neighbour?’
Of course there could only be one answer to this for the story that Jesus told. But also this was a ‘loaded question’ for the expert in the law. So let’s look at why that is.
First, as we have seen in previous studies, there is reason to believe that the expert in the law may have been a member of the tribe of Levi – a Levite. The first two characters to see the wounded man in the parable were both Levites. One a priest, and these were chosen from among the Levites, and the other a layman Levite. So, to say that it was not one of these who was the neighbour is to admit that members of his own tribe may fall short of the expectations of the second love commandment – to love your neighbour as yourself.
Second, it would be a normal human reaction for the teacher of the law to feel as though he was being goaded by Jesus in that the story places two characters from his own tribe in a bad light. And then to rub salt in the wound, the character placed in a good light is one of the hated Samaritans.
Third, now the question that Jesus asked really can only have one answer. It is even noticeable that the expert in the law could not bring himself to simply say ‘the Samaritan.’ And there was reason to believe that he had been hoping for Jesus to confirm the general feeling, that the neighbour could only be from among your own people.
This last point is maybe the most salient one to consider. It comes from an over-literal interpretation of scripture, something that is commonly found among fundamentalists and literalists today.
Jesus revealed, in the Sermon on the Mount, a few examples of how literalism will leave the believer falling short of the standards required. He showed how knowledge of God, through relationship with him, was a way to understanding at a greater depth.
It is worth explaining here why I have learned to avoid referring to the Bible as the Word of God, or the Holy Word of God.
There are several important reasons. But first let me say that I am not trying to point the finger and to say how wrong you are if this is your habit. This has been the tradition in the church for hundreds of years, going way back into Roman Catholic times. It is a term used so often for the bible that people do not think whether it is the correct term, nor do they think of the effect that using this terminology has.
Going into the past, there was no problem in the Catholic, Orthodox and Coptic churches about recognising that there are some problems in the scriptures. They contradict each other in many places. There is an especially large number of contradictions when you compare the history recorded in the four books of Kings (for those confused by that, the 2 books of Samuel were originally 1st and 2nd Kings) with the 2 books of Chronicles. You find different accounts of the same events, different numbers of people involved, and so on.
There were many reasons given, by the time the Middle Ages arrived, why the bible remained in Latin and Greek and for the scholars to study under the authority of the church. I am thankful that the bible is now translated into nearly all languages, and that it is easily available to all, and yet this gift to us has resulted in some of the things that were feared by the church authorities of the Middle Ages.
Of course, the cynical would say only that they did not want the heresies that were being taught to be discovered. There is some merit to that argument. Although it must be remembered that the original protestants were all Roman Catholics, and they were priests with regular access to and knowledge of the scriptures, and that Catholics were discovering those problems for themselves.
But there were other worries. The church authorities of the time had as one of their main concerns being that of the exalting of human reason above the divine, and so the creation of man-made doctrine from human understanding, and the further division of the body of Christ. There had already been the Great Schism between the Catholics and the Orthodox churches, and this created a big doctrinal problem. In one sense, there was the belief that the church is one, and that salvation lies inside it (some comparison to needing to be a part of God’s people in the Old Covenant for the salvation of that covenant to work for you). And so there can’t be 2 churches. There is only one church and those outside it are not saved. Moreover, that those responding to the gospel outside of the church and joining another church still remain unsaved. From these beliefs, you can begin to see why some thought it important enough to even go to war over this.
But returning to why I do not refer to the scriptures as the Word of God. First, and most importantly, the scriptures themselves define what this term refers to, and it is a person, not a book. I think most Christians know this already, because it is clearly written for all of us to read at the beginning of the gospel according to John. I do not like to reduce our Lord to mere words on a page.
The second reason is the effect on our thinking that happens when we use this title for the bible. It sounds like God spoke all the words that are in the bible. This is unscriptural. Why? The scriptures themselves tell us who wrote them. There is a reason it refers to the books of Moses, for example. The author is given in nearly every case.
In the case of the four books of Kings and the two of Chronicles, the books were records, by official state scribes connected to the priesthood, who were responsible for recording the history of the nation. This meant Israel in the case of Kings, and Judah in the case of Chronicles. Both nations tended to accuse each other of twisting facts, and so it is that it should not be a great surprise that some facts of history are recorded differently in the two records. This does not make the bible ‘imperfect’ unless you begin to think of it as only one book spoken into existence by our God.
The bible was written by men, and I have seen argument that in at least two places there is reason to believe female authorship. These men, as we are told in Paul’s letter to Timothy, were inspired by God.
Somehow, for some Christians, the word ‘inspired’ has come to have a different meaning from what it actually means in the English language. Almost as if the scriptures must have arrived by some form of ‘automatic writing’ like the messages from spirits that some spiritualists receive.
Once you understand that the bible is a collection of books, and that these books were written by fallen men inspired by God (with the normal, dictionary, meaning of the word ‘inspired’), then most of the ‘problems’ of the bible vanish.
But if you think of the bible as the recording of God’s spoken words, or like he was himself writing, somehow using the bodies of the authors like puppets, then you have big problems. By doing the latter, you now remove the fact of many authors and make God the sole author. As such there should be consistency. There should not be scriptures that contradict each other. There now needs to be a new breed of biblical apologists and expositors using skills to explain how the bible does not say what it actually says. That is just ridiculous!
And it is among the groups treating the bible in this unbiblical way that we find a veritable proliferation of new split-off churches. The nightmare of the church authorities in the Middle Ages appears to have been an accurate prophecy, very sadly.
And this kind of wrong attitude to scripture, and especially to the Law, is something not new. This was the problem Jesus found himself facing many times. And so we find Jesus pointing out on many occasions how the understanding of scripture is wrong. Nearly every time the problems lay either with legalism, or literalism, or both.
It is my hope and prayer that believers of today will be led out from both of these problems. That they will recognise the scriptures for what they are. The imperfections do not remove the qualities that Paul spoke to Timothy about. The central messages of doctrine are very consistent in the scriptures, and they are repeated often so that we do not miss them.
Lastly, the wrong attitude to the scriptures begins to make the scriptures into a second god, apart from the Lord. And so some Christians literally worship more than one god. They would never never admit to this, and yet this is the undeniable truth. And when this begins, it results in hard, unloving attitudes to others. A quickness to judge others, and to condemn others to hell for the slightest slight or slightest perceived difference in doctrine.
So here’s a statement that perhaps will cause many to say that I am not saved. All the same, I know that it is true. And here it is: our Lord does not care at all what your doctrine is! He literally could not be bothered with all that.
What He does care about very much is our relationship with Him, and He will guide us closer to Him in the right way. He wants us as His sons and daughters, and to enjoy family life with us. His love is unending, and shows itself in the infinite power of love through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. The perfect one sacrificed in our place, so that the believing repentant can receive redemption. The whole point was to bring us back into relationship with the Father. To bring us back into a love relationship and to learn what true love really is.
This love was a problem for the legalist and literalist expert in the law. He was trying hard to avoid the truth that was obvious from the teaching of Jesus: that this love of the neighbour is universal to whoever God brings into your life. And that it is not a love that you acknowledge only by belief in a scriptural concept (some treat salvation in the same way and so endanger their eternal souls!). It is a love acted out in real practical acts that reveal the love and care. This love can unlock hardened hearts to the gospel when people may ask, why do you do this?
Yet, to do this, to obey the love commandments that are spoken of in the introduction to the parable, is the path leading to eternal life.
I am not giving another gospel, this same love should show and grow in your life if you are in Christ and the Holy Spirit is in you. The love of God is to the whole world, so what is your excuse for withholding this love from anyone?