Moralism is the art of making every bible passage a lesson on self-improvement. It puts man at the centre, rather than Jesus. It’s a Christ-less take on scripture that either flatters the doo-gooder to his own harm or discourages the weak in his weakness.
Case in point, the account of the Good Samaritan.
In Luke 10 an expert in the law of Moses attempts to test Jesus by asking,
What must I do to inherit eternal life? (Luke 10:25)
In reply, Jesus asks him to recall what is written in the law. Our legal expert answers perfectly, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbour as yourself.”
To which Jesus replies in complete harmony with the law and the promises of God, “Correct… do this and you shall live”. (Leviticus 18:5)
The expert in the law, wanting to outdo Jesus, then asks, “Ah, but who is my neighbour?”
What follows is an account of a man who gets beaten, stripped and robbed and is left for dead on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Two super-religious figures, a Priest and a Levite, both walk past him without helping.
Finally, there comes a man who belongs to a despised minority group. He’s a Samaritan, possibly from Dubbo, or Tasmania or Wishaw and most likely ginger.
Anyway, he has compassion for this poor half-dead traveller. He binds up his wounds, pouring on the oil and wine. He puts him on a donkey, gets him to a safe haven in Jericho and foots the bill for all expenses.
Jesus asks the lawyer who he thinks the true neighbour was. The lawyer gets it right – it was our Samaritan friend. Jesus then tells the lawyer that is he wants to inherit eternal life, he should go and do likewise.
Now, what tends to happen at this point is that Jesus gets side-stepped in the study or the sermon, and we start to discuss our own failings as though helping some stranger on the side of the road would actually merit eternal life.
We start to discuss how much like the Priest or the Levite we are and we all pretend like this is something that has been bothering us for ages and aren’t we glad someone brought it up and lo, we hang our heads in shame and feel miserable together.
The talk ends with us all agreeing to be more like the Good Samaritan.
That’s a fine goal for the Spirit-filled believer, but not at all what I think Jesus is driving at here and certainly no doorway to eternal life.
On that take, the application of this passage boils down to:
Seeker: What must I do to inherit eternal life?
Jesus: Try harder.
The punchline is genuine. “Go and do likewise”. But the response Jesus is looking for is not, “Okay then, I’ll try harder to meet these impossible standards”, but, “Lord have mercy!”
You may well be the Levite. You may even be the Good Samaritan on occasion. But let’s be honest. If you are in this story at all, you are the guy gasping his last breath on the side of the road. You’re the guy who is helpless and hopeless at getting himself out of the porn, the pride, the greed and the grog-induced coma.
You’re as good as dead and as dead as you can be in your sins. At this point, having a pamphlet on, “The Twelve Mighty Steps to Radical Self Improvement”, dropped in your dying lap is unlikely to help.
Your only hope is that someone might come along, lift you up, cover your wounds and your nakedness and foot the entire bill for your restoration – indeed – your resurrection – and get you safely to the city of palms.
And that someone is Jesus. His power to save, and your desperate need of saving – and not your moral improvement – are what’s on the table in this story. The realisation that you and this legal expert are totally incapable of saving yourself is what’s at stake.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted (Matthew 5:3-4)
It’s in defeat that we are saved. It’s to those lying on the side of the road, dead in trespasses and sins and calling for the Healer that healing comes, for whom all debts are paid and a free ride to Jericho given. And it’s in the oil and wine, the Spirits power poured out, that we are enabled to become increasingly more Good Samaritan and increasingly less Levite, Lawyer and Priest.