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Richard Chenevix Trench, D.D.
Chapter 17 from Notes on the Parables of our Lord.
See original for extensive footnotes.
(First Published 1841.)
LUKE x. 30-37.
WE need not ascribe to the lawyer who ‘stood up' and proposed to our Lord the question out of which this parable presently grew, any malicious intention; least of all that deep malignity which moved some other questioners, who were, in fact, laying snares for His life (John viii. 6; Matt. xxii. i 6). The question itself, 'What shall I do to inherit eternal life?' was not an ensnaring one; was not, like that of the tribute-money, one which it might be hoped would compromise the answerer, whatever reply He made. Neither was the spirit which dictated the question captious or mocking. So much we gather from the earnestness of the Lord’s reply, who was not wont to answer mere cavillers or despisers so. It is true that this scribe or lawyer (Matt. xxii. 25, compared with Mark xii. 28, shows the identity of the two) put his question to Christ, tempting Him.’ But exactly the same is affirmed of another lawyer Matt. xxii. 35); who could have done it with no ill intention, seeing that Christ bears testimony to him, ‘Thou art not far from the kingdom of God’ (Mark xii. 34). For, indeed, ‘to tempt’ means properly no more than to make trial of; and whether the tempting be honourable or the contrary, is determined by the motive out of which it springs. Thus God ‘tempts’ man, putting him to wholesome proof, revealing to him secrets of his own heart, to which else even he himself might have remained a stranger to the end (Jam. i. 12); He ‘tempts’ man, to bring out his good and to strengthen it (Gen. xxii. 1; Heb. xi. 17); to show him his evil, that he, made aware of this, may strive against and overcome it,—to humble him, and to do him good in his latter end (Deut. viii. 3, 16). Only he who bears the Tempter’s name (Matt. iv. 3), which he has earned too well (Gen. iii. 1-5), ‘tempts’ with the single purpose of irritating, calling out and multiplying man’s evil.  If the intention of this lawyer is not that high and holy one, as little is it this malignant and devilish. Rather we may suppose that the fame of this young Galilaean teacher has reached his ears, and he will now make proof of His skill, measure His depths; and counts that he cannot do this more effectually than by proposing to Him the question of questions, ‘What shall I do to inherit eternal life?'  

Our Lord answers question with question: 'What is written in the law ? how readest thou ?'—as much as to say, ‘What need of inquiring further? Is not the answer to thy question contained in that very law of which thou professest thyself a searcher and expounder?’ The lawyer shows himself not altogether unworthy of the name he bears; for in answer to this appeal he quotes rightly Deut. vi. 5, in connexion with Lev. xix. 18, as containing the quintessence of the law. That he should thus lay his finger at once on ‘the great commandment, by the Lord accepted as such (Matt. xxii. 36), showed no little spiritual discernment. His words are right words, however he may be ignorant of their full import, of all which they involve; and the Lord declares as much: ‘Thou host answered right; this do, and thou shalt live.’ Let this which he knows utter itself in his life, and all will be well. His conscience is touched at last; he feels himself put on his defence, and it is, as the Evangelist declares, out of a desire to clear himself that the next question proceeds: ‘But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbour?' He may not have been large and free in the exercise of love towards his fellow-men; but then how few had claims upon him: ‘who is my neighbour?’ The very question, like Peter’s, ‘How oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? (Matt. xviii. 21) was not merely one that might receive a wrong answer, but did itself involve a wrong condition of mind, out of which alone it could have proceeded. He who inquired, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ who wished the entire extent of his obligation to others to be declared to him beforehand, showed in this how little he understood of that love, whose essence is that it owns no limit except its own inability to proceed further, receives a law from itself alone, being a debt which they who are ever paying, are best contented still to owe (Rom. xiii. 8). 

What he needed who could propose such a question as this, was, that his eye should be taken off from those, the more or fewer, towards whom, as he conceived, love should be shown, and turned backward upon him who should show the love; and this which he needed the Lord in His infinite wisdom and grace provided for him in the parable which follows. Without further preface He begins: ‘A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho.’ He ‘went,’ or, ‘was going down,’ not merely because Jerusalem stood considerably higher than Jericho,--the latter lying nearly six hundred feet below the level of the Mediterranean sea, so that the language has its fitness in this respect,—but because the going to Jerusalem, as to the metropolis, was always regarded as a going up (Acts xviii. 22). The distance between the two cities was about a hundred and fifty stadia,--the road lying through a desolate and rocky region, ‘the wilderness that goeth up from Jericho’ (Deut. xxxiv. 3; Josh. xvi. 1). The plain of Jericho itself (now Richa and of old the second city in the land) was one of rare fertility and beauty, the Tempe of Judaea, well watered, and abounding in palms (‘the city of palm-trees,' Deut. xxxiv. 3; Judg. i. 16; 2 Chron. xxviii. 15), in roses, in balsam, in honey, and in all the choicest productions of Palestine.’ On his way he ‘fell among thieves,’ or rather ‘among robbers;' —but at the time when our Translation was made there was no strongly-marked distinction between the words; violent and bloody men, who 'stripped him of his raiment, and,’ because, perhaps, he made some slight resistance as they were spoiling him, or out of mere wantonness of cruelty, ‘wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.’  The incident is drawn from the life. Josephus more than once mentions the extent to which Palestine in those later days was infested with banditti; and from St. Jerome we learn that the road leading from one of these cities to the other was at one place called the Red or the Bloody Way, from the blood which had been there shed; that in his own time there was in this wilderness a fort with a Roman garrison, for the protection of travellers. Nor has the danger now ceased; Arabs of the wilderness,’ having their lurking places in the deep caves of the rocks, now, as of old, infest the road, making it unsafe even for the vast hosts of pilgrims to descend to the Jordan without the protection of a Turkish guard. 

As the poor traveler lay bleeding in the road, ‘by chance there came down a certain priest that way;’by coincidence,’ we might say, which often seems chance to us, being indeed the mysterious weaving-in, by a higher hand, of the threads of different men’s lives into one common woof. That hand brings the negative pole of one man’s need into relation with the positive of another man’s power to help, one man’s emptiness into relation with another’s fulness. Many of our summonses to acts of love are of this kind, and they are those, perhaps, which we are most in danger of missing, through a failing to see in them this ordering of God At all events he who ‘came down that way’ missed his opportunity--a priest, perhaps one of those residing at Jericho, which was a great station of the priests and other functionaries of the temple, and now on his way to Jerusalem, there to execute his office ‘in the order of his course’ (Luke i. 8); or who, having accomplished his turn of service, was now returning home. But whether thus or not, he was one who had never learnt what that meant, ‘I will have mercy, and not sacrifice;’ who, whatever duties he might have been careful in fulfilling, had 'omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith;’ for ‘when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. And likewise a Levite,' but with aggravation in his cruelty; for he, ‘when he was at the place, came and looked on him,’ and having seen the miserable condition of the wounded man, claiming as it did instant help--for the life that remained was fast ebbing through his open gashes—he too ‘passed by on the other side.’ Tacitus, while he painted in darkest colours the unsocial character of the Jews, could yet admit this much to their honour, that, however unfriendly to all the rest of the world, among themselves their pity was prompt; but even this redeeming grace is wanting here; they on whose part it is wanting being the express interpreters of a law so careful in urging the duties of humanity, that it twice said, ‘Thou shalt not see thy brother’s ass, or his ox, fall down by the way, and hide thyself from them; thou shalt surely help him to lift them up again’ (Deut. xxii. 4; Exod. xxiii. 5). Here not a brother’s ox or his ass, but a brother himself, was lying in his blood, and-they hid themselves from him (Isai. lviii. 7). 

No doubt they did, in some way or other, justify their neglect to their own consciences; made excuses to themselves, as that where one outrage had happened, there was danger of another,—that the robbers could not be far distant, and might return at any moment,— or that the sufferer was beyond all human help,—or that one found near him might himself be accused as his murderer. The priest, we may imagine, said he could not tarry; the service of the temple must not wait, must not be left incomplete during his absence; and why should he? was not the Levite close behind, to whom such ministries of help would more naturally appertain, and by whom his lack of service, service which the circumstances of the case rendered impossible that he should render, would inevitably be supplied? And then the Levite in his turn may have thought with himself, that it could not be incumbent on him to undertake a perilous office, from which the priest had just shrunk; duty it could not be, else that other would never have omitted it. For him to thrust himself upon it now would be a kind of affront to his superior, an implicit charging of him with inhumanity and hardness of heart. And so, by aid of these pleas, or pleas like these, they left their fellow-countryman to perish.  

‘But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was.’  This man was exposed to exactly the same dangers as those who went before him; moreover it was no fellow-countryman who demanded his help; one rather of an alien and hostile race; but he neither took counsel of selfish fears, nor steeled his heart against all pity with the thought that the wounded and bleeding man was a Jew, whom he as a Samaritan was bound to detest; but when he saw him, ‘he had compassion on him.’ This, as the best thing which he gave or had to give, is mentioned first; the rest will follow. While the priest and Levite, boasting themselves the ministers of the God of all pity and compassion, neglected the commonest duties of humanity, it was left to the excommunicated Samaritan, whose very name was a by-word of contempt among the Jews, and synonymous with heretic (John viii. 48), to show what love was; and this toward one of an alien stock;’ one of a people who would have no dealings with his people, who anathematized them; even as, no doubt, all the influences which had surrounded him from his youth would have led him, as far as he yielded to them, to repay insult with insult, and hate with hate. For if the Jew called the Samaritan a Cuthite,—a proselyte of the lions (2 Kin. xvii 25),—an idolater worshipping the image of a dove,—if he cursed him publicly in his synagogue,— prayed that he might have no portion in the resurrection of life, and by refusing under any conditions to admit him as a proselyte, did his best to secure the fulfilment of this prayer,—proclaimed that his testimony was naught and might not be received,—that he who entertained a Samaritan in his house was laying up judgment for his children,—that to eat a morsel of his food was as the eating of swine’s flesh,—and would rather suffer any need than be beholden to him for the smallest office of charity,--if he set it as an object of desire that he might never so much as see a Cuthite; the Samaritan was not behindhand in cursing, and as little in active demonstrations of enmity and ill-will. We have proofs of this in the Gospels (John iv. 9; Luke ix. 53), and from other sources more examples of their spite may be gathered. For example, the Jews being in the habit of communicating the exact time of the Easter moon to those of the Babylonian Captivity, by fires kindled first on the Mount of Olives, and then taken up from mountain top to mountain top, a line of fiery telegraphs which reached at length along the mountain ridge of Auranitis to the banks of the Euphrates, the Samaritans would give the signal on the night preceding the right one, so to perplex and mislead.’ And Josephus mentions that they sometimes proceeded much further than merely to refuse hospitality to the Jews who were going up to the feasts of Jerusalem; they fell upon and murdered many of them ; and once, which must have been to them most horrible of all (see Kin. xxiii. 13, 14; Matt. xxiii. 27; Luke xi. 44; Num. xix. 16; Ezek. xxxix. 15), a Samaritan entering Jerusalem secretly, polluted the whole temple by scattering in it human bones.’ 

But the heart of this Samaritan was not hardened; though so many influences must have been at work to steel it against the distresses of a Jew; though he must have known that any Jew who was faithful to the precepts of the Jewish schools would not merely have left, but have made it a point of conscience to leave, him in his blood, would have counted that he was doing a righteous act therein. All the details of his tender care toward the poor stranger, of whom he knew nothing, save that he belonged to a nation the most bitterly hostile to his own, are given with a touching minuteness. He ‘bound up his wounds,’ no doubt with strips torn from his own garments, ‘pouring in oil and wine,’ wine to cleanse them, and oil to assuage their smart and to bring gently their sides together (Isai. i. 6), these two being costly and highly esteemed remedies in all the East. No little time must have been thus consumed, and this when there was every motive for haste. Having thus ministered to the wounded man’s most urgent needs, and revived in him the dying spark of life, he ‘set him on his own beast,’ pacing himself on foot; and brought him to an inn,’ we may suppose that at Bachurim, and there again ‘took care of him,’ tended him as his state required. Nor even so did he account that he had paid the whole debt of love, but with considerate foresight provided for the further wants of the sufferer: ‘And on the morrow, when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee.’ The sum may not seem much, though considerably more than it sounds; but in all likelihood he was journeying on some needful business to Jerusalem, and a day or two would bring him back. 

Beautiful as is this parable when thus taken simply in the letter, bidding us to ‘put on bowels of mercies,’ to shrink from no offices of love, even though they should be painful and perilous; but how much fairer yet, how much more mightily provoking to love and good works, when, with most of the Fathers, and with’ many of the Reformers, we trace in it a deeper meaning still, and see the work of Christ, of the merciful Son of man Himself, portrayed to us here. None can refuse to acknowledge the facility with which all the circumstances of the parable yield themselves to this interpretation. It has been indeed objected, that it leaves the parable beside the mark, and nothing to the matter immediately in hand. But this is not so. For what is that matter; To magnify the law of love, to show who fulfils it, and who not. But if Christ Himself, He who accounted Himself every man’s brother, fulfilled it the best, showing how we ought to love and whom; and if His example, or rather faith in His love towards us, is alone effectual in kindling our love to one another, He might well propose Himself and His act in succouring the perishing humanity, as the everlasting pattern of self-forgetting love, and place it in strongest contrast with the carelessness and selfish neglect of the present leaders of the theocracy. Such a meaning as this, lurking behind, though one day to pierce through, the literal, and to add to the parable a yet more endearing charm, would be of course latent at the first uttering. He to whom it was then spoken, took all in the obvious meaning; nor is the parable less effectual in commending man’s love to his fellow, because it further shadows forth the Son of man’s crowning act of love to the whole race of mankind. 

Regarding it in this mystical sense, the traveller will be the personified human Nature, or Adam as the representative and head of our race. He has forsaken Jerusalem, the heavenly City, the city of the vision of peace, and is going down to Jericho, the profane city, the city under a curse (Josh. vi. 26; 1 Kin. xvi. 34). But no sooner had he thus left the holy City and the presence of his God, and turned his desires toward the world, than he falls into his hands who is at once a robber and a murderer (John viii. 44), and is by him and his evil angels stripped of the robe of his original righteousness, grievously wounded, left covered with almost mortal strokes, every sinful passion and desire a gash from which the life-blood of his soul is streaming.’ But for all this he is not dead outright ; for as all the cares of the Samaritan would have been spent in vain upon the poor traveller had the spark of life been wholly extinct, so a restoration for man would have been impossible had there been nothing to restore, no spark of divine life, which by a heavenly breath might be fanned into flame; no truth in him, which might be extricated from the unrighteousness in which it was detained. When the angels fell, by a free self-determining act of their own will, with no solicitation from without, their loss was not in part, but altogether. With man it is otherwise. He is ‘half dead;’ he has still a conscience witnessing for God; evil has not become his good, however weak he may be to resist it; he has the sense of something lost, and at times a longing for its recovery. His case is desperate were there none to restore him but himself; but not desperate in the hands of an almighty and all-merciful Physician. 

He, and He only, can restore to man what he has lost, can bind up the bleeding hurts of his soul, can say to him in his blood, Live (Ezek. xvi. 6). The Law could not do it. ‘If there had been a law which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law’ (Gal. iii. 21). That was but like Elisha’s staff, which might be laid on the face of the dead child, but life did not return to it the more (2 Kin. w. 21); Elisha himself must come ere the child revive. Or as Theophylact here expresses it: ‘The law came and stood over him where he lay, but then, overcome by the greatness of his wounds, and unable to heal them, departed.’ Nor could the sacrifices do better; they could not ‘make the corners thereunto perfect,’ nor ‘take away sins,’ nor ‘purge the conscience.’ Priest and Levite were alike powerless to help: so that, in the eloquent words of a scholar of St. Bernard’s,’ ‘Many passed us by, and there was none to save. That great Patriarch Abraham passed us by, for he justified not others, but was himself justified in the faith of One to come. Moses passed us by, for he was not the giver of grace, but of the law, and of that law which leads none to perfection, for righteousness is not by the law. Aaron passed us by, the priest passed us by, and by those sacrifices which he continually offered was unable to purge the conscience from dead works to serve the living God. Patriarch and prophet and priest passed us by, helpless both in will and deed, for they themselves also lay wounded in that wounded man. Only that true Samaritan, beholding, was moved with compassion, as He is all compassion, and poured oil into the wounds, that is, Himself into the hearts, purifying all hearts by faith. Therefore the faith of the Church passes by all, till it attain to Him who alone would not pass it by” (Rom. viii. 3). 

Were it absolutely needful to attach a precise meaning to the ‘oil’ and the ‘wine,’ we might say, with Chrysostom, that the former is the anointing of the Holy Spirit, the latter the blood of passion.’ On the binding up of the wounds it may be often observed that the sacraments have been often called the ligaments for the wounds of the soul; and the hurts of the spirit are often contemplated as bound up, no less than those of the body; and God as He who binds them up.  The Samaritan setting the wounded man on his own beast, himself therefore pacing on foot by his side, reminds of Him, who, though He was rich, yet for our sakes became poor, that we through His poverty might be rich,—and who came not to be ministered unto, but to minister. Neither is it far-fetched to regard the ‘inn’ as the figure of the Church, the place of spiritual refection, in which the healing of souls is ever going forward,—called therefore by some a hospital,—whither the merciful Son of man brings all whom He has rescued from the hand of Satan, where He, the good Physician, cares for them until they shall have been restored to a perfect health (Mal. iv. 2; Hos. xiv. 4; Ps. ciii. 3; Matt. xiii. 15; Rev. xxii. 2; and typically, Num. xxi. 9). 

And if, like the Samaritan, He cannot tarry,” cannot always be in body present with those whose cure He has begun, if it is expedient that He should go away, yet He makes for them a rich provision of grace till the time of his return. It would be entering into curious minutiae, such as tend to bring discredit on this scheme of interpretation, to affirm decidedly of the 'two pence,’ that they mean either the two Sacraments, or the two Testaments, or the Word and the Sacraments, or unreservedly to accede to any one of the ingenious explanations which have been offered for them. Better to say that they include all gifts and graces, sacraments, powers of healing, of remission of sins, or other powers which the Lord has left with His Church, that it may keep house for Him till His return. As the Samaritan ‘took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him;’—even so He said to Peter, and in him to all the Apostles, ‘Feed my sheep,’ ‘Feed my lambs’ (John xxi. 15-17; Cf. xx. 22, 23). To them, and in them to all their successors, He has committed a dispensation of the Gospel, that as stewards of the mysteries of God, they may dispense these for the health and salvation of His people. And as it was promised to the host, ‘Whatsoever thou spendeth more, when I come again, I will repay thee,’ so has the Lord engaged that no labour shall be in vain in Him, that what is done to the least of His brethren shall be accounted as done to Himself, that they who ‘feed the flock of God, not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind,’ ‘when the chief Shepherd shall appear, shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away’ (1 Pet. v, 2, 4). 

Let us reverently admire as it deserves to be admired, the divine wisdom with which, having brought this parable to an end, Christ reverses the question of the lawyer, and asks, ‘Which now of these three thinkest thou was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves?’  The lawyer had asked, ‘Who is the neighbour to whom it is my duty to show love?’ But the Lord, answering question with question, demands, ‘Who is a neighbour, he who shows love, or he who shows it not? ‘—for it was this which he desired to teach, that love has its own measure in itself; like the sun, which does not inquire upon what it shall shine, or whom it shall warm, but shines and warms by the very law of its own being, so that nothing is hidden from its light and heat. The lawyer had said, ‘Designate my neighbour to me; tell me what marks a man to be such; Is it one faith, one blood, the obligation of mutual benefits, or what else, that I may know to whom I owe this debt?’ The Lord rebukes the question, holding up to him a man, and that man a despised Samaritan, who so far from seeking limits to his love, freely and largely exercised it towards one whose only claim upon him consisted in his needs; who assuredly had none of the marks of a neighbour, in the lawyer’s sense of the word. The parable is a reply, not to the question, for to that it is no reply, but to the spirit out of which the question proceeded. ‘You inquire, Who is my neighbour? Behold a man who asked quite another question, “To whom can I be a, neighbour? " And then be yourself the judge, whether you or he have most of the mind of God; which is most truly the doer of his will, the imitator of his perfections.’ 

To the Lord’s question, ‘Which now of these three was neighbour unto him that fell among thieves?' the lawyer circuitously replies, ‘He that showed mercy on him;'—let us hope from no grudging reluctance to give the honour directly and by name to a Samaritan; although it certainly has something of this appearance. But having acknowledged this, whether reluctantly or freely, ‘Go,’ said the Lord to him, ‘and do thou likewise.’ These last words will hardly allow us to agree with those who in later times have maintained that this parable and the discourse that led to it are, in fact, a lesson on justification by faith—that the Lord sent the questioner to the law, to the end that, being by that convinced of sin and of his own shortcomings, he might discover his need of a Saviour. The intention seems rather to make the lawyer aware of the mighty gulf which lay between his knowing and his doing,--how little his actual exercise of love kept pace with his intellectual acknowledgment of the debt of love due from him to his fellowmen: on which subject no doubt he had secret misgivings himself, when he asked, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ It is true, indeed, that this our sense of how short our practice falls of our knowledge, must bring us to the conviction that we cannot live by the keeping of the law, that by the deeds of the law no flesh shall be justified,--so that here also we shall get at last to faith as that which alone can justify; but this is a remoter consequence, and not the immediate purpose, of the parable.