The setup of Jesus’ well-known parable of the Good Samaritan is a lawyer asking, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
The question betrays the assumption that the lawyer can work to achieve eternal life. His faith is defined as salvation by works. Just as he worked hard to get where he is now, he figures he can also work his way into eternal life. And he thinks he can do it entirely by himself. It’s as though he says to Jesus, “Just tell me what to do and how much it will cost, and consider it done. Then I can tackle the next challenge that interests me.” For this man, salvation is not a gift to be received but something to be achieved.
So it’s interesting that he uses the word inherit. As pastor and author Gary Inrig points out in his book about Jesus’ parables, there’s a “contradiction implicit in the man’s question. You can’t do something to inherit a gift. Inheritance is based on relationship, not achievement” (p. 32). An inheritance is based on who you are, not what you’ve accomplished. The lawyer is asking for a list of things to do; Jesus prods him towards embracing who he should be.
Pastor Inrig continues:
Biblical faith does not involve primarily a series of ritual acts, but a heart relationship to God, which shapes every facet of life. And this relationship to God is inseparable from our relationships to people around us…
The [lawyer] wants a list of rules that people can keep. Jesus prescribes a relationship to God that shapes life. Eternal life is not earned by works; it is received in a heart relationship with God. (p. 33)
Pastor Inrig alludes to how our relationship with God revolutionizes our relationships with others – even our enemies, as the parable of the Good Samaritan demonstrates. We emulate the compassion of the Samaritan not in an effort to win God’s love, but because we want our lives to give evidence to the reality that we already have it.