The Good Samaritan.
When an expert in the Law said the way to inherit eternal life is to obey the two greatest commandments, Jesus replied that he had answered correctly (Luke 10:25-28). But the man wanted to justify himself so he asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” In response, Jesus told the Parable of the Good Samaritan, surely one of his best known (Luke 10:25-37).
A man was attacked, beaten up, and robbed. Both a priest and a Levite came across him but passed by on the other side. But then a Samaritan saw him and had pity on him. He treated his wounds, escorted him to an inn and took care of him. He gave the innkeeper two days wages and asked him to care for the man, promising he would reimburse any additional expense he might incur. When Jesus asked the expert in the law which of the three was a neighbor to the man who was robbed, the lawyer correctly saw that it was the one who had mercy on him. Jesus then charged him to go and do likewise.
If you’re looking for Jesus’ answer to the question of, Who is my neighbor, it would seem to be that it is anyone you see who needs help. Jesus’ words, however, actually seem to be answering a different question. His reply focuses not on who is my neighbor but on what it means to be a neighbor. Or more broadly, What does it mean to love my neighbor as myself. His answer to that question is that it means to have compassion on them and take care of them.
So why would Jesus change the question? He was asked, Who is my neighbor?, but he answered, What does it mean to be a neighbor? Why would he change it, or at least answer something a bit different from what he was asked?
We know that the expert in the law was wanting to justify himself (v. 29). I’m not quite sure what the nuance of that is. Did he want to justify himself by doing as little as possible? Did he want to make sure he didn’t exclude anyone who needed his love? Was this merely a smoke screen and distraction? I don’t think the parable says. But it would appear from Jesus’ answer that in some way the man was asking the wrong question, as I have often done.
It may also be that the man was making matters too theoretical. I say that because of Jesus’ concluding words: “Go and do likewise.” It would seem that Jesus’ concern is not that the man be able to distinguish who is and is not his neighbor but that he be a good neighbor by actually taking care of people in need. This is not theory. It’s practice. It’s love in action.
The parable proper also contains a pretty sharp barb. The two people who failed to love their neighbor as themselves were a priest and a Levite. One would expect these religious people to be better at obeying the greatest commands than others, but they were not. Instead, it was a Samaritan who obeyed. Jewish listeners would have been surprised, shocked and offended by this.
Centuries before, when God’s people were overrun and taken into captivity, some people were left behind. Many of these married non-Jews whom the pagan king sent into the area, thus creating the Samaritan people. Over the years they developed a number of different religious practices, including a different place of worship (John 4:19-20) and only accepting the first five books of the Old Testament. So Jews didn’t associate with Samaritans (John 4:9). They considered them half-breeds and unfaithful. The very word Samaritan could even be used as a term of contempt (John 8:48). And yet the hero of Jesus’ story was a Samaritan. Have you ever known of a non-Christian who acted better than a Christian? Religion, done badly, can make you a worse person instead of better—even in Christianity.
Another important matter emerges from the introduction to this parable. The question that led to the parable was, What must I do to inherit eternal life (v. 25)? Jesus invites the man to answer it himself, based on what is written in the Law (v. 26). The man said the answer of how to inherit eternal life is to, “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 “Love your neighbor as yourself” (v. 27). Jesus says “you have answered correctly” (v. 28). Question: do you agree with Jesus? Is loving God and neighbor the way to inherit eternal life? Do you agree with his pointing the man to the Law for an answer? And to be more blunt, Does Jesus’ answer contradict salvation by grace through faith?
My first response to such questions is to ask whether it strikes you odd that we would worry about whether Jesus may contradict Paul? That’s what we’re doing when we ask these questions, right? We’re saying we know for sure from Ephesians 2 and Romans 3 and Titus 3 that we’re saved by grace through faith, and we’re wondering if Jesus’ answer fits into that okay. Does anything about that line of reasoning bother you? If we sense a difference between Jesus’ answer and Paul’s, wouldn’t it make more sense to question whether the servant agrees with the Master than whether the Master agrees with the servant?
So what do you think? That’s not rhetorical. I’m asking. I don’t believe there is a contradiction between Jesus’ answer and Paul’s. In fact, I just deleted my answer, which would have lengthened this post by another two pages. Instead, I’m inviting you to reply here with your understanding.
A word of caution, though. Let’s not make the same mistake the Lawyer seems to have been making. Let’s not get so caught up in talking about Jesus that we fail to be like him. We can dialog here to sharpen our understanding, but let’s make especially sure we also actually share God’s love everywhere we go today.