READ : Luke 10:25-37
The Lord reminds us here that genuine faith will always make us live differently. It will make lovers out of us. Faith that does not change your behavior isn’t going to change your eternal destination!
Here is one of the best-known of all Jesus’ parables.
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “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 neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two [coins], gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
Luke 10:25-37 NRSV
That is the familiar parable of the Good Samaritan. But what did Jesus mean by this story? Why did he tell it? One good way of coming to grips with Jesus’ intention is by looking at the three questions which form the parable’s framework.
What Must I Do To Inherit Eternal Life?
The first question was asked by a lawyer, that is to say, a teacher of Israel’s religious law; in contemporary terms: a professional theologian. This man approached Jesus one day and said, “Teacher, what do I have to do to inherit eternal life?” The gospel account says that the man asked his question “to test Jesus” (v. 25). In other words, it wasn’t necessarily a sincere request for understanding! This was an attempt to show Jesus up or catch him in a mistake to embarrass him. Or perhaps the lawyer only wanted to make Jesus prove how much he knew and how wise he was by demonstrating his mastery of the Old Testament law.
Whether this biblical expert was actually hostile to Jesus and wanted to discredit him, or whether he was merely skeptical and was attempting to evaluate Jesus’ credentials as a teacher, his attitude was critical and condescending. The lawyer undoubtedly felt he already knew the correct answer, after all, he was an expert in the law. Maybe he was hoping that Jesus’ reply would give him a chance to show off his own brilliance and insight. So the response Jesus made to him seemed like a welcome opportunity. “Well, what does the Law say?” replied Jesus. “You are an expert; how do you interpret it?” (cf. v. 26).
And the theologian quoted the familiar summary of the Law of God: “Love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
“That is exactly right!” says Jesus. “Now just go do that.” (v. 27). How simple! No arguments, no chance to show off one’s knowledge or score debating points “just do it.” “You want to know how to inherit eternal life? The Law says to love God and love people, so get on with it, go love them.” End of discussion.
Who Is My Neighbor?
Jesus’ blunt answer took his questioner aback. It was so obvious, once it was put that way, so down to earth. I have a feeling that this theologian wanted to philosophize with Jesus, perhaps raise the issue of the nature of eternal life or engage in an interesting discussion about the interpretation of some difficult biblical passages, but instead Jesus just gave him something to do. Go love God with all your heart, and love your neighbor the way you naturally love yourself and your own, and you will have eternal life. I think the religious teacher must have been terribly disappointed in Jesus whose response to his question took all the wind out of his sails.
But then in a flash of inspiration, the man comes up with a follow-on question: “And who is my neighbor?” Luke, the Gospel writer, adds another note at this point. He says that the man asked his first question about how to gain eternal life in order to test Jesus. This second question, comments Luke, was asked because “he wanted to justify himself” (v. 29).
It seems that the practical response Jesus made to the man’s first question not only surprised him but made him feel just a bit uncomfortable. This was getting a little too personal. The theologian had entered this encounter with the intention of testing Jesus; now suddenly he realizes he’s the one being tested. He is on the defensive, faced with the demands of God’s law on his own life. So the man tries to regain control of the conversation by making it theoretical again: “Let’s talk about this concept of the neighbor. How would you define that, Jesus?”
I think Jesus must have loved this rather shifty theologian because he took him seriously enough to give him a straight answer to his evasive question. And he did it with a story so powerful that the answer got through. We all know it. It’s the one about the fellow who fell victim to a gang of thugs while traveling on a dangerous stretch of road one day. He laid there helpless while a priest and a Levite passed by, only to be saved, rescued by a Samaritan, of all people!
The power of the parable lies in its shock effect. The very ones who should have been readiest to help the man refused to stop. The priest and the Levite were, in effect, the clergymen of Jesus’ day, and as such might be expected to set an example in meeting the law’s demands of love. But they failed dismally. Their behavior was not accidental or inadvertent; it was intentional. Jesus says that when they saw the wounded traveler, they deliberately avoided him. Both priest and Levite sinned by omission when they saw the man, they passed by on the other side. Their sin lay not in what they did, but in what they failed to do, their refusal to take the trouble to help someone in great need.
No doubt both these religious leaders had their excuses. They were in a hurry, perhaps on their way to the Temple for worship. The traveler was lying in a dangerous spot, and if they lingered what happened to him could very well befall them. To stop and help would be costly in time and trouble as well as money. After all, it took the Samaritan a whole day out of his way. If the man were still alive it would detain them, and if he were dead then touching his corpse would make the priest and Levite ritually unclean and unable to perform their religious duties.
So they both took the easy way out. Turning aside, they passed by as if they never saw the wounded traveler. All it takes, you know, is just looking the other way. Your hands will have no work to do if you do not let your eyes see the need.
Which of These Was a Neighbor?
Now at last it’s time for the third question, and this time it’s Jesus’ turn to do the asking. The most important question of all is the one Jesus threw back at the lawyer at the end of the parable. “Tell me,” asks Jesus, “which of the three men in the story do you think was a neighbor to the wounded traveler?” (v. 36). “The one who had mercy on him,” answered the man quietly. But that was the Samaritan! Here is the ultimate shock in this story of unexpected twists. That the religious leaders should fail to help a fellow Jew in distress is disturbing enough, but that a despised, half-pagan outcast should be the one who responds in love well, that got everybody’s attention.
And it is Jesus’ final question which provides us the key to understanding the whole parable. The story of the Good Samaritan is a dramatic response to the question, “Who is my neighbor? Who is the person, who are the people, that the Law tells me to love the way I love myself and my own family?” The answer to that is clear: the man in the road is my neighbor. My neighbor is anyone I see in need, whatever the need, whoever the person. But if you look closely, you’ll notice that the question Jesus actually puts to the lawyer is slightly different. He asks the man, “Which one of the three men in the story was a neighbor to the man in the road?” The answer, of course, was the one who did something, the one who helped the one who went out of his way, the one who took the time and the trouble, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Now comes Jesus’ devastating punch line. “Go and do likewise” (v. 37). The issue is not so much “Who is my neighbor?” The issue is: “Am I caring for those in need around me? Or am I passing by on the other side” Jesus’ main concern is not that we identify our neighbors; it’s that we love them. He expects action from us.
So think back to the opening question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The answer is to love God and others. Now this does not contradict the fundamental gospel truth that we are saved by God’s grace through faith in Christ, and not by our good works. But the Lord reminds us here that genuine faith will always make us live differently. It will make lovers out of us. Faith that does not change your behavior isn’t going to change your eternal destination!