Luke 10:25-37 (NIV)
25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii[c] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
For starters, there is an expert of the law (Torah) who Luke says ‘stood up to test Jesus.’ In other words, he wanted to frame Jesus. He wanted to make himself appear correct in regard to fulfilling the requirements necessary to inherit life (blessing from God) in the coming era. The kingdom of God, according to Jesus’ teaching of John the Baptist’s revolutionary prayer, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven…” was highly anticipated by the Jews who were being ruled and oppressed by pagan nations; presently, Rome. A popular dream of the Jews imagined God, the only true and living God, inaugurating a Messianic figure (a King; ruler, emperor, etc.) who would be powerful enough to overthrow any pagan nation and redeem Israel from her covenant exile. Israel would then establish an empire even greater than David or Solomon could’ve imagined. Jesus of Nazareth was becoming more and more popular and was being enamored as this Messianic figure who would begin a new era for Israel, God’s chosen people. Naturally, people were forcing Jesus into being one of their stereotypes. This was not only dangerous for Jesus, to be campaigning while Herod and other opponents saw threats to their own power, but this mischaracterization of God’s Messiah meant mischaracterization of God’s vision for Israel and the pagan nations around her. It meant that the kingdom of God was being misunderstood. The parable of The Good Samaritan has everything to do with God’s love for all people, Jewish or not. Unfortunately for the legal expert (expert of the Torah), any attempts to find blessing in the Messianic era while holding on to a nationalism (which hated any non-Jew and wished for genocide) which was going to be surprised with direct conflict with Jesus’ view of blessing in the Messianic era (which has been translated as ‘eternal life’, literally, life in the coming new age).
First, imagine that there was a legal requirement for Americans to ‘love your neighbors as yourselves’ in the U.S. Constitution. Can you imagine how there might be centuries of debates from Supreme Court justices about what this meant? Sort of like the concept of free speech, there would be attempts to define what the original authors intended and there would be contemporary definitions that lacked a historical context. There would be popular interpretations just as there would be unpopular interpretations amongst justices and amongst Congress. National media would idolize their favorite party’s view and naturally demonize their enemy’s view of ‘love your neighbors as yourselves.’ The general public would have their beliefs as to what that meant. They would be similar to those in the crowds following Jesus. Continue to imagine a presidential election, where there’s a possibility of a change election. One party has occupied the presidency for eight years and the other party is thought to have leverage with potential voters because of the dominance and negativity of the previous administration. And, this party with the potential advantage has been demonized by the media for several years. Now, candidates have finally been selected by their parties and the national conventions are over but the hype is just beginning to get seriously intense. Televised presidential debates have been scheduled and the two candidates have been facing off, firing shots through soundbites pulled out of context and including them in hateful commercials. In one key televised debate, the candidate demonized by most of the media is asked typical loaded questions by the moderators. One moderator asks a question with the intent to catch a candidate off guard and frame the answer for selfish reasons. “Why are you in favor of breaking up and deporting families who are as passionate about the future of the United States and are as patriotic as your own?” Certainly, this could be a “gotcha” moment in a debate. Everyone watching is compelled to the edge of their seat because they sense the tension created by the moderator. In presidential debates, the challenge for the candidates is to answer questions as their constituents want to answer them. Yet, constituents can only wish that politicians will act in accordance with their answers. The Jewish legal expert, sitting among the general public, stood up and questioned (trying to set up) Jesus in a similar way as the moderator of a presidential debate when he asked, “Who is my neighbor?” He wants Jesus to endorse his understanding of the Jewish “Constitution,” the law. Those around Jesus are going to be compelled to listen because the legal expert has created tension using a potential “gotcha” question. Everyone wants to know, “Will Jesus endorse this man’s view?”
It’s important that both the legal expert and Jesus be characterized accurately, and I feel we hear many lessons that fail to do this for us. We are in such a hurry to make a principled point that we threaten the integrity of the biblical text and worse, we pass Jesus off as someone who was busy during his ministry being petty or trivial. Should we try to help someone whom we might find mugged and beaten and left on the side of a dangerous road? Of course. Should we try to help our unchurched neighbors down the street when they have a flat tire, without being judgmental or prejudiced? Of course. Are these the kind of questions that Jesus or the Torah expert were discussing? Not at all. Just like a modern-day moderator of a presidential debate, the Torah expert was asking a loaded question in order to make Jesus look like Jesus was anti-Israel and himself pro-Israel. When the question ‘Who is my neighbor?’ was asked the Torah expert was really saying to Jesus, “You really don’t expect me to believe that the God of Israel is paving a way for peace with our sworn enemies, do you? This could never be what Israel’s Messiah would pursue!!”
Jesus responds with his parable about an Israelite who chose to travel the desert road from Jerusalem to Jericho. This road had plenty of nooks and crannies for any crook wanting to rob an easy target such as this Israelite who seemed to be traveling alone. The man was mugged and beaten and then he was left half dead on the road. A priest and a Levite see the man but continue on. They might think that perhaps the man was left there as a trap so that they too could be mugged. Regardless, they cannot discern whether their fellow Jew, going down to Jericho from Jerusalem, is dead or not, so they don’t risk touching the man if he is dead, lest they contract impurity by touching a corpse. If they contract impurity then they will not be able to fulfill their Temple responsibilities. They’ll be unclean. They leave the man (or his body) there and who knows what will become of the situation. The priest and the Levite view themselves as safe and pure. They are clean ceremonially. They still have their ducks in a row. Their consciences are unblemished. Then, an enemy of the Jews, a Samaritan who is a social outcast, ceremonially defiled, and a heretic according to the Jewish “Constitution,” has mercy upon the mugged and battered Jew. He actually “comes over” (10:34) to the man. He bandages the man’s wounds, picks him up and loads him up on his beast. He takes him to an inn and actually gives the innkeeper two days wages for the trouble, and then says “Bill me for anything else he’ll need.” The Samaritan, though an enemy to the Jews, defines what a neighbor is. At this point, Jesus has made it clear what God’s definition of the second greatest commandment is, “Love your neighbor as yourselves.” The lawyer is forced to endorse Jesus’ understanding of the law and what the goal of the law is. The apostle Paul will later write to the Galatians, “The whole law is fulfilled in one word: You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” (Galatians 5:14). The lawyer tried setting Jesus up with a trap question, “Who is my neighbor?” Yet, Jesus rose to the challenge (Luke 10:30) and wasn’t caught in a ‘gotcha’ moment. He had the presence of mind to recognize the context he was in. He didn’t respond with a knee-jerk answer and say, “All people are Israel’s neighbors, and you should love them as yourselves.” This kind of answer would be perceived as disloyalty to God’s chosen people and would not fit with the Jewish dream of a warrior Messiah who would punish non-Jews. Instead, Jesus responded with a parable that reshaped the lawyer’s question. Jesus basically said, “If you’re wanting to know how the law defines a neighbor, Israel in her present state of affairs is definitely not behaving like a neighbor and isn’t fulfilling the law even though she boasts about being God’s chosen nation. Unless Israel repents, they will not enter the kingdom of God.”
Jesus was making it clear how dangerous it was for Israel to be going down the path of violence toward pagan nations and enemies like the Samaritans, even if they imagined it to be real devotion to God and His coming kingdom. Israel needed to repent, turn around and return to God and to the true spirit of the law. The kingdom of God was at hand. The Messiah was in their midst. They needed to listen to Jesus (Luke 10:9, 21-24). If the expert of the Jewish law truly wanted to be an expert and inherit blessing in the coming kingdom of God, he needed to reinterpret the second greatest commandment and repent. In the parable, Jesus uses an enemy to convey the true Messianic mission. Israel is half-dead on the road and their only hope is going to come from a God who acts like a true neighbor, demonstrating mercy. They’ll discover that kind of mercy in Jesus’ execution and resurrection.
Many today take the story of the “good” Samaritan and use it to encourage us to be good. The story is used to keep reminding ourselves that we should be the neighborly type. We even know of organizations that use the word Samaritan to characterize themselves as having a charitable nature. We all know that our communities could benefit from having this attitude, yet this is nothing revolutionary, and it wasn’t revolutionary when Jesus was asked this question, “Who is my neighbor?” Jews were acting as neighbors toward one another for the most part, but not toward enemy nations. What was revolutionary was Jesus’ redefinition of the second greatest commandment, “You shall love your neighbors as yourselves” (Leviticus 19:18). Jesus basically said it in his other sermons, “You’ve heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. He makes His sun rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Don’t the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” (Matthew 5:43-48).
For us today, the challenge of the parable isn’t to act as individuals attempting to justify ourselves by performing trivial acts of kindness toward our neighbors down the street. The challenge of the parable is to be God’s people, His new creation, by defining what God thinks a neighbor is, demonstrating incredible mercy toward enemies of the real Messiah, Jesus the Christ.