“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:37-38)
For the next several weeks I will be writing about passages of Scripture on which I’ve preached over the summer. I begin today with the parable of the Good Samaritan. This passage is found in Luke’s gospel, chapter ten, verses twenty-five through thirty-seven.
As the story opens, a lawyer approaches Jesus with a question while Jesus is speaking to a crowd of people. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”, he asks (v. 25b). This is not an innocent question. The lawyer’s intent is to put Jesus to the test.
As far as many Pharisees, scribes and lawyers are concerned, Jesus seems to be taking liberties with the law, ignoring aspects of it and openly violating it on some occasions. So from their point of view putting Jesus to the test, with a question designed to draw him out about how he interprets the law, is a faithful thing to do. They don’t want illegitimate rabbis leading their people astray.
For devout Jews, such as these, keeping the law, as well as following the multitude of instructions about how to keep it, is essential in the effort to regain control of their country from the Romans. These religious leaders are keenly aware of why their forebears lost the land six hundred years before. God exiled their ancestors to Babylon because they were unfaithful; they did not keep God’s law. And even though many Jews were returned to Jerusalem, eventually, and the temple was rebuilt, the Jewish people remain subjects in their own land under a foreign ruler.
For Jewish legal scholars the way to freedom is through observing every aspect of the law. They believe God will return an heir of King David to the throne in Jerusalem if they are faithful to all of God’s commands, this time. So to them, Jesus is a threat to this effort. But what they don’t realize is that Jesus is David’s heir and God’s chosen Messiah.
When the lawyer questions him about how to inherit eternal life, Jesus turns to the law and presses the lawyer about it, for he knows the law is what lies at the heart of the lawyer’s question. The lawyer responds by quoting from the Book of Deuteronomy and the Book of Leviticus: “’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 pronounces this answer fit. But the lawyer isn’t through testing him.
What is at issue for the lawyer is how Jesus defines the law’s boundaries. As far as the lawyer is concerned it isn’t enough to know what the law says. He wants Jesus to clarify what the law about loving God and neighbor requires – and what it does not. Knowing the boundaries and keeping within them, doing what is required, but no more, is the concern of first century lawyers and Pharisees. Their interest is with the letter of the law, in fulfilling the literal requirement.
A literal approach to the law makes perfect sense if one thinks living up to all that it requires, but no more, is the ticket to salvation – to regaining control of Jerusalem. The lawyer is asking for clarification: to whom must he show love? In other words, he wants to find out who his neighbor is, and isn’t, so that he loves only those he has to. This is what it means to keep the letter of the law.
For a Jew in Jesus’ time, one’s neighbor was thought to be a fellow Jew, someone nearby. In fact, the word, neighbor, comes from the word for “near.” But in his answer, Jesus blows apart this whole concept of neighbor as being someone nearby. Not only that, instead of answering the question, “Who is my neighbor?”, he tells a story about someone behaving in a neighborly way.
Most likely, you are acquainted with the story Jesus tells: A man is traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho and runs into criminals who beat him up, steal all his belongings and leave him beside the road for dead. Both a priest and a Levite, who happen to be passing by, notice the injured man, but, cross over to the other side and walk on. That may sound heartless to our ears, but priests, who are descendants of Moses’ brother Aaron, as well as all Levites are set aside from the rest of the Jewish population to serve in the Temple. They must, therefore, keep themselves free from all contamination. The law sets this forth.
So, they pass the seemingly dead man by. Instead, it is a Samaritan, a person law-loving Jews hate because they are not authentic Jews – and they do not faithfully keep the law – who fulfills the law in this story. The Samaritan is moved with pity when he sees the injured man. He stops and bandages the man’s wounds. He places the man on his own donkey and takes him to an inn where he promises to pay the innkeeper in full for the man’s stay, until he is fully recovered.
When he finishes telling the parable, Jesus turns to the lawyer and asks, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” It appears the lawyer cannot bring himself to say the word, “Samaritan”; instead he says, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus then gets in the last word, “Go and do likewise.”
What Jesus is saying is that fulfilling the law requires mercy and compassion. It isn’t about knowing the boundaries and doing only what lies within them. This violates the whole spirit of the law. Jesus is rejecting a simplistic and literal interpretation of the law in favor of a compassionate and just one. This is the way his Father views the law, as the prophet Micah says:
He has showed you, O man, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God. (6:8)
Jesus effectively stretches the boundaries until they no longer exist.
He does a similar thing, when in Matthew’s gospel, Peter asks him how often he should forgive someone who has sinned against him. Peter thinks he is mercifully expanding the boundaries of the law when he suggests, in answer to his own question, seven times. But Jesus responds, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times,” which means an infinite number of times. (Matthew 18:21-22) Mercy and compassion know no boundaries and they trump the letter of the law, every time.
So this is what we are to do, according to Jesus: show mercy and compassion to anyone – and everyone. No longer can we look the other way and say, “It’s not my problem,” because there is now no one about whom we can say, “He or she is not my neighbor.”
Next Week: The Good Samaritan, part 2: Who is my Savior?