We all know the story of the Good Samaritan. We’ve heard a score of sermons that have, as their core lesson, the rescue of a battered traveller by an unlikely hero—a Samaritan. The take away from the parable can go one of two ways.
First, our perceived enemies may not really be enemies and may have more compassion than our, so called, fellow countrymen. Think: a terrorist stopping to pick up an injured Christian while other Christians scurry past the injured person.
Secondly, the story is about Jesus, the true good Samaritan, who saves the man from death by either exposure or wild animals, places him upon his own donkey and leads him to safety where He even pays the bill to assure the victim is properly cared for.
But there is more going on in this story than first meets the eye because the story really revolves around a question asked by a teacher of the law.
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?”
27 He answered, “‘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.”
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?” Luke 10:25-29
This teacher of the Mosaic law has decided to test Jesus by asking a simple question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Before we go much further we need to understand that ‘eternal life’ for the teacher of the law was not about living forever. Eternal life defined the quality of life that comes from living in harmony and relationship with God. This ‘eternal life’ was what allowed a person to live the good life now. Also we should remember that, for a teacher of the law, the answer to the question of how to have eternal life was, of course, to keep the Torah (the law of the first five books of Scripture.)
In 1st Century Judaism when teachers interacted with each other it was through the asking of questions. So in response to the man’s question Jesus asks two questions in return. “What is written in the Law?” and “How do you read it?”
The man responds by quoting Leviticus and Deuteronomy which are his go-to-books being a teacher of Mosaic Law. He answers, “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.”
Jesus, responds, “you have answered correctly,” then he adds, “do this and you will live.”
But the teacher of the law is not finished yet. He asks one more question, “And who is my neighbor?” Notice Luke tells us the reason that the man said this was because, “He wanted to justify himself.” The man was trying to justify himself for picking and choosing who his neighbors were. As a student of the Torah he knew very well the meaning of neighbours, but he didn’t want to love his neighbour who wasn’t up to his standards. The Samaritans, the gentiles, slaves, women, the sick, the poor and the broken he wanted to dismiss as neighbours, but Jesus wouldn’t let him off the hook so He tells the story of the Good Samaritan.
When Jesus finishes the parable he asks the man one more question? “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” Luke 10:36
The answer of course is the Samaritan but the teacher of the law hates Samaritans with such a passion that he can’t even say the word, he simply replies, “The one who had mercy on him.” Luke 10:37 Jesus then tells him, “Go and do likewise.”
So the gist of the story is more than about a rescue, it is about coming to grips with who our neighbors are. And it seems they are our enemies, the outcasts, the despised, and the despicable as well as the nice person living physically next door to us. Our neighbors are more than our friends, our church associates, or our work colleagues.
The good life, the connected to Jesus life, eternal life, is found in love. As Christians we spend so much of our time looking forward to heaven that we often forget that eternal life is really about our relationship with God right now. The key to that relationship is to remember we are loved unconditionally and God asks us to love others in the same manner. Of course Jesus is not asking us to love others as we would love a spouse or child, or father or mother. But He is telling us that we must have compassion for our neighbor and that often means going out of our way to help and caring what happens to others.
No, we don’t have the option to choose who is our neighbor. Our neighbor is everyone.