Luke 10:25–37 is perhaps the most well-known parable. It stresses the inherent interrelationship between how one reacts to people and how one relates to God. At the heart of believing in God is loving Him and others. Being a neighbor does not make distinctions in offering care. The issue is not to define who our neighbor is or to seek to do the minimum we can do. This parable is a call to be a neighbor to everyone, showing compassion to those who are in need.
1. Legal Questions About Inheriting Eternal Life (10:25–28)
a. The Lawyer’s Question (10:25)
Is the lawyer asking only about “getting saved” or is he asking a broader question about pleasing God and receiving all that God has to offer him? The lawyer’s question is, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” In other words, he is asking: “How can I be sure I will be saved?”
b. Jesus’ Question (10:26)
Jesus responds, “What is written in the law?” The commandments are the expression of God’s revealed will for that time. The deflection of the original question also avoids the lawyer’s test, for he was trying to justify himself. Now the lawyer will need to take the opportunity to answer his own question.
c. The Lawyer’s Reply: The Great Commandment—Love God and Neighbor (10:27)
The lawyer answers in terms of what has been called the “Greatest Commandment,” a combination of Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. This text has been known as the “law of love,” since one’s relationships to God and humans are both covered in the command. Both God and humans are to receive love. Such love is not marked by the presence of great feeling, but is objectively manifested in considerate responsiveness. This answer does not defend righteousness by works because love for God and others is an expression of total allegiance and devotion that in other contexts could be called faith. There is no compartmentalization of response; the entire person responds. Devotion to God is expressed by devotion to others, so there is no distinction between devotion to God and treatment of people. They go together. Jesus encourages total love for God and humankind. Love for one’s neighbor is often seen as a summary of the law.
d. Jesus’ Commendation (10:28)
Jesus encourages the lawyer for knowing he is to love God and to serve his fellow humans; he is headed in the way of life. However, just having knowledge of what God requires him to do is not enough. Such knowledge needs to be put into practice. Love that comes from the heart responds with the hands. The Spirit enables the believer to respond (Romans 8:1–11). To love God is to be devoted to the teaching and person of Jesus. Anyone who loves God will respond to His message and, as a result, to fellow humans. Loving God is a summary description of believers (1 Corinthians 2:9; James 1:12, 2:5).
2. Call to Be a Neighbor: The Good Samaritan (10:29–37)
a. The Lawyer’s Question About Neighbors (10:29)
The lawyer wants to clarify who a neighbor is and how extensive the demand is that he loves his neighbor. Was he anxious to correct his past neglect? Was he seeking a clarification that would allow him to feel confident about where he stood? Or did he want to justify his past conduct? The implication is clear that he wished to soften Jesus’ command and not feel a sense of obligation to respond to the needs of others.
It is here that Jesus turns the discussion into a confrontation. Jesus rejects all attempts to shrink the scope of responsibility. The lawyer is looking for the minimum obedience required, but Jesus requires total obedience. That the lawyer seeks the minimum shows that something is wrong: he is approaching God on human terms and not on God’s. Jesus refuses to allow this limitation.
The parable leaves no doubt that the lawyer is challenged by Jesus’ command. The question becomes does he loves God enough to respond? Does he love others enough to be a neighbor to them regardless of their origin? I will paraphrase the lawyer’s question this way: “How can I spot others who belong to God, so that I can love them?” The lawyer’s question about identifying his neighbor is really an attempt to say there is such a person as a “non-neighbor.” Jesus refuses to turn people into a subspecies or into things that can be ignored.
Jesus’ answer to the lawyer’s real question is, “Do not worry about spotting God’s people first, just be a neighbor to everyone, as this Samaritan was.” The scope of the command is greater than the lawyer might have anticipated. All people are to be loved and treated fairly. By choosing the Samaritan as the model, Jesus shows that neighbors may be found anywhere, among any racial group, even in those groups despised by the Jewish leadership.
b. The Parable of the Priest, Levite, and Compassionate Samaritan (10:30–35)
Jesus begins to tell a story about a certain man who falls prey to robbers. The victim is only minimally described, since he is not the focus, those who react to him are. He is traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. This journey had a reputation for being very dangerous. It went from almost 2,600 feet above sea level to 825 feet below sea level and was about 17 miles in length. It was rocky, went through the desert, and was surrounded by caves, which made good hideouts for robbers who laid in wait to attack people and exploit travelers on this road. To meet such robbers was the fate of this man. They were political zealots or what we might call terrorists today. The traveling man is outnumbered by a group of bandits. The robbery left the man in a serious state, for not only was he robbed, stripped, and beaten, he was also “left for dead.” The man is literally “fighting for his life.”
What is the reaction to this tragic scene? Who will respond to this man in dire need? The first man with an opportunity to help is a priest. He was coming down the road “by chance.” This appears to be optimistic; help is around the corner. Having a priest on the road would not be entirely surprising, since many priests lived in this region. Here is God’s servant who ministers in the temple and represents the height of piety. What will he do? When the priest sees the man, he passes by on the other side of the road and provides no help to him. Many motives have been suggested for the priest’s refusal to help: fear of becoming unclean from touching a corpse; hesitation to help someone who may be a sinner; fear of being robbed while giving aid. However, the text gives no motive, nor is it concerned with the reason. The point is that the priest gave no help.
A second Jewish religious leader comes down the road. He too passes on the other side and offers no help. He was a Levite: a member of the tribe of Levi. He was responsible for the less important tasks at the temple and could be thought of as a priest’s assistant. The Greek wording suggests that he took a closer look at the injured man and the place where he lay, but he still walked away. Disappointment with the lack of help is heightened. Official, pious Jewish leaders had two tries to respond and did not. The drama remains, “Who will love this dying man?”
Everything changes as a third man, a Samaritan, arrives on the scene. For a Jew, a Samaritan was among the least respected of people. Eating with Samaritans was equated with eating pork. Such people were unclean and to be avoided. The Samaritan would be the last type of person the lawyer would expect to love the man and resolve the story. The parable’s twist in the story is key. It is a despised Samaritan, who loves the man, outshining the exemplary Jews with his sensitive response. It is he who showed compassion to the half-dead man (Luke 7:13; 15:20). Here is the essence of being a neighbor: having the sensitivity to see a need and act to meet it. It is also a way to define love and show mercy. The account focuses on the Samaritan’s activity as a neighbor. The others scurried past, but this man lingered over the one who needed help.
Jesus describes six concrete compassionate actions that the Samaritan undertakes for this man: He (1) comes up to him and (2) binds his wounds. This might have involved the Samaritan’s ripping up some of his own clothes for bandages. As he engages in the process of bandaging the wounds he (3) anoints the cuts with oil and wine. Oil soothed the wound, while wine disinfected it. He may have deprived himself of refreshment in the midst of his journey to care for the man. He (4) loads the man on his own mule, which probably meant that the Samaritan walked from here on. Then, he (5) takes him to an inn, where he (6) can provide further care and comfort to this man he has just met. He does not dump and run, but stays the night to care for him. As a neighbor, the Samaritan did everything he could to help.
The Samaritan insures the continued care of the man by laying out two days’ wages and offering to pay additional expenses. The innkeeper is to look after the man until the Samaritan returns. The money was enough to take care of the man’s room and board for twenty-four days, since the daily rate for a poor man was about one-twelfth of a denarius. That the Samaritan plans to pay the entire bill is clear. The sense is, “I will repay, not the man.” The Samaritan has taken care of this problem, as well as helping with the man’s physical wounds. This compassionate act, as many compassionate acts do, involved a concrete price that the Samaritan was willing to pay.
c. Jesus’ Question About the Neighbor (10:36)
Jesus asks the lawyer’s opinion about which character acted as a neighbor to the injured man. Compassion, response, and love make a neighbor, not locale or race. Jesus’ question shows what a neighbor is. One should not seek to narrowly define who is a neighbor, so as to limit one’s responsibility. The obligation is not to see what can be avoided, but to render aid when it can be readily supplied.
d. The Lawyer’s Recognition of the Samaritan (10:37a)
The lawyer gives the obvious answer to Jesus’ question, though he cannot bring himself to say “Samaritan.” He focuses instead on the showing of mercy, which was the key to the Samaritan’s exemplary action. The lawyer has seen the point, but has yet to break through his prejudice.
e. Jesus’ Command to Do Like the Samaritan (10:37b)
Jesus calls him to respond. The lawyer is to emulate the Samaritan: “Do this and you will live.” The lawyer should be a neighbor—like the Samaritan was. Love for God expresses itself in a life that is sensitive to others. This is how life is to be pursued and found.
This is a significant passage about a disciple’s ethics. What kind of action does God require of us? We are to love God fully and to manifest that love toward others. If we love God, we will respond obediently to what God asks of us. The outgrowth of that love for God is a response to our fellow humans. We are to love and be a neighbor to those who are part of our lives. We become a neighbor by responding sensitively to the needs of others. If we seek to restrict those we serve, we are not loving and being a neighbor to all people. The issue is not who to serve, but serving where a need exists. We are not to seek to limit who our neighbors might be. Rather, we are to be a neighbor to everyone. Are you and I good neighbors?