Who Is My Neighbor? (the parable of the good samaritan)

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The Parable of the Good Samaritan is one of my favorite parables. I know, I know… I say that about all of them. But seriously the Good Samaritan message is good! If you haven’t read it do it here: Luke 10:25-37

Jesus displays his genius by not only not falling for a trap, but by turning the tables back on the person who asked the question.

Let’s start with the set-up. 

The Set-Up

Anytime a religious leader, in this case, a lawyer, tries to trap Jesus you know it’s going to get good. And this case is no exception.

His opening question (Luke 10:25) seems very reasonable, What must I do to inherit eternal life? But the author tells us his intentions were less than stellar. So right off the bat we know he doesn’t really care about what Jesus has to say. He wants to trap Jesus. And he does with a complex theological question.

The first thing we should take note of is who is asking this question. A lawyer, or religious expert. In other words this guy knows his stuff. He likely has most of the law (scripture) memorized. Because he’s so familiar with the law he knows that this is not an easy question to answer. He’s not asking because he’s interested in the answer; he’s asking because he wants to trip Jesus up. And he asks a question that would trip up even the best teachers of the day.

Rather than answer this trick question, Jesus asks another question (Luke 10:26). He knows that this guy would rather talk than listen. So Jesus throws the question back at him. What do you think?  And here’s the thing… He answered correctly (Luke 10:27-28). He gets it right.

Jesus even tells him he answers right, but he tacks on that it’s not okay to just know it. You have to actually live it. The lawyer is sharp and he sees what Jesus just did. Jesus just called him out on not living up to what he believes. Now he’s faced with how to respond. He can either repent and fix his ways. Or try to justify his actions. He chose the latter.

The Twist

And who is my neighbor?  – The Lawyer

Realizing he can’t actually live out the law perfectly, he searches for the loophole. He’s not interested in following Jesus; he just wants the rewards. He doesn’t want to know who his neighbor is; rather who his neighbor isn’t. That way he can narrow the field so he can claim that he is fulfilling the law.

Before we go about criticizing this guy, he was following common teaching of the day. Rabbinic literature of the day made a clear distinction that your “neighbor” was only to include Israelites. What Jesus’ story does is it expands the parameters of who is my neighbor far beyond where this lawyer, any Jew, or even us today feel comfortable.

The Start of the Story

Jesus launches into his parable (Luke 10:30) that gives response not just to the Lawyer’s second question, “Who is my neighbor?” but also his first, “What must I do to be saved?

While Jesus’ story is fictional, the details are pulled from real life. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was known to be dangerous. Thieves would often hide in the many caves, curves, and cliffs and ambush unsuspecting travelers. So when Jesus mentions this road and that a man was traveling alone those listening would instantly have thought how of how foolish of a decision this man-made by traveling alone.

The inevitable happens… The traveler is beaten up and robbed. To no surprise of the audience. The surprise of the story is what happens next.

The Religious Losers

The traveler is barely hanging onto life when a Priest comes across him (Luke 10:31). But the initial hope is soon dissipated. He doesn’t help. Not only does he not help, Jesus makes clear that he went out of his way to pass by on the other side of this half-dead traveler.

Then a Levite comes by the traveler. Surely he will stop and help, right? Nope. He too passes by on the other side.

To really understand what is going on in Jesus’ story we need to understand the customs of the day. Both of these first two people are clergymen. A priest’s job was to officiate temple sacrifices and Levites helped maintain the temple and its’ services. Both of these jobs required them to remain ceremonially clean while on duty. There was a list of things they couldn’t do, one of them being touching a dead body. Of course these rules weren’t supposed to keep people from helping those in need. Thus they are likely using this as a selfish excuse not to help.

These religious leaders were more concerned with their outward appearance of cleanliness than the actual condition of their heart. This isn’t the only time Jesus makes this point. He criticizes the Pharisees for only cleaning the outside of the cup but neglecting the inside in Matthew 23:25 and Luke 11:39. Jesus is getting at the same point here. It’s where your heart is that matters. And for these characters in the story, it was in the wrong place.

The lawyer’s heart has to be sinking because he can see himself in the story. But it’s about to get worse for him.

The Unsuspecting Hero

“But a Samaritan…” Luke 10:33

Those words today are lost on us. When we see the word Samaritan we think of something good. The term “Good Samaritan” would have been an oxymoron to the lawyer and the Jews of the day. The Samaritans were hated by the Jews and were seen as half-breeds. There was an intense rivalry that often turned violent. So the fact that an unclean Samaritan was the hero of the story would have been a punch straight to the gut.

Jesus doesn’t stop with the Samaritan just checking on the guy; he goes above and beyond (Luke 10:34-35).  The Samaritan not only has compassion but his compassion moves him to action. He cleans and binds up his wounds, brings him to an inn, cared for him, and paid for his stay. At great cost to himself, he ensured this man was cared for.

The symbolism in this story is striking. The Samaritan was hated by the religious leaders. As was Jesus. He rescued the person that needed him the most. As did Jesus on the cross. And he did all of this out of love for someone that could never repay him. As did Jesus.

The Punchline

The story is over and the audience is stunned. But Jesus isn’t done yet. Remember this story was brought on by two questions and Jesus is now circling back around to them.

The lawyer’s question of “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” and “who is my neighbor?” show that he was focused on the wrong thing. He was concerned with correct theology. But Jesus shows that knowing the right answer is insufficient. All the correct Bible knowledge is useless if we don’t lead it to life transformation.

Jesus shows the lawyer he was asking the wrong question. The question isn’t who is my neighbor, or what’s the right thing to believe. Rather, how can I be a good neighbor, or how can I live out my beliefs?

Jesus ends with a punch to the gut. “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The lawyer can’t even answer… “The one who had mercy on him.” He cannot even mention the name. But he can’t ignore the obvious message of the parable. He knows what he must do; now he has to wrestle with if he will actually live that way.

The Good Samaritan Message

It’s easy to read this story and look down on the lawyer. But this story should be used as a mirror to examine ourselves. Are we more like the lawyer or the good samaritan? Are you being a good neighbor? It’s easy to quickly answer that question. But Jesus’ story forces us to actually examine our lives to see for ourselves. 

We’ve heard the Parable of the Good Samaritan the question is how will we respond. Do we think our correct theology, or beliefs, are enough? We will be a good neighbor to everyone in life, even those we don’t like?

If you liked this article, check out some of the other articles I’ve written on Jesus’ parables.

What We Can Learn From the Rich Man and Lazarus

Judge Not (what Jesus really meant)

What We Need to Know About the Parable of the Talents

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