An expert in the Law of Moses came to Jesus and asked Him “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
The Scripture says the man asked this question to test Jesus, and in accordance with His usual style in such situations, instead of answering the question Himself, Jesus asked the man what he thought: “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” What tasteful conversation skills—allowing the expert to speak on his area of expertise. Well played, Jesus.
“’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.'”
“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
This was perhaps a brief moment of pride for the law expert—his conclusion had just been affirmed, after all. But he wanted to justify himself, the scripture says. So he asked this question: “Who is my neighbor?”
At this point, Jesus could have very easily just answered straightforwardly—“Well, anyone near you who is in need is your neighbor.” That is how we like to summarize Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. But that’s not actually the point. Jesus never really answered the man’s question, despite the fact that the question itself does logically follow the train of thought of the command, “Love your neighbor”.
As Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan, it demonstrates that this expert in the law was asking the wrong question—and for the wrong reason.
Let’s read the story for ourselves in Luke 10:30-35:
A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half-dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 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. The next day he took out two silver coins 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.’
This scenario gives us one man who is hurt, and several men who interacted with him. If Jesus were directly answering the man’s question, he’d have set up a story in which one man is wondering who his neighbor is, and then has to choose between several options. Jesus turns the question on its head, demonstrating that obeying God by loving others doesn’t begin with my evaluation of their worthiness, but with my willingness to help anyone who is in need.
The priest and the Levite demonstrate the hearts of someone asking the wrong question—seeking to justify themselves, they’re the ones thinking, “Who is my neighbor? This man? No. I don’t know the man. Besides, I am important and must get to my important destination and do my important religious things for God. This man’s blood will defile me and make me late. I don’t have to help him—he’s not my neighbor. Perhaps someone else will help him.” Ah, the logic of self-justification, taking the word “neighbor” in God’s command and finding in it a loophole that allows selective obedience.
In contrast, we see a Samaritan come along and take pity on a man who is his social and political enemy—by no stretch of the imagination is this injured man his neighbor. The Jews despised Samaritans, and it’s likely the Samaritans returned the sentiment. This Samaritan, however, doesn’t seem to get tripped up with “Is this man my neighbor?” He simply sees a man in need. And then sees to it personally that those needs are met.
How does Jesus bring this lesson home for the man who sought to justify himself?
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
Never mind the first question, Jesus is saying. Answer this question.
The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”