Serving neighbors, serving God (February 8, 2015)

Scripture Passage and Lesson Focus: Luke 10:25-37

The parable of the good Samaritan is perhaps the best known of the many parables Jesus told. No doubt many people who are familiar with this parable prefer to think of themselves as good Samaritans, people who offer help when it is needed. A beautiful stained glass window of the good Samaritan by artist Marc Chagall honors philanthropist John D. Rockefeller in the small country church where the Rockefeller family worshipped. Although few people have the means to do as much good as Mr. Rockefeller, many people aspire to be good Samaritans. The good Samaritan has become a model of compassionate concern for others.

Luke 10:25-28 — Inheriting eternal life
This parable is found only in Luke’s Gospel, where it is the second part of a friendly debate between Jesus and a lawyer. Since the law involved was the Torah, the law of Moses, Jesus is responding to questions from a Scripture scholar, quite possibly a scribe. He addresses Jesus as a teacher. Jesus was evidently recognized as an authority who frequently engaged in discussions about the law. Later, as the oral traditions underlying the Gospels developed, such conversations became more confrontational and the scribes and Pharisees were depicted as the opponents of Jesus. This is especially evident in the Gospels of Matthew and John.

The first question the lawyer asks Jesus is “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” This was not an uncommon topic of discussion among rabbis in first century Hellenistic Judaism. Rabbinic sources indicate that there were different schools of thought on this question.

Jesus responds, as he frequently did, with a question of his own: “What is written in the law?” The lawyer quotes a conflation of Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18b, which together summarize the law of Moses as mandating the love of God and the love of one’s neighbor. Jesus commends his conversation partner for giving a truthful answer, but his response adds a crucial condition: “Do this, and you will live.”

Luke 10:29-37: The good neighbor 
The lawyer responds to Jesus with a second question in an attempt to justify himself: “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus’ response is a parable that describes a hypothetical incident on a dangerous road, the road from Jerusalem to Jericho.

A traveler on that road has been attacked, robbed and left for dead by robbers. Three other travelers on this road come upon the injured man: a priest, a Levite and a Samaritan. The first two, both representatives of the religious establishment, avoid the injured man by passing him by on the other side of the road. The third traveler, a Samaritan, whom Jesus’ listeners would surely have classified as an outsider without proper religious sensitivities, is moved by pity and comes to the aid of the injured traveler. Jesus describes the Samaritan’s care in great detail. He treats the injured person’s wounds, gives him a ride on his own donkey to an inn, provides money for his stay at the inn and promises to return to completely cover the injured person’s bill.

Then Jesus asks a question that reformulates his debate partner’s question. As commentator John Carroll and others have observed, in Jesus’ question the neighbor is not the object of the commandment to love, but the subject whose act of love defines what it means to love one’s neighbor. The emphasis of the parable is on actively obeying the law by doing what the law requires. That is what neighbors do.

The lawyer easily gets the main point of the parable and acknowledges that the Samaritan’s act of mercy identified him as the one who acted in a neighborly way. Jesus’ response to the lawyer’s second correct answer puts a heavy responsibility on his conversation partner: “Go and do likewise.”

Jesus presents his questioner — and all of us who are the readers — with an existential challenge. Do what is right whenever you see an opportunity to serve. That is where you will find your neighbor and that is where you can serve God.

For discussion
What recent opportunities have you and/or your congregation had to be a good Samaritan? How does our society make it easy not to see persons who have been injured in our communities or in our world? First century Jews often considered Samaritans enemies, so Jesus might have shocked his hearers by having a Samaritan as a model of lawful behavior. Have you ever been helped by an unexpected good Samaritan?

JAMES A. BRASHLER is professor emeritus of Bible at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.