And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” [Luke 10:25 (RSV)]
Operating on a salvation by works mentality, the lawyer/expert in Mosaic law asked what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. When Jesus asked what the law said, the man cited Deuteronomy 6:5, about total devotion to God, and Leviticus 19:18, about loving his neighbor as himself. When Jesus told him, “Do this, and you will live,” the man realized that perfect obedience to loving everyone wasn’t possible. Hoping to limit the commandment to something more attainable, he searched for a loophole and asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Perhaps he was thinking of the words found in the book of Sirach (a collection of moral counsel and maxims well known in Jesus’ time), “If you do a kindness, know to whom you do it, and you will be thanked for your good deeds. … Give to the godly man, but do not help the sinner.” [12:1,4] These words reflected the prevailing view of the time that kindheartedness and aid were mainly for family, friends, or a righteous deserving person, but certainly not to one’s enemies.
To help define “neighbor,” Jesus told the parable about the Good Samaritan. While travelling the dangerous road from Jerusalem to Jericho, a Jew was attacked by bandits, stripped of his clothes, beaten, and left half-dead beside the road. First a priest and then a Levite pass by. Although they both clearly see the wounded man, each man ignores him. They may have been in a rush or afraid that they might be set upon by bandits if they lingered. Not sure whether the man was dead or alive, perhaps they feared that, by touching a corpse, they’d become ceremonially unclean and unable to fulfill their Temple duties. The priest, however, wasn’t going “up” to serve in the Temple; he was going “down” the road to Jericho. Even if the Levite was on his way to the Temple, the oral tradition overrode the prohibition of defilement in the case of an abandoned corpse and commanded that any corpse be given a proper burial. Maybe the priest and Levite remembered the words in Sirach—they didn’t know the man, couldn’t expect a proper thank you and, for all they knew, the man was a sinner and deserved the beating. In any case, they clearly forgot the commandment about loving their neighbor as themselves!
While Jesus’ audience may have been scandalized by the behavior of the priest and Levite, Jesus often was tough on the religious leaders in His parables. I suspect His listeners expected a Jewish lay person to be the hero of the story, in which case they could go home and feel good about themselves. Rather than a fellow Jew, however, the hero of the story was a hated Samaritan, which must have shocked and perplexed Jesus’ audience. Even though Jews and Samaritans detested one another, where the devout Jews had ignored the law, a Samaritan fulfilled it! When Jesus asked the lawyer which of the three was a neighbor, unable to say, “The Samaritan,” he answered, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus replied, “Go and do likewise!” Few believed in doing good to one’s enemies until Jesus taught us that there are no religious, ethnic, economic, racial, political, or cultural lines in God’s Kingdom.
Although Jesus clearly defined “neighbor” as everyone—friend and foe alike—let’s not forget the original question was what the lawyer needed to do to inherit eternal life—something left unanswered in the parable. There is nothing we can do to work our way to heaven because we can’t obey the law as perfectly as God demands it be obeyed. None of us are capable of living as selflessly as did Jesus or even the fictitious Good Samaritan. Nevertheless, Jesus calls us to live a life of compassion with no boundaries. We can’t do it perfectly and we can’t meet every need but, by the grace of God and with the power of the Holy Spirit, we can be His instruments of compassion. That is how we love our neighbor.