Friday, April 11, 2014


Who is my neighbor?  That's an easy one.  It's the person who lives next door, or across the street, the person who keeps his or her yard looking good but not too much better than mine.  Doesn't make a lot of noise  Makes interesting small talk when we meet outdoors (he's white!).  I live in a nice neighborhood.

Not a tough question! Or is it? Apparently a scholar of the Mosaic Law in Jesus' day thought it was a question that needed answering.

Most of us have heard the biblical story of the so-called "Good Samaritan."  It's taught in Sunday school classes, preached in churches and that title has become part of our language.  Yet I fear that most of us have little idea of its context or its meaning.  Though the title may be printed in many of our modern Bibles, it is not found anywhere in the text.  According to my Webster's 11th Collegiate Dictionary, the earliest published record of its use wasn't until 16 centuries after its telling.

In fact, the term "Good Samaritan" would have been, to the first audience of the story, a contradiction in terms.  He would probably have felt that the only good Samaritan is a dead Samaritan!

The context:  Jesus had apparently just finished His prayer in which He thanked His Father for revealing matters to "children" rather than to "the wise and understanding" (see previous post).  I can imagine that the hearer who is next mentioned may have been a bit miffed at all of this and felt the need to question Jesus.

"And then, this legal expert, stood up to test Him saying, 'Teacher what should I do to inherit eternal life?'" (Luke 10:25).

(Luke refers to the questioner as a nomikos, sometimes translated "lawyer."  He was a legal expert or scholar in the Mosaic Law, most likely one who elsewhere would be referred to as a "scribe" (grammateus).)

Thus begins a dialogue between Jesus and this man:  the lawyer asks a question; Jesus answers with a question; the lawyer replies; Jesus answers in essence "do it".  Then a second question and answer session follows with the same structure, except that this time Jesus' question is preceded by a story.

Luke tells us that the lawyer had a motive beyond mere curiosity.  He was testing Jesus.  (For those who may be concerned that faith if not mentioned as the means for "inheriting eternal life," remember the lawyer was not being honest in his questioning and specifically asked, "What must I do ...?")  So Jesus turned the question back on him.  "He said to him, 'In the Law - what is written?  How do you read it?'" (verse 26).

The lawyer answered by quoting what would be called elsewhere the first and second Great Commandments, which Jesus Himself often quoted.  "And he (the lawyer) answered and said, 'You shall 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 your neighbor as yourself'" (verse 27).

To which we read Jesus' reply.  "So He said to him, 'You've answered correctly.  Do this and you'll live'" (verse 28).

This should have been case closed.  But this guy tries to squiggle out of such stringent requirements.  "But he wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, 'And who is my neighbor?'" (verse 29).

The lawyer was looking for a loophole.  He knew - or should have known - who his neighbor was.  One of the passages he quoted was Leviticus 19:18, which was set in the context of various commands relating to one's neighbor, who was of course, his fellow Israelite.  He should also have known that further on in that same chapter there is another command.  "When an alien dwells with you, in your land, you shall not do him wrong.  The alien who dwells among you shall be to you as a native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.  I am the LORD your God!"  (Leviticus 19:33, 34).

And had he been listening to what Jesus said earlier in His Sermon on the Mount, he would have known that the boundaries of our neighborhood go even wider.  "You've heard that it was said, 'You will love your neighbor and hate your enemies,' but I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you!" (Matthew 5:43, 44).

So Jesus gives him the following story and question:  "Jesus replied and said, 'This man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell among bandits who stripped him and beat him up and went away leaving him half dead.  By chance this priest was coming down that way, saw him, crossed over and passed on the other side.  Likewise a Levite, when he came to that place, looked, crossed over and passed on the other side.
          But this Samaritan, traveling along, came across him and when he saw him had compassion.  So he came and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine, then he put him on his own mount and brought him to an inn and took care of him.  And the next day as he was leaving, he gave two denarii to the innkeeper and said, 'Take care of him and whatever you spend over, I'll repay when I return.'
          Which of these three, do you suppose, became a neighbor to the one who fell among bandits?" (verses 30-36).

Jesus compared the behavior of a Priest and a Levite - two highly religious positions in the Judaism of His day - with that of a Samaritan.  Of course, to the Jews of Jesus' day the Samaritans were a despised people, racially mixed and followers of a heretical form of Judaism.  I suppose today we'd consider them members of a cult.  And Jesus rephrased the lawyers' question.  He asks not, "Who is my neighbor?" but "Who became a neighbor?"

Of course, the lawyer knows the answer, but apparently can't bring himself to say the S-word, so he answers rather uncommitedly.  "He said, 'The one who acted with mercy toward him'" (verse 37a).

"Jesus said, 'You get going and do the same!'" (verse 37b).

So what do we get from all this? First of all, that we can never do enough to inherit eternal life.  And second that there are no loopholes in the Law of Love.  To be a neighbor is to love the other person as ourselves.  No exceptions as to who that other is, whom we are to love - racial, religious or any other.

Neighboring has a cost.  In the story the Samaritan gave of his time, his possessions, his money.  He also may have been putting his life under risk - there may have been more bandits around.  I also believe that neighboring puts our personal reputation at risk.  We may have to associate with those who don't make us look good.  Jesus took that risk.


John Kulp said...

Interesting progression in the Samaritan story... First the Samaritan felt "compassion" (splagchnizomai - he was moved in his inward parts) by the plight of the man on the roadside. Then, he acted; he bound his wounds and cared for him.

We seem to have too many people in two groups who ignore that teaching. First, those who want a "loophole" to avoid responsibility for those "along the roads" in our culture. These don't want helping them to be our job; personal or political.

The second group seems to think that if they do enough good deeds, they will be good enough to deserve a relationship with God; or simply feel good when they look in the mirror. They must "prove" their value by good works or it isn't real.

The missing component in both of the above is "compassion". We watch several people die in TV drama each night. We live in areas with manicured lawns where we don't have to see the poor in our towns. We have become a calloused culture, blind to the "people along the roads".

A person who feels compassion in his inward parts, and also lives our that compassion in helping "those along the roads" understands the power of the law of love.

Robert Golliver said...

I pray for compassion like that!! I've been following Jesus (mostly in Oklahoma) for 17 years and still think that people in the dumps most likely deserve to be there (unless I'm out of the country of course). Thank you for the insights in "The Law of Love"!