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Discipleship: Looking to Our Neighbor, to Jesus and to God

Now Luke turns from mission and discipleship to basic attitudes the disciple is to possess. In a series of three passages he addresses attitudes toward neighbor, spending time with Jesus and prayer to God. The grouping is important. It suggests connections among the various relationships. How we respond to our neighbor and how we walk with God are connected; in fact, both Jesus and the lawyer connect the two concepts in Luke 10:27-28. Ethics is not an abstract question of options in a particular situation; it is a matter of character developed through a walk with God and a focus on Jesus.The Parable of the Good Samaritan (10:25-37)

One of the most abstract, but important, questions we can wrestle with is the goal of life. Humankind has struggled with this question throughout its history. During my first year at university, I took a course called "The Nature of Man," which devoted an entire semester to this question. We studied and discussed what the great minds in history had said about the purpose of life. I was an agnostic at the time, and it was a fascinating journey. Many people engage in such a quest whether they have religious interests or not. Most of us sense that power and possessions are really meaningless life goals. Surely there is something more.

In this passage a theist asks Jesus how one can inherit eternal life. This Jewish lawyer knows that God exists and that he is accountable to that God, so his question is particularly focused: "Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" If God exists, then the goal of life must be related to his purpose for us. The terminology of the question is unique to New Testament time, but it has a rich background, since the Bible speaks of inheritance in many ways (Mt 19:29; Mk 10:17; Tit 3:7; 1 Pet 3:7; L. T. Johnson 1991:172; Bultmann 1964a:864 n. 274). In the Old Testament one could inherit the land (Gen 28:4; Deut 1:8; 2:12; 4:1). Or one might speak of the Lord as one's inheritance (Ps 15:5 LXX). Mention is made of an "eternal inheritance," but its nature is not specified in the context (Ps 36:18 LXX). Daniel 12:2 speaks of the just who will rise to eternal life.

The lawyer seems focused on this last possibility. He assumes that he must do something to gain life everlasting. In effect he asks how he can be sure to participate in and be blessed at the resurrection of the dead. Jewish scribes would have great interest in such questions, not only for personal reasons but because they were interested in interpreting the law for the community.

The lawyer's question seems to assume that he must earn such a reward, though when Jesus probes him we see that he knows that works are not the issue. Jesus calls for reflection on the law, asking, "What is written in the Law? How do you read it?" He is asking for scriptural support.

The lawyer responds well (v. 28) by citing Deuteronomy 6:5, a text that has become known as the "great commandment": "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." This text could well be called "the law of love." The reply shows that the issue is not action per se but the heart. Do I love God fully? That is the starting point. Everything else grows out from that relationship.

This is a relationship of trust and devotion, a truth that lies at the heart of Jesus' reply and explains why Jesus' approval is not an endorsement of works righteousness. When Jesus says, "Do this and you will live," he is saying that relationship to God is what gives life. The chief end of humankind is to love God wholly. We were designed to love; but to love well, we must love the right person. Here is the definition of life that brings life. And the product of our love for God will be a regard for others made in his image, those whom God has placed next to us as neighbors. The New Testament often connects one's relationship to God to one's response to others (Mt 5:43; 19:19; Jn 13:34-35; 15:8-12; Gal 5:14; Col 1:3-5; 1 Thess 1:1; Philem 6; Jas 2:8; 1 Pet 2:17; 1 Jn 4:11). To respond to the law means to love God. To live by the Spirit means to love and do righteousness (Rom 8:1-11).

The lawyer is confused, even though his answer is correct, because he still thinks that eternal life is earned rather than received in the context of a love relationship with God. It is also important to set this discussion in its context. Jesus has just said that to know the Father one must know the Son (vv. 21-24). So to love the Father will also mean to love Jesus. If Jesus brings the kingdom message, then he must be heeded as well. This is why 1 Corinthians 2:9 describes believers in Christ as those who love God.

But the lawyer latches on to the second part of the reply about one's neighbor. Exactly where does his responsibility fall? Does it have limits? Luke is clear that the lawyer has not understood the thrust of Jesus' reply, for he notes that the lawyer is seeking to justify himself by his next question. The question Who is my neighbor? is really an attempt to limit who one's neighbor might be. In ancient culture, as today, such limits might have run along ethnic lines. There was a category of "nonneighbor," and the lawyer is seeking Jesus' endorsement of that concept. In contemporary terms, any of various forms of racism may underlie the scribe's question: there are neighbors, "my folk," and then there are the rest, "them." Perhaps the lawyer could appeal to a text like Leviticus 19:16 for support: my concern is for "my people."

Jesus' reply not only challenges the premise but brings a shocking surprise: each of us is to be a neighbor and realize that neighbors can come from surprising places. Jesus' words reflect Leviticus 19:33-34: even "sojourners" deserve love. In addition, the ethic of Hosea 6:6 seems reflected here.

The original impact of the parable of the good Samaritan is generally lost today. After centuries of good biblical public relations, our understanding of a Samaritan as a positive figure is almost a cultural given. But in the original setting, to a Jewish scribe a Samaritan would have been the exact opposite, a notorious "bad guy" and traitor (see discussion on 9:51-56 above). That is an important emotive element to remember as we proceed through this parable. The hero is a bad guy. Culturally he is the last person we would expect to be hailed as an exemplary neighbor.

In fact, the parable turns the whole question around. The lawyer asks who his neighbor is in the hope that some people are not. Jesus replies, "Just be a neighbor whenever you are needed, and realize that neighbors can come from surprising places."

The story builds on a common situation, a seventeen-mile journey on the Jericho-to-Jerusalem road. This rocky thoroughfare was lined with caves that made good hideouts for robbers and bandits. The road was notoriously dangerous, the ancient equivalent to the inner city late at night. Josephus notes how some took weapons to protect themselves as they traveled this road and others like it (Jewish Wars 2.8.4 125).

In Jesus' story, a man is overcome by a band of robbers and left on the road to die. As he lies there, his life passes before him. Then a priest comes down the road. The expectation culturally would be relief: "Surely help is on the way now." Luke's statement that the priest appeared "by chance" (Greek) suggests a note of hope that fortune has smiled on the wounded man. The NIV renders this A priest happened to be going down the same road. But the priest does not stop. Rather, he crosses to the other side and keeps going. The detail about crossing the road is no accident. It is a brilliant use of literary space: the priest gets as far away as possible from the wounded man as he passes by.

A Levite, another potential source of aid, arrives on the scene. As one who served in the temple, he will surely have compassion, stop and render aid. But when he sees the man, he also crosses to the other side of the road and keeps on moving. So two men of similar Jewish background have failed to render aid. They have failed to be neighbors.

Interpreters speculate as to why they refuse to help. Do they fear being jumped themselves? Do they fear being rendered unclean? The text gives us no reason. As is often the case, the bother and discomfort of helping have kept the man dying on the road. Getting involved is costly, and for many the investment is too high. But to refuse to help is moral failure.

But now another traveler comes on the scene. In Greek the text highlights this man's arrival by placing his ethnic identity, a Samaritan, at the front of the description. The scribe hearing Jesus tell the story must be thinking, "There will be no help from this half-breed." But as often happens in Jesus' parables, a twist on cultural expectations yields this story's major point: the despised schismatic will be the model of neighborliness. Maybe "enemies" can love God and be examples.

Jesus focuses his language now. In as many words as he used to describe the activity of the two Jewish leaders, he details all the Samaritan does to save the man--six actions in all. He comes up to the man, binds his wounds, anoints him with oil to comfort him, loads him on his mule, takes him to an inn and cares for him, even paying for his whole stay. In fact, given the amount the Samaritan leaves with the innkeeper, the injured man probably has about three and a half weeks to recover if he needs it, since the going inn rate was one-twelfth of a denarius and two denarii was two days' wages.

Jesus' question to close the story requires no brilliant reply: "Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?"

The lawyer knows, but he cannot even bring himself to mention the man's race. The lawyer is choosy about his neighbors. He does not understand the call of God. Nevertheless, he answers, "The one who had mercy on him."

This reply is correct, so Jesus simply says, "Go and do likewise." Jesus' point is, Simply be a neighbor. Do not rule out certain people as neighbors. And his parable makes the point emphatically by providing a model from a group the lawyer had probably excluded as possible neighbors.

To love God means to show mercy to those in need. An authentic life is found in serving God and caring for others. This is a central tenet of discipleship. Here human beings fulfill their created role--to love God and be a neighbor to others by meeting their needs. Neighbors are not determined by race, creed or gender; neighbors consist of anyone in need made in the image of God.Looking to Jesus: Mary and Martha (10:38-42)

Balancing work and reflection is tricky. Most people in Western cultures are forced to live harried lives. Often their full schedules are full of "good" activity, labor that has merit. One of the demands of a full schedule is that the activity be prioritized. Some things come high on the list; others must wait. Sometimes priorities have to be shuffled at the last minute to meet needs. The account of Martha and Mary is about such priorities, especially when the options are good ones.

This short passage is capable of being misread in a couple of ways (Alexander 1992:167-86). First, it is not about women; it is a passage on discipleship. Its point is not that women can get too easily caught up in the busy work of keeping the home. What is said to Martha about Mary would be equally true if Mary were male or even a child. The fact that two women dominate the story would have been shocking in the first-century context, where men often dismissed women as marginal, but the account is designed to make a point about all disciples. Second, the point is not that activity like Martha's is bad. The choice Jesus discusses with Martha is between something that is good and something that is better. Life is full of tough choices, and Jesus is stressing the relative merits of good activities here. For conscientious people, such choices are often the most difficult and anxiety-filled.

Martha receives Jesus at her home as he travels from one village to another. John 11:1, 18 and 12:1 tell us that this home was in Bethany, so Jesus appears to be a few miles outside Jerusalem when this encounter occurs. This is one of several meal scenes Luke will narrate. Besides the host and the teacher, the other protagonist is the host's sister, Mary, who sits at the Lord's feet listening to what he said. This is reminiscent of the Jewish saying in m. `Abot 1:4: "Let your house be a meeting house for the Sages and sit amidst the dust of their feet and drink in their words with thirst."

Just as the Samaritan's activity in the previous parable was surprising, so is this portrait of these women with Jesus. Why would a teacher spend time teaching only women? In the first-century culture the question would be inevitable. The fact that Jesus commends Mary and has a meal with Martha shows that Jesus is concerned about all people.

Martha is not comfortable with Mary's approach to Jesus' visit, since she could use another hand in the kitchen. She requests Jesus' aid: "Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me." We know that Martha's viewpoint is questionable not only because of Jesus' reply but also because the text says she makes the comment while being distracted by all the preparations. In fact, in Greek she asks the question in such a way that the Lord is expected to give a positive answer (note the particle ou). The Lord does care, and Martha fully expects him to tell Mary to get up and help.

But as is often the case when Jesus is asked to settle a dispute, he refuses to side with the one who asks that things be decided in a particular way (compare Lk 12:13; Jn 8:4-7). Yet he responds tenderly and instructs in the process. The double address "Martha, Martha" indicates the presence of caring emotion, as such an address does elsewhere (6:46; 8:24; 13:34; 22:31). Jesus questions her not because of her activity but because of her attitude about it: "You are worried and upset about many things." By comparing what she is doing to what Mary is doing, she has injected unnecessary anxiety into the visit. "Only one thing is needed." With this remark Jesus sets priorities. "Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her."

Jesus commends the hearing of the word at his feet. To take time out to relate to Jesus is important. The language of the passage recalls Deuteronomy 8:3 (Wall 1989:19-35). In a sense Mary is preparing to partake in the "right meal" (Deut 6:1-8). What she has done by sitting at Jesus' feet will remain with her. This meal will last. Jesus is not so much condemning Martha's activity as commending Mary's. He is saying that her priorities are in order. To disciples Jesus says, "Sit at my feet and devour my teaching. There is no more important meal."Looking to God: A Call to Pray (11:1-13)

As this section has already shown, discipleship involves concern for one's neighbor and attention to Jesus. As we move "from earth up," the last central focus of discipleship is looking to God. Here the stress is on prayer and the attitude we bring to the Father in prayer. God's gift of the Spirit is also highlighted as Luke gives us a version of the Lord's Prayer, as well as a brief parable and exhortation to pray.

As we look at the setting for the Lord's Prayer, a very important point emerges. The prayer is really poorly named, at least in its Lukan setting. Here the prayer is the direct result of a request from the disciples to be given a community prayer such as John the Baptist's community has. Such community prayers were not unusual. The Jews had the Eighteen Benedictions, and the disciples' remarks make it clear that John also had a community prayer. The Qumran community had numerous hymns and prayers (1Q34; 4Q507-9). This makes the Lord's Prayer really "the Disciples' Prayer." It was given to exemplify the attitude of dependence that Jesus' disciples should have.

The disciples' request also reflects the independent identity they were developing as they followed Jesus. The more they followed Jesus the more they realized that he was forming a new community, a distinct expression of Jewish hope. So they wanted to know how to pray to mark their distinctiveness. This is the only time in Jesus' ministry that there is a request for instruction on prayer.

The communal emphasis is seen even at the prayer's start, Father. In fact, even in introducing the prayer as a call to the Father, Jesus does it with a pronoun reminiscent of the Southern U.S. idiom "you all": when you [plural] pray, say . . . As disciples come before the Father, they are to affirm their unity and share a sense of family. This communal character laid a solid groundwork for the liturgical use of the Lord's Prayer. The communal perspective reflected in the prayer is difficult to appreciate today in a highly individualized society. But community before God, even sharing the same goals in intercession, is a major part of discipleship.

A second major theme is to be found in the prayer's content. The prayer does not use an individualized checklist of specific wants and needs as we often hear at prayer meetings. The prayer is focused like a laser beam on expressing a dependent approach to God, on the quality of the community's life with him. It expresses a desire for holiness, for God's ruling presence, for a life of forgiveness, and it recognizes that provision and spiritual protection come from God. It asks God to work on the heart and seeks to be submissive to his will.

The prayer's structure is simple: one address, two statements and three requests. The ABCs of discipleship are reflected in its content.

The address of God as Father is important, since it focuses on the relationship God has with his children. The expression goes back to the Aramaic abba, which combines respect for the father's authority with a sense of intimacy. The term has often been misinterpreted as meaning "Daddy," but the ancient evidence for this does not exist (Barr 1988:28-47; for a critical evaluation of Barr's challenge to this standard reading, Witherington 1990:217-18). Jesus' introduction of such intimacy in prayer is perhaps not entirely unprecedented in Judaism, but it certainly is unusual in the context of prayer (Sirach 23:1, 4; 51:10; Dunn 1975:21-26). Disciples should feel close to God, since they are part of his family and have ready access to him.

But intimacy does not do away with respect. So the prayer's first statement is Hallowed be your name. The disciple approaches God's person with the recognition that God is holy--that is, "set apart" and unique. There is none like him, and no one has the authority he possesses. This note of submission is the prayer's heartbeat. To sanctify God's name means not only that God is set apart, but also that his uniqueness should be made known (Is 52:5-6; Ezek 36:20-21; Rom 2:24). The Jewish background to this can be seen in a portion of the Kaddish, a prayer that often closed synagogue services: "Exalted and hallowed be his great name in the world which he created according to his will. May he let his kingdom rule in your lifetime and in your days and in the lifetime of the whole of Israel, speedily and soon." The disciple desires the visible manifestation of God's presence in the world.

The second declaration is for God's kingdom to come. This hope centers on the full realization of God's promise. More is meant here than eternal life. Rather, the disciple desires that the creation be restored to its fullness and that sin, injustice and chaos be banished. The whole of the disciple's life is lived in reflection of what God will eventually do. The later request regarding forgiveness is built on the premise that one day justice will prevail. Jesus' earlier call to love (6:27-36) also rests on the realization that wrongs done to one who loves with vulnerability will be reversed. The disciples long for the day when God will show his authority in justice. The rest of the New Testament tells us that this hope will be fully realized with Jesus' return. But this awareness was beyond the grasp of the disciples when Jesus originally taught this prayer. They only knew and hoped that one day God would bring full redemption.

With God's character and authority established, Jesus turns to the matter of requests. Basic needs are acknowledged as the Father's provision is requested. Jesus starts with the most basic material need, food. The term artos is probably broad in force here, a reference to all kinds of food, not just the most common ancient staple, bread (Lk 7:33; Jn 13:18; 2 Thess 3:8; Behm 1964:477-78). As important as the request is, the attitude it reflects is even more important: the disciples know that God cares daily for his own. In contrast, the Jewish Eighteen Benedictions asks for a annual supply of food (requests 9 and 18). The recognition of God's continual presence and care is fuel for the life of disciples.

Next the disciples ask for God's forgiveness. For the disciple, forgiveness is not a right but comes by God's grace. This is recognized in the clause that follows: in order to ask for forgiveness, one should be ready to give it as well. Judaism shared this understanding (Sirach 28:2; elsewhere in the New Testament, Eph 4:32; Col 3:13). Here sin is described as a debt to be forgiven. When someone acts against another, he or she incurs a debt. Sensitive disciples recognize that we should not ask God to do something for us that we are not willing to do for others.

The recognition of the need for forgiveness is significant for other reasons. First, it shows that disciples are aware that they live in an imperfect, fallen world and that they contribute to its imperfection. The world is full of victims because it is full of people who sin. Sin should not surprise us, but neither should it be ignored. Without forgiveness and the willingness to forgive, sin and animosity heighten. Second, there is the recognition that sin is not only against individuals; it is an act of opposition to God, an affront to the holiness proclaimed earlier in the prayer. Third, the recognition of the need for forgiveness reflects a humility that is central to healthy discipleship. The world is not divided between "us and them." Rather than pointing the finger at others, mature disciples start with a look at their own attitudes and behavior.

The final request is for spiritual protection. This petition is confusing at first glance. Why would God lead us into temptation? God does not tempt anyone (Jas 1:13-15). But this is a rhetorical statement that we must read carefully to understand its force. Disciples recognize God's power to protect us and keep us from succumbing to temptation, not because God wants to take us there but because he can keep it from "getting us." The first step in such prevention is to recognize this and rely on God to protect our steps. Such constant spiritual inventory serves as preventive care of the soul.

There is some question whether temptation in this context should be read more narrowly as persecution. But the previous remarks about forgiveness suggest a broader sense. In sum, to avoid sin we must go where God leads and embrace the spiritual wisdom, provision and protection God supplies (1 Cor 10:12-13).

The Lord's Prayer is really the community's prayer. What stands out in the prayer is its spirit of submission and dependence. It envisions a community that walks with God and looks to him for everything from food to forgiveness.

Now Jesus highlights the importance of prayer with a parable. Many features of this parable reflect the culture of the time. In the ancient world, food was not as readily available as it is in modern culture. Most food was prepared daily; preservatives were largely unknown. In addition, ancient culture put a high premium on hospitality (Stahlin 1967:20; 1974:161). Guests had the right to a good host who would provide for their needs. So the man who receives a late-night guest faces a dilemma: he has a guest but no food. He must make a choice: either to be rude by not welcoming this guest with food or to seek food from a neighbor, who may be able to help but may be in bed. One final cultural note is key. Most ancient Palestinian homes had only one room. Waking the father would mean risking waking the family.

Jesus turns this scenario into a lesson about boldness in prayer. It is midnight (mesonyktion). A friend has come and needs food. Jesus asks whether his listener would go to a neighbor to try to procure food for his guest. Cultural expectations would push him to try. The neighbor initially refuses to get up, noting that the house "has been closed" for the night and his children are in bed with him. To get the bread would cause great unrest. Anyone who has children and knows what it takes to get them to bed can identify with this reply!

Jesus says, however, "I tell you, though he will not get up and give him the bread because he is his friend, yet because of the man's shameless boldness [Greek] he will get up and give him as much as he needs." Then Jesus goes on: "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you." The juxtaposition of these exhortations shows that Jesus encourages boldness in prayer. The attitude here is like that of Hebrews 10:19-22. The key term is anaideia (NIV boldness), because it contains two ideas at once: both boldness and shamelessness. This kind of prayer has gall. Nothing will stop such a request from being set before God. The response is still God's choice, but the door is open for the request.

In verse 10 Jesus indicates God's openness to receive such bold petitions. In the context of the Lord's Prayer, Jesus is asking the disciples to pursue both the spiritual goals and the request for basic needs indicated in the earlier prayer with great boldness. Unlike the neighbor who is disturbed in the night and perhaps responds only grudgingly, God is ready and waiting to respond to us. All we need to do is ask, seek and knock. These are not blank-check promises that God will give us anything we want, but promises that requests for our spiritual welfare will be heard. The reference to the Holy Spirit in verse 13 shows this spiritual emphasis. God is especially willing to give spiritual aid to those who seek it.

So Jesus compares the disciple to a son who asks for something essential to eat, like a fish. A father will not feed him a poisonous snake, will he? If he asks for an egg, his father will not give him a poisonous spider, will he? Jesus knows the answer is "Of course not!" "If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!" As disciples bring their spiritual requests to the Father, they know that he is ready to help them. He longs to work in them and supply the Spirit for their needs. Like a father who feeds his child, so the Father will supply his disciples with the Spirit they need to be guided in their spiritual life. At the foundation of all discipleship is trust in the Father's goodness. He loves to provide for all our spiritual needs.

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