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.