Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “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.”
And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:25-37 – NRSV)
For verses 25–28 – “the great commandment” – see also Luke18:18–20, Matthew 19:16–19 & 22:34–39 and Mark 10:17–19.
As background to this encounter with the “lawyer”, we recall 7:30 – “by refusing to be baptized by (John the Baptist), the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves.” Here the “lawyer’s” question is “to test Jesus”. We are reminded of Jesus’ response to the devil in the desert: “Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’” (4:30). This is a hostile encounter, a moment of testing in more ways than one.
The reference to “eternal life” is interesting. The rich young man asks the same question in 18:18. We also find this reference to “eternal life” appearing in Matthew 19:29 and Mark 10:17. The Torah has no such reference. However, in the Book of Daniel we do find it – see 12:2. We find it repeated in Luke 18:30 and Acts 13:46 & 48. The expression is found relatively frequently elsewhere in the Christian Scriptures – for example Romans 2:7, 5:21, 6:22–23, Galatians 6:8, Jude 21; and especially John 3:15–16 and at least fifteen other occasions in John.
The “lawyer” responds by quoting the beginning words of the Shema – see Deuteronomy 6:5. (For information on the Shema, click here http://www.jewfaq.org/shemaref.htm ) See something similar in Matthew 22:37 and Mark 12:30 – who both put the words of the Shema onto Jesus’ lips. Luke adds the phrase “with your whole mind”. He – like Matthew and Mark – also adds a citation from Leviticus 19:8: “your neighbor as yourself”: This commandment to love one’s neighbor is widely attested in the Christian Scriptures – see for example Mark 12:31, Matthew 22:39, Romans 13:9, Galatians 5:14, James 2:8 and John 15:12. Luke’s version is distinctive because he collapses the two commandments into one.
The “lawyer” refuses to leave it there. He feels the need to “justify himself”. See also 16:15: “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.” Jesus goes on immediately to make clear what is happening that the religious authorities are unwilling or unable to see: “The law and the prophets were in effect until John came; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is proclaimed, and everyone tries to enter it by force. But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one stroke of a letter in the law to be dropped.”
In asking “who is my neighbor”, the “lawyer” is, we might say, digging himself further into the hole he is already in. But it prompts Jesus to tell the story that we know as “the good Samaritan”. Together with the story of the prodigal son, it is one of the truly great stories of the Western canon of literature.
There is a very particular point to the parable as Jesus tells it for in Leviticus 19:18, it is clear that “neighbour” refers to fellow Israelites. This is somewhat mitigated in Leviticus 19:33–34, where the notion of “neighbor” is extended to the ger (“stranger” or “sojourner”) in the land. However, it is noteworthy that the LXX translated this as prosēlytos (“proselyte”), suggesting that the attitude of love was still rather restricted. In the Qumran sect there was no such mitigation – “the division between love for the sons of light and hate for all others was absolute”. (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, The Liturgical Press, 1991, 173.) And among the Pharisees, there were continuing debates about the limits of interaction with non-Jews.
The truly universal focus of Jesus’ moral teaching therefore emerges. He builds on the Torah but does not remain within the Torah. The moral vision of Jesus places relationships front and centre. It is beyond law and doctrine, culture and social custom.
The lawyer cites the prayer that lives at the heart of Judaism – the Shema Yisrael (“Hear Israel”). (See Deuteronomy 6:4-9 for the beginning of that prayer.) The Shema is said morning, noon and evening. Those opening words are haunting: “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 ….”.
For instance, recall the theme of the connection between seeing and compassion we saw in the Gospel of the Tenth Sunday – the raising of the only son of the widow of Nain (Luke 7:11-37) – and the Gospel of the Eleventh Sunday – Jesus, while at a meal with the Pharisee, encountering the woman who is a “sinner” (Luke 7:36-8:3). There is a heartlessness about seeing and not caring. This is evident in the Pharisee. It is also evident in the priest and the Levite in today’s Gospel – they went to the other side of the road, as if to distance themselves from the man’s plight. What could the Shema have actually meant for these people? They may dutifully recite the Shema, but does it affect their relationships?
What differentiates the Samaritan from the priest and the Levite is that he “he saw him, he was moved with pity”. This man’s heart and soul are awake!
The Greek word, translated here as “pity”, is esplagchnisthē. In the Christian Scriptures, the word is normally used of Jesus, except for three occurrences in the parables. Apart from this parable of the good Samaritan, it is used of the father who responds to the returning prodigal son (Luke 15:20) and in the parable of the unforgiving debtor where the king responds to the man who owes him much (Matthew 18:27). It is inadequately translated by an expressions like “to be moved with pity”. The root word – splagchna – refers to the noble viscera – as the Greeks thought of them – the heart, lungs, liver and intestines.
At the time of Jesus, the highest thinkers were the Stoics. They not only believed that the divinity was beyond feeling, they saw this as the highest moral attainment of human beings. We have inherited a good deal of that Stoic worldview. It has infected our “charity”, too often turning it into a functional duty rather than a gracious encounter. C S Lewis writes about the person who runs around doing things for others all the time and you can tell the others by their hunted look. And where did the expression, “cold as charity”, come from?
We would do well to sit with those words from the Shema, let them seep into the marrow of our bones. “Love the Lord you God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind ….”. Learn to think viscerally. It will help to keep your seeing and caring connected.