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).
This parable of the good Samaritan is unique to Luke. However, we find suggestions of a similar encounter in Matthew 22:34–40 and Mark 12.28–34.
In Luke 18:18 we read a second such encounter in Luke: “A certain ruler asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’” On this occasion the question prompts a response from Jesus on the Decalogue. It is not clear whether there are two separate incidents in the life of Jesus referred to here or perhaps two ways of recalling the same incident.
This encounter takes place in Samaria. There is more than a little irony in the fact that the strongest hostility comes not, as we would expect, from the Samaritans but from the Jewish authorities. This lends a special power to the parable.
One commentator sums up: “The Prophet travels to Jerusalem and on the way interacts with three groups: the amorphous crowd, the eager disciples, the watchful and increasingly hostile adversaries. Jesus has just addressed his disciples with a blessing (10:21–24) and is immediately confronted by a lawyer (10:25). We have been instructed by the thematic statement in 7:29–30 to recognize in the ‘teachers of the Law’ those who reject prophets and reject God’s will for them, failing to justify God. We are not surprised, therefore, to find a lawyer ‘testing him’ by asking how to gain eternal life, and when given an answer, not accepting it but ‘seeking to justify himself’, trying to trap Jesus in a classic casuistic puzzler” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991, 174).
to test Jesus: The Greek verb ekpeirazō is also used in Luke 4:12, when Jesus rebukes the devil in the desert: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test”.
inherit eternal life: As indicated above, this same question occurs again in Luke 18:18. We find similar references in Matthew 19:29 and Mark 10:17. Torah makes no mention of inheriting eternal life. In Daniel 12:2 there is a reference to the just rising to eternal life. Hebrews 9:15 is the only other clear reference to eternal inheritance. It is suggested by 1 Peter 1:4. There are of course a number of references to eternal life – for example, Romans 2:7, 5:21 and 6:22–23; Gal 6:8; Jude 21; and especially John 3:15–16.
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart etc: See Deuteronomy 6:5 and the early phrases of the Shema. Luke adds a fourth phrase: “your whole mind”.
your neighbor as yourself: See Leviticus 19:18. One commentator writes: “The commandment of love of neighbor is widely attested in the NT writings (Mark 12:31; Matt 22:39; Rom 13:9; Gal 5:14; Jas 2:8; John 15:12). Luke’s version is distinctive because he collapses the two commandments into one” (Luke Timothy Johnson, op cit, 172).
who is my neighbor: In Leviticus 19:18 the neighbors are “sons of your own people”. Later, in Leviticus 19:33–34, this is extended to strangers and sojourners living in your land. And it is worth noting that, “among sectarians like those at Qumran, the division between love for the sons of light and hate for all others was absolute (cf. 1QS 1:9–10). For the Pharisees, discussion of the limits of interaction with non-Jews was extensive, as e.g., m.Abodah Zarah 1:1; 2:1–2; 4:9–10. The call to love is therefore limited” (Luke Timothy Johnson, op cit, 172-173). Jesus breaks new ground!
moved with pity: The Greek word used here – splanchnizomai – is the same word used of the father waiting for the return of the prodigal son – see Luke 15:20. The language of the Bible is indicative of a people much closer to human experience than we in the West are today. The Greek word splanchnon means the entrails or guts. Although we use words like pity and compassion to render splanchnizomai, they do not quite get there. This is no ordinary care being expressed by the Samaritan!
In today’s Gospel – Luke 10:25-37 – we witness Jesus’ use of a clever – one might even say, psychologically sophisticated – strategy. There was a longstanding antipathy between the Jews and the Samaritans. From the point of view of the Jews, the Samaritans were to be shunned. Witness the reaction of James and John when the people of the Samaritan village refused them hospitality – “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” (9:56). Yet, when asked by the lawyer, “Who is my neighbor?”, Jesus holds up one of these despised Samaritans as an example. This counter-intuitive process acts like a koan, catching the listeners off-guard. If the listeners are able, for just a few seconds to hold the doors of their minds open, they might glimpse a new reality, a new way. Jesus has offered his Jewish listeners a redemptive experience.
Take a moment to think of someone you just do not like. It might be someone you do not even know personally, maybe they belong to a group that you do not like. Be honest! Dwell on it for a moment. Feel the feelings that emerge. Take note of the thoughts that come into you mind. Now imagine that person doing something exemplary, something that shows great care and compassion. Be honest! Dwell on it for a moment. Feel the feelings that emerge. Take note of the thoughts that come into you mind. What happened? Unless your prejudice is very, very deep, something would have changed in you. Exemplary behaviour is attractive, care and compassion breaks down barriers. Normally, in the presence of someone who is demonstrating great goodness, we want to be good too.
The Greek word used of the Samaritan here – splanchnizomai – is the same word used of the father waiting for the return of the prodigal son – see Luke 15:20. It is used of Jesus nine times in the synoptic Gospels and Luke has used it of Jesus to describe his reaction to the widow of Nain whose son has died – see 7:13. It is also the same Greek word used in the Septuagint to translate the Hebrew word racham which is used of Yahweh – eg ‘Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you’ (Isaiah 49:15).
In both Greek and Hebrew the concept refers to a visceral reaction, something very deep, involving the whole person. Our words “pity” and “compassion” are limp by comparison.
Jesus says the Samaritan – not the religious authorities but the man whom his audience despises – exhibits this wonderful quality: “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 …. ’” Take some time to be silently with this beautiful man.