THE RADICAL NEIGHBOR: AN EXEGETICAL ESSAY ON THE GOOD SAMARITAN

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“This parable, unique to Luke, requires the utmost care in its interpretation.  It must neither be over-allegorized as it was by the early church fathers, nor reduced to a simplistic meaning hardly worthy of Jesus’ teaching.  Above all, it must be understood in its context, with attention to the questions of vv.25 and 29 and to Jesus’ application in vv.36-37,” write Liefeld and Pao (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary 2007: 197).  It is highly important to an exegetical reading of this passage, found in St. Luke’s gospel in chapter ten, verses twenty-five through thirty-seven, that the focus lie on the context of the passage.  The central theme of this passage is that “one cannot define one’s neighbor; one can only be a neighbor” (Greek Testament Commentary 1978: 450).  This is important to this exegetical paper so that the full meaning conveyed by the author presents itself to the readers to digest and apply.  Liefeld and Pao write, “The over-allegorizing of the parable that saw the Samaritan as Christ, the inn as the church, etc., must be rejected.  The characters of the story must have the same significance they had to the original hearers” (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary 2007: 199). 

 

            Mark Straus writes, “This famous parable of Jesus teaches that authentic spiritual life is defined not by ethnic or national heritage, but by love for God and for others” (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Background Commentary 2002: 414).  Mr. Straus has also directly emphasized the overarching theme of this parable. 

 

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’

 

 

The lawyer here is not the same sort of lawyer we know of in our society today.  Leon Morris states, “A lawyer would be concerned not with secular studies, but with the law in the Jewish sense, the first five books of the Old Testament.  Arising from that he would have studied the rest of Scripture and matters incidental.  He was thus a man who might be expected to be both interested in and knowledgeable about religious affairs” (Tyndale Commentary on Luke 1974: 205).

 

 Another translation refers to this man as “an expert in the Law” meaning the Torah, not the laws governing society. It is indeed interesting that the man asks a question he already knows the answer to. I can imagine him being really snide and sarcastic, like a punk junior high kid, as he mouthed off, “Teacher! What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

He asked the question in order to gain an advantage over Jesus and to show him up or to test him (Tyndale Commentary on Luke 1975: 205). He also asked a question with no intention of living out the implications of its answer.  Leon Morris notes, “That is to say he asked his question, not in the search for information, but to see what kind of answer Jesus would produce.  He may even have been hoping that Jesus would do badly…” (Tyndale Commentary on Luke 1975: 205). 

 

Michael Cosby comments, “The well-educated teacher of the law (or scribe) comes to test Jesus’ theological understanding (10:25), but he finds himself forced into an uncomfortable situation of self-analysis” (Portraits of Jesus 1999: 87).  It is at this point of the text that Jesus proceeds to set him up for that self-analysis and to reveal to the Scribe his own depravity and unloving nature and failure to keep the commandments.  This is a testimony to the Lord’s skills in rhetoric and debate.  He foresees His opponent’s logical inconsistency and begins at this moment to slowly unravel it. 

 

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 neighbors as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’ 

 

 

Mark Straus comments, “The command to love God was constantly before the Jews as they recited the daily prayer known as the Shema: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength’ (Deut. 6:4-5)” (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Background Commentary 2002: 414).   The words to focus in on in the lawyer’s response are “as yourself.”  They become key in understanding Jesus’ ethics and teachings on love throughout the story. 

 

The ESV Study Bible commentators note on verse 27, “To love the Lord your God involves having faith in him and also delighting in him above all else.  All the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) include the words heart (emotions, will, and deepest convictions), soul (the immaterial part of a person’s being), and mind (reason, however, this term is lacking in Deut. 6:5).  Matthew (22:37) alone lacks the term strength (how a person uses the abilities and powers that he has), an indication of the total devotion of one’s entire being that is required” (ESV Study Bible 2008: 1976).  The answer the Scribe will give is going to reveal a lot about his character and his intentions towards fulfilling this law; however, he is also going to be shown to have an utter lacking of devotion to God by a failure to fully live by the Shema. 

 

The Apologetics Study Bible gives a great reminder here by noting, “That Jesus’ commendation of love of God and neighbor as fulfilling the demands for life in the law is not meant to deny salvation by faith or the necessity of a relationship through Christ” (The Apologetics Study Bible 2007: 1534).  This serves us to remember it is not our works that earn us salvation, but that works are an outpouring from our faith and help sustain our salvation. 

 

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’     

 

 

The only way the Scribe can justify himself is by “limit[ing] the extent of the Law’s demand and consequently limit his own responsibility” (Expositor’s).  He knew the answer meant more than the man next door, but how much more?  Howard Marshall points out, “He professes inability to practices the law until its meaning has been clarified.  The commandment speaks about loving one’s neighbor.  But where are the limits of duty to be set?  The question implies that there can be a non-neighbor (Derrett, 225)” (Greek Testament Commentary on Luke 1979: 447).  This Scribe knew full well the command to love or did he?  Saint Ambrose offers an insight to the Scribe by commenting, “Whoever does not know Christ does not know the law either.  How can he know the law when he is ignorant of the Truth, since the law proclaims the Truth?”  (Ancient Christian Commentary 2003: 178)  So perhaps he is not only revealing his ignorance of the law, but also his ignorance of Christ and the reluctance to submit to His authority. 

 

This is exactly why the lawyer’s heart and true intentions are shown here.  Leon Morris writes, “The lawyer would not let it rest there.  He wanted to justify himself.  His basic attitude was still wrong:  he had not understood the implication of his own words.  So he went on to ask, ‘who is my neighbor?’” (Tyndale Commentary on Luke 1975: 206)

He has no intention of carrying out the command he so eloquently used as the answer to what is in the Law. He has no desire.  His true character will be revealed by the contrast of the characters in Jesus parable.

 

This maneuver he cleverly thinks will stump Jesus, but he is sorely mistaken.  The Great Rabbi will change the man’s very words, “Who is my neighbor” from a passive to an active sense.

 

Jesus proceeds with a parable to drive home His answer:

‘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.

 

 

The Road from Jerusalem to Jericho was a treacherous and highly dangerous road.  It was a road curved through bleak, rocky terrain where robbers could easily hide.  “This is a stark and desolate seventeen-mile road, dropping from over 2,500 feet above sea level in Jerusalem to approximately 800 feet below sea level at Jericho.  It was a dangerous place, and robbers often lay in wait for unprotected travelers” writes Mark Straus (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Background Commentary 2002: 415). 

 

Traveling in the Ancient Near East was quite dangerous enough already, but adding to it a steep road with meandering and winding curves and you have a situation that is a robber’s pay day. The road came to be known as “The Way of Blood” for all the bloodshed by the robber’s. This man clearly fell prey to a poor decision to go down this path alone.

 

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.

 

 

Many have speculated to as way the Priest and the Levite did not help.  Both men were clergymen.  The Priest was a direct descendent of Aaron and was in charge of the Temple.  The Levite was also a descendent of Aaron, but the tribe was in charge of assisting the priest in the duties of the temple.

 

The speculation is that they were ceremonial clean and we coming back from the temple. The mentioning of going by the other side may indicate that they wanted to get as far as way as possible so not to come into contact with a dead body, if the man indeed was dead.  Mark Straus writes, “Touching a dead body rendered priests and Levites ceremonially unclean and so unable to fulfill temple commitments (Lev. 21-22).  The two who passed by may have suspected the man was dead.  For the priest, however, this is a poor excuse, since he is specifically said to be ‘going down’ the road and so presumably traveling away from Jerusalem after his temple service.  Many priests were also members of the aristocratic elite and so would not associate with commoners.  Jewish hearers may therefore have expected such snobbery from those two.  Perhaps they would have expected a local rabbi or a respected Pharisee to come along next and help the man…but a Samaritan?” (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Background Commentary 2002: 416)  These two men were absolutely without excuse for not stopping to help the beaten down man!

 

Perhaps, they asked themselves, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” Martin Luther King Jr. proposes that the Priest and the Levite asked themselves this very question.  Perhaps the priest and Levite thought there could be more robbers lurking in the rocky terrain or perhaps they thought it was a set up.  Maybe it was just out of the wickedness of their own heart to care for someone else.  We do not know, but we know that neither stopped to help the man.

 

But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with compassion.

 

 

With the Priest and the Levite being the first two men mentioned the crowd probably assumed the next one would be an Israelite laity.  But what Jesus does is shock-and-awe is opponents on purpose to drive home is point.  The Jews and Samaritans hated each other.  The mention of a Samaritan probably surprised the lawyer, but also angered him.  

 

            “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” This is the question that MLK Jr. says that maybe the Samaritan asked of himself in regards to the beaten man.

 

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.”

 

 

This type of care in the Ancient Near East would have cost the Samaritan a good deal of money.  He was likely paying for two months board.  Mark Straus comments, “The Greek says ‘two denarii.’ A denarius was equivalent to a day’s wages for a laborer” (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Background Commentary 2002: 416).  It was an attractive portrait of a man going beyond the call of duty, beyond the minimum to help a man. He saw someone in need and did all he could to help.

 

The Eastern Orthodox Study Bible comments on this part of the parable saying, “The bandages, oil, and wine are sacrament images for (1) the garment of baptism, which delivers us from the wounds of sin; (2) the oil of chrismation, which gives us new life in the Holy Spirit; and (3) the communion of the divine Blood, which leads to eternal life.  His own animal indicates Christ bearing our sins in his own body, and the inn reveals the church in which Christ’s care is received.  He pays the price for that care (I Cor. 6:20; 7:23)” (Orthodox Study Bible 2008: 1387).  This is the hyper over-allegorized reading of the text that we set out to avoid in the exegesis of this passage.  This commentary serves to prove that the Church Father allegorized a lot of the text for they had no other way of reading the texts.  However, Mark Straus offers a much more realistic insight into this part of the text noting, “Both oil and wine had medical value (Isa 1:6; m. Sabb. 19:2). The oil soothed and the wine served as a disinfectant” (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Background Commentary 2002: 416).  This take on the oil and wine are a much more realistic rendering of how Jesus’ listeners would have taken the parable at this point.

 

But the story doesn’t end there. Jesus presses on with another question:

Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ 

 

 

We notice now that Jesus does not answer the Scribe’s question. The Scribe had already answered his own question previously by referring to the Law.  Leon Morris writes, “Jesus did not answer the lawyer’s question but asked him, “Which of these three…proved neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?  The answer, of course, is not in doubt.  Jesus drove home the lesson with the command, ‘Go and do likewise.’  The man had asked, ‘Who is my neighbor?’ but Jesus faced him with the question ‘To whom am I neighbor?’” (Tyndale Commentary on Luke 1975: 208)

So maybe we, too, are asking the wrong question.  The question is not “Who is my neighbor?” but “To whom am I being a neighbor?”

 

Jesus does not focus on the object of neighborly love here, but on the subject of that love—The Samaritan who made himself to be a neighbor.  Mark Straus writes, “A true neighbor is one who is willing to look past the differences that traditionally divide people and to love others unconditionally and without prejudice” (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Background Commentary 2002: 416).

 

The encounter with the lawyer continues:

He [the Scribe] said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’

 

 

“Love should not be limited by its object; its extent and quality are in the control of its subject. Furthermore, love is demonstrated in action and in this case an act of mercy” (Unknown source).  The Scribe was wanting to limit the extent of the Law’s demand upon himself.  It is within humanity’s own hands the extent of love we show one another and how well that love is shown.  

 

The Jewish expert was not expecting to hear such a thing as a “good” Samaritan. None existed in his mind, so Jesus’ use of a Jew needing help and having that help come in the form of a foreigner the Jews hated really drove home the point:

We must not ask who is our neighbor for that implies selectivity, that some are our neighbors and some are not, so which ones do we love and not love?

 

Father Travis, an Episcopal priest, writes, “Your neighbor is anyone God places in your path who needs the love that you can offer. The question of whether you prove to be their neighbor is whether you offer that help to the best of your ability and love them with your actions.”

 

With the question of how to inherit eternal life the attention is on eternal destination, but Jesus makes it about the journey. One translation says Jesus told him to “do likewise and you will live.”

 

            Origen writes, “He [the Lord] teaches that the man going down was the neighbor of no one except of him who wanted to keep the commandments and prepare himself to be a neighbor to everyone that needs help.  This is what is found after the end of the parable, ‘Which of these three does it seem to you is the neighbor of the man who fell among robbers?’  Neither the priest nor the Levite was his neighbor, but—as the teacher of the law himself answered—‘he who showed pity’ was his neighbor.  The Savior says, ‘Go, and do likewise’” (Ancient Christian Commentary 2003: 179).

Matthew Henry sums up perfectly what this story and the parable therein seek to convey:

“If we speak of eternal life, and the way to it, in a careless manner, we take the name of God in vain. No one will ever love God and his neighbor with any measure of pure, spiritual love, who is not made a partaker of converting grace. But the proud heart of man strives hard against these convictions. Christ gave an instance of a poor Jew in distress, relieved by a good Samaritan.

 

This poor man fell among thieves, who left him about to die of his wounds. He was slighted by those who should have been his friends, and was cared for by a stranger, a Samaritan, of the nation which the Jews most despised and detested, and would have no dealings with. It is lamentable to observe how selfishness governs all ranks; how many excuses men will make to avoid trouble or expense in relieving others. But the true Christian has the law of love written in his heart. The Spirit of Christ dwells in him; Christ’s image is renewed in his soul.

 

The parable is a beautiful explanation of the law of loving our neighbor as ourselves, without regard to nation, party, or any other distinction. It also sets forth the kindness and love of God our Savior toward sinful, miserable men. We were like this poor, distressed traveler. Satan, our enemy, has robbed us, and wounded us: such is the mischief sin has done us. The blessed Jesus had compassion on us. The believer considers that Jesus loved him, and gave his life for him, when an enemy and a rebel; and having shown him mercy, he bids him go and do likewise. It is the duty of us all, in our places, and according to our ability, to succor, help, and relieve all that are in distress and necessity. (Lu 10:38-42)” (Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Bible).

 

Jesus taught us through the Parable of the Samaritan that to live in radical love towards all humanity is to live the life of the Kingdom of God.

 

“Go, and do likewise.”

 

 

Works Cited

 

Ancient Christian Commentary. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003. 177-181.

 

Cosby, Michael . Portraits of Jesus: An Inductive Approach to the Gospel. Louisville, Kentucky:   Westminster John Knox, 1999. 87-88.

 

Henry, Matthew. “The Good Samaritan .” Matthew Henr’ys Concise Commentary on the Bible. Print.                <http: samaritan=””>.</http:>

 

Leifeld, Walter, and David Pao. The Expositors Bible Commentary: Luke. 10. Grand Rapids, Michigan:       Zondervan , 2007. 197-200.

 

Marshall , Howard . The New International Greek Testament Commentary: The Gospel of Luke. Grand    Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company , 1978. 444-450.

 

Morris, Leon . The Tyndale Commentary on Luke. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing                Co., 1973. 204-208.

 

Straus, Mark . Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Luke. 1. Grand Rapids, Michigan:  Zondervan , 2002. 414-416.

 

The Apologetics Study Bible. 2007. Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers.

 

The ESV Study Bible. 2008. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles

 

The Orthodox Study Bible. 2008. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson .

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About Joel

Joel is a 32 year old currently residing in the southeastern United States. His interests lay in philosophy and theology. He is a writer for The Christian Watershed.

One thought on “THE RADICAL NEIGHBOR: AN EXEGETICAL ESSAY ON THE GOOD SAMARITAN

  1. Pingback: The Divine, The Dumbasses And The Dickholes | A Long Run

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