25Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27He 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.” 28And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” 29But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30Jesus 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. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34He 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. 35The 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.’ 36Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
Translation: And behold, a certain lawyer stood testing him, saying, "Teacher, what do I do to inherit eternal life?" But he said to him, "What has been written in the law? How do you read?" But he answered (and) said, "You will love the Lord your God out of all your heart, and in all your life, and in all your power, and in all your thought, and your neighbor just as yourself." But he said to him, "You answered rightly. Do this and you will live."
But he, wishing to justify himself, said to Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" Taking up in thought, Jesus said, "A certain man was going down from Jerusalem into Jericho, and he fell among robbers, and they stripped him and struck him (and) left, leaving (him) half-dead. But by chance, a certain priest was going down that way. Seeing him, he passed by on the other side. And likewise, a levite happened to the place. He came, and seeing, he passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, journeying, came to him, and seeing, he was moved with compassion. He came and bound his wounds, pouring oil and wine. And sitting him upon his own beast, he brought him to an inn and took care of him. And on the morrow, he threw out two denarii, gave to the innkeeper, and said, 'Take care of him, and, whatever more you might spend, I myself will give you upon my return.' Which of these three, do you think, came to be neighbor of the man who fell to robbers?" But he said, "The one doing mercy to him." But Jesus said to him, "Go and you do likewise."
Background and situation: Part of the text is Markan (12:28-33). (See the parallel in Matthew 22: 35-38.) The parable of the compassionate Samaritan is a Lukan addition however. Luke takes the Markan core, which is focused on the Great Commandment, and reweaves it into an introduction for the parable.
In terms of its placement within Luke, the text follows upon the mission of the 70/72 (1-20) and Jesus' rejoicing and prayer of thanks (21-24). The lawyer's approach and questions occur in the presence of the 70/72 and possibly others as well.
One should keep in mind Deuteronomy 6:5--"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might"--as well as Leviticus 19 and Leviticus 21. Leviticus 19:18 contains the injunction to "love your neighbor as yourself." In Leviticus 19:34, the "alien" is included: "you shall love the alien as yourself." Leviticus 21: 1-3 says no priest "shall defile himself for a dead person among his relatives." Consider also Daniel 12:2 for the first use of the phrase "eternal life."
Text: Jesus had been exulting with the 70/72 at the return of their mission (21-24) when a lawyer (nomikos) approaches Jesus. Typically, the word "scribes" is used instead of "lawyer." Indeed, the Markan source calls the person a "scribe." (Matthew (22:35) changed this to "lawyer," the only use of "lawyer" in Matthew's gospel.)
Luke refers to lawyers six times. The scribes--scriptural lawyers, you might say--had been Temple-based. With the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, the scribes lost their position. At the time of Luke's writing, c. AD 85, the "scribes" had probably evolved into "lawyers."
Then, as now, the presence of a lawyer indicates that complications are about to arise. Lawyers worry about exactitude and the definition of terms. Luke tells us that the lawyer is "testing" Jesus with his question about how to attain "eternal life." The concept of "eternal life" was rather new within Judaism--see Daniel 12--and was frequently debated in the time of Jesus.
Jesus responds warily. He wants to know where the lawyer is coming from. "What has been written in the law?" he asks of one who should know. "What do you read?" The lawyer responds with the shema, the classic statement of Hebrew faith from Deuteronomy 6: "You will love the Lord your God out of all your heart, and in all your life, and in all your power, and in all your thought, and your neighbor just as yourself."
Except that the lawyer changes the text slightly, a change which is common in the New Testament. The additional phrase is en hole te dianoia sou--"in all your mind," or perhaps "in all your thinking." That phrase was not in the original shema, but is commonly included in the four gospels. It is not uncommon for Jesus to encourage thinking (12:57) as he will do here shortly (10:36).
In his recitation, the lawyer includes loving one's neighbor as one's self. Today, some worry about whether or not we love ourselves enough. If you're going to love your neighbor as yourself, then, dagnabbit, doesn't that presuppose that a person should love themselves? The early Hebrews would have considered that concern to be ridiculous. It was axiomatic that a person would love themselves. (Frankly, it would take considerable intellectual gymnastics to make this story into one about loving yourself.)
Loving your neighbor was not part of the original shema, but has roots in the penteteuch nonetheless (Lev 19:18). Strictly speaking, though the lawyer was wondering about how to get "eternal life," his answer, while good, does not specifically promise it. Deuteronomy 6 associated the shema with being "in the right" (6:25) and having life go well (6:18), but did not promise "eternal life." Likewise, though Leviticus 19 encouraged love toward one's neighbor and toward resident aliens, no specific promise is attached to it.
"Love God and love your neighbor," says the lawyer. Jesus is encouraged by the lawyer's response. Indeed, he could hardly have put it better himself. "You have answered rightly," Jesus says. "Do this and you will live."
The lawyer, predictably, wants a definition of terms. Just who, exactly, is my neighbor? The question was appropriate. The word translated as "neighbor" is plesion, which literally means "one who is near." For Deuteronomy 6, a neighbor was a member of the tribe of Israel or a resident alien. The lawyer asks, "Just how far are we supposed to go with this 'neighbor business'?"
He asked this because he wanted to "justify himself"--thelone dikaiosai eauton. The phrase is a red-flag for all readers steeped in reformation thought where it is severe theological error to think that anyone can justify themselves. We must consider the possibility that this lawyer, sharp though he may be, has not read Luther. Perhaps the phrase simply means that the lawyer was wanting to be correct. This would have been important for the lawyer who must maintain his reputation and intellectual standing.
The parable of the compassionate Samaritan: Jesus takes the question of neighbor seriously. He "took it up in thought" (upolambano). He then speaks of an unidentified person who "goes down" from Jerusalem (elevation 2500 feet) to Jericho (elevation -800 feet). The route is a windy, treacherous one, ideal for lestes, i.e. robbers, brigands, revolutionaries. Sure enough, the man is met with violence. He is stripped, beaten, and left for dead.
Jesus then introduces three more characters. First, a priest passes by, but does not help. In consideration of Leviticus 21: 1-3, perhaps he was afraid of ritual defilement by touching a dead person. The man, however, was not dead, but "half-dead" (hemithane). Perhaps the priest was worried about being late for his duties at the Temple--except that it appears the priest was going from Jerusalem, not to it.
Then, Jesus introduces a Levite, who, just like the priest, "came," then "seeing," "passed by on the other side." Levites were members of the house of Levi, the only one of Jacob's sons not to receive land when Joshua brought the tribes across the Jordan River. Instead, the Levites would perform priestly and religious duties--"the Lord God of Israel himself is their inheritance" (Josh 13:33). Moses was of the tribe of Levi.
So far, Jesus' listeners would probably have liked this story. Then, as now, there was some grassroots resistance to priests and the pious. Then, as now, the priests and the pious were forever making you feel that you weren't giving enough or acting devout enough, certainly not as compared to them. For these spiritual mucky-mucks to be revealed as heartless and hypocritical would have struck many people--then, as now--as deliciously entertaining. They're starting to think, "Hey, this story is pretty good. What's this fellow going to come up with next?"
In a presentation of three, normally the third example is an extension of the previous two. Here we have first a priest, then a levite (a representative of a priestly family). One would expect that the third person to appear would be an ordinary Jewish person. Jesus' listeners might have reasonably expected that the ordinary Jewish person--why, people like themselves, for example--would be revealed as the one who is truly concerned about the person in need.
Jesus uncorks a real shocker: The third person to come down the road is a Samaritan. Samaritans and Jews were all-but-enemies. Centuries of insults and provocations had made each group so disgusted with the other that Jews travelling to Galilee or Judea would usually opt to take the longer route through Transjordan rather than set foot in Samaria. No Jewish woman could marry a Samaritan. (More on Samaritans and Jews in this post on 9:51-62).
In fact, Jesus had just made a foray into Samaria himself. When he "set his face" to go to Jerusalem (9:51), he took the most direct route there which meant entering Samaria. A village of Samaria "would not receive him," however, "because his face was set towards Jerusalem." Samaritans looked for God on Mt. Gerizim, not the Temple in Jerusalem. (In Luke, it is not uncommon for the initial thrust of Jesus' ministry to be met with rejection.)
Now, however, a Samaritan--shockingly--is a positive example. His first two actions are identical to the priest and the Levite. He "came," and is described as "seeing." Where they "passed by on the other side," however, the Samaritan was "moved with compassion" (splagxnizomai).
Splagxnizomai is a strong word. It means "to feel compassion, to yearn in the bowels." This is, quite literally, gut-level compassion. Luke uses the word three times in his gospel--once here, once to describe the father of the prodigal son (15:20), and once to describe Jesus' own emotional state (7:13). The Samaritan is in some fine company.
We are now situated so that we can see another aspect of what Jesus was up to in the first part of the story. Priests and Levites were more than religious functionaries. It fell to them to discern who was and was not a part of the community of God. They represent the Temple-based "establishment" within Judaism. "They epitomize a worldview of tribal consciousness," says Joel Green (p. 431.)
Jesus has blasted that worldview to smithereens. To the Jewish lawyer, and his mainly Jewish audience, Jesus says that it is the one they perceive as their enemy, the Samaritan, who feels compassion, acts as a neighbor, and helps the man in need.
Moreover, while the half-dead man is not specifically identified as Jewish, most listeners would simply assume that he is. This Samaritan is touching the Jewish man--binding wounds, pouring oil and wine, setting him on a beast. Normally, this would render the Jewish man unclean, but that consideration seems strangely irrelevant in the face of the much larger concern of the man's life.
Jesus underlines the point by stressing the effusive nature of the Samaritan's help. His initial actions are described in detail and followed by additional actions oriented toward the man's long-term care. The Samaritan has placed himself at personal risk both physically and financially.
The text concerns "doing." "What do I do?" was the first question asked by the lawyer. In response, Jesus told a story of the Samaritan's actions, then asked his own question: "Which of these three, do you think, came to be neighbor of the man who fell to robbers?" The lawyer answers: "The one doing mercy to him." (The NRSV's "showed mercy" is inadequate.) The Samaritan is neighbor to the Jewish man because he acted mercifully. He did something which was based in compassion.
Jesus then said, "Go and you do likewise." To do likewise for the lawyer would, presumably, be to act with mercy toward a Samaritan, and thus be a neighbor to the Samaritan. The alternative would be to maintain his strict sense of tribal boundaries and continue to shun Samaritans, which would place the lawyer on the side of the priest and Levite, a place which is now, in light of Jesus' story, a rather uncomfortable place to be.
The lawyer had asked, "Who is my neighbor?" The question assumes a discourse on who, exactly, is "one who is near" and who isn't. At what point can we say that "neighbor" stops and "stranger" begins? Who, exactly, am I obligated to love?
Jesus ignores that question. Instead, he tells a story of an enemy--an enemy who, through his merciful actions, becomes neighbor. If a Samaritan may become neighbor to a Jewish man, and the lawyer is enjoined to be like the Samaritan, then anyone may be neighbor. It is not a question of where to draw the line, but rather of erasing that line entirely.