The parable of the Good Samaritan is generally understood to be an ethical teaching of Jesus that challenges us to love our neighbour better. Most teachings on the parable are moralistic, leaving the impression that the imperative to “go and do likewise” is the sole aim of what Jesus is attempting to accomplish in telling the story.
But have we missed the greater lesson of what Jesus is impressing upon the hearer in this well-known story? Is the parable simply intended to press upon us the responsibility to love better? To answer this question, there is required a careful reflection of the context into which this parable comes. The parable is a surprising response to someone who understood well the demand of the law to love but had failed to see how far he missed the mark of love in his own life.
The lawyer, seeking to justify himself, bypassed the question of his own need for deliverance
Luke 10:25-37 records for us that a certain lawyer approaches Jesus to test him about how one can obtain eternal life. The lawyer specifically asks Jesus what he must “do to inherit eternal life”. When Jesus answers specific questions posed to him in the synoptic gospels, it is important to reflect carefully on the question that is being asked of Jesus. If the question being posed is not understood, the exegesis that follows will be faulty.
In this case, the lawyer asks the very same question of the rich young ruler, “what must I do to inherit eternal life”—two verbs. This is an entirely different question than those who asked Jesus for mercy, as with blind Bartimaeus or others who, as in the book of Acts, asked what they must do to be saved. Humble approaches to Jesus by those who asked for mercy and deliverance from sin received compassionate responses. This lawyer, however, is asking Jesus how, through his own efforts, he could achieve eternal life, not salvation.
Any attempt to justify ourselves is immediately met with the full weight of the laws demands
The lawyer bypasses the question of his own need for deliverance, a detail that is obviously so important to Luke that he adds, for proper interpretive purposes, that the lawyer was “attempting to justify (δικαιῶσαι) himself” (Luke 10:29). As he stands before the only one who supplies the righteousness that comes from God, the lawyer’s attempt to justify himself is immediately met with the full weight of the laws demands.
Upon asking for eternal life, Jesus poses as question of his own: “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” The lawyer responds by citing Deuteronomy 6:5, the great Shema, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart will all your soul, with all your strength and with all your mind and your neighbour as yourself.” Jesus responds from Leviticus 18:5 with a perennial blow that should have made any Israelite tremble: “Do this and you will live.”
Jesus’ use of Leviticus 18:5 in this context is a direct response to the lawyer attempting to justify himself in asking Jesus for eternal life based his own merits. This demonstrates that any attempt to self-justify oneself before God to achieve eternal life is always met with the divine standard of perfect and complete obedience. Jesus does not mince words. He answers the lawyer by saying “if you do this, you will have the eternal life that you are seeking”.
Jesus tells a story to explain what it means to fulfill the intent of the law
The glaring omission in the dialogue, unlike that of the rich young ruler who openly said he obeyed the law, is the silence of the lawyer with regard to his own performance of love. The problem, as much of the rabbinic tradition evidences, is that a neighbour was only understood to be a fellow Jew. The question is whether Leviticus 19:8, in its command to love one’s neighbour only intended love to be exercised for a fellow Israelite, as the Rabbinic writings indicate, or did it demand love for all peoples. To answer this question, Jesus now tells the parable of the Good Samaritan.
Jesus tells the story of a Jewish man from Israel who was beaten by a bunch of thugs and left for dead on the side of the road. First, a priest walks by and then a Levite, both of whom were set apart in the service of the Lord to minister to the needs of the people. Both pass by, refusing to love the beaten man. The surprise of the parable is that the one who showed love was a Samaritan. Jesus says that he went to the man and “bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him” (Luke 10:34).