25 An expert in Torah stood up to try and trap him by asking, “Rabbi, what should I do to obtain eternal life?” 26 But Yeshua said to him, “What is written in the Torah? How do you read it?” 27 He answered, “You are to love The Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength and with all your understanding; and your neighbor as yourself.”28 “That’s the right answer,” Yeshua said. “Do this, and you will have life.”
29 But he, wanting to justify himself, said to Yeshua, “And who is my ‘neighbor’?” 30 Taking up the question, Yeshua said: “A man was going down from Yerushalayim to Yericho when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him naked and beat him up, then went off, leaving him half dead. 31 By coincidence, a priest was going down on that road; but when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 Likewise a Levite who reached the place and saw him also passed by on the other side.
33 “But a Samaritan who was traveling came upon him; and when he saw him, he was moved with compassion. 34 So he went up to him, put oil and wine on his wounds and bandaged them. Then he set him on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day, he took out two days’ wages, gave them to the innkeeper and said, ‘Look after him; and if you spend more than this, I’ll pay you back when I return.’ 36 Of these three, which one seems to you to have become the ‘neighbor’ of the man who fell among robbers?” 37 He answered, “The one who showed mercy toward him.” Yeshua said to him, “You go and do as he did.”
The testing question which leads to quotation of the Shema, the Jewish declaration of faith, is attested by Mark and Matthew also, but only Luke gives the parable of so-called “Good Samaritan”.
All three gospels show Jesus’ commitment to the great commandment of love for God and neighbour. He does not say that in addition to obeying it you have to believe the doctrine of the Trinity, or the Atonement, or assert experience of the Holy Spirit. He tells the questioner that if he obeys the commandment he will have eternal life. I am not denigrating the doctrines mentioned; indeed I find them helpful; but much grief and many atrocities could have been avoided in the history of Christianity if the church had used Jesus’definition of what God wanted, rather than burning people who couldn’t accept the definition of the Trinity that the church had decided was orthodox, and consigning adherents of Islam to hell merely for the content of their faith. As I say, I find that the doctrine of the Trinity helps me to love God and my neighbour, because it points to a lovable God who is present in my accessible neighbour. The practice of love and the truth about God are related, but the practice is paramount according to Jesus.
The parable rests on competing definitions of neighbour.
- The questioner’s definition: neighbour means someone I may have to help.
- Jesus’ definition: neighbour means someone who gives help when it is needed. Neighbour is not a noun, it’s a verb, a doing word.
The man asks Jesus about the limits of his neighbourly obligation. He thinks of himself as the giver of help. But Jesus’ story makes him see himself as a victim in need of help, who knows that his neighbour is the one who helps him. Of course Jesus ups the ante by making the false neighbours religious Jews and the true neighbour a heretical Samaritan, just the sort of person the questioner might have excluded from a Jewish list of “neighbours”
Some say that Jesus answers the man’s question by saying we must help everybody. That’s a misunderstanding. Jesus is more practical than than that. It effect he interprets the commandment as telling us to become neighbours to those life gives us. We don’t need definitions that limit whom we might help or that tell us to help everybody in the world. We don’t need reasons for caring; love has no why, but shows itself in generous and kindly actions, the kind we recognise immediately when we are in need. Jesus interprets the “love as yourself” by telling the questioner to put himself in the position of the one in need.
The good gay migrant in Central Park
He also recognises that the Torah command is absolute; it is not a piece of divine advice. Such a command is addressed to my whole life. God says that this is what my life should be about. There is no wriggle room, no exclusions on the grounds of infirmity, incapacity, or sinfulness. It is, like “let there be light” a creative command that brings something into existence, in this case, a generous compassionate practical character like that of the Samaritan in the story.
Readers will see from my own circling around this story, how great it is, and how hard to define. But I don’t need to define it; I just need to hear it and go and do as the Samaritan did.