To test Jesus, a “scholar of the law’’ asked him what he had to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus threw the question back to him by asking him, “What is written in the law? How do you interpret it?” The scholar answered by quoting two famous passages from the Hebrew Scripture. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength and with all your mind. (Deuteronomy 6:5), and your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18b)
This shrewd lawyer understood quite well the meaning of these two commandments. He knew that just about everybody could agree with the first commandment: love God. There’s nothing that’s contentious about it. Everybody could say that they love God. The extent of that love could vary but the basic command to love God would be easy for most people to accept. It was like motherhood and apple pie.
However, the second commandment was much more challenging for everybody. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The scholar was looking for a fight with this liberal rabbi from Nazareth, and so, he asked Jesus to define a neighbor for him. Luke comments that the scholar asked this to “justify himself.” Jesus decided to engage him. He spun the parable of the Good Samaritan.
Jesus made some major accusations in the parable. The people who walked by the dying man represented various types of people in the scholar’s circle of colleagues, a priest, and Levite, a member of the priestly tribe. These were people who officially said they loved God.
They served in the temple ritual. They put their “love of God” above their love of neighbor. They were on their way to Jerusalem to perform their priestly duties. If they touched this bloody, dying man they would be rendered ritually unclean and would not be permitted to perform their religious duties. So, they left him to die.
Then, the religious outcast came by, the Samaritan. The Jew who was dying on the side of the road was saved by a heretic and cultural enemy who overlooked his religious and cultural prejudice.
The moral of the parable was absolutely clear, but Jesus asked the scholar, “Which of the three was neighbor to the robber’s victim?” “The one who treated him with mercy,” came the answer. For the scholar and for anyone who could hear, the parable answered his question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Be a Good Samaritan!
I ask you to revisit this passage during your personal prayer time this week. Allow the parable to speak to our contemporary situation. Open your eyes to the cancer of “them and us,” that we Americans are suffering today. Like good Jews and good Samaritans, we can’t talk to each other. We’re committed to our hatred for each other. We refuse to look for common ground for creative and healing dialogue. Instead, we wage war with one another. Our objective is to conquer and dominate the other.
I’ll conclude with a teaching from the apostle John. “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother, he is a liar.” (1 John 4:20a)