“But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?'” Luke 10:29
The parable of the good Samaritan is a story that is well known, even for those who did not grow up in the church. Usually our understanding of the parable is something along the lines of “my neighbour is anyone I come across in life that is in need and I should help them.” However, is this actually what the parable is about?
Like most things in the Bible we first have to begin with the context that the parable is set in. We find that in Luke 10:25-28 that a lawyer has come to Jesus asking him what he needs to do to inherit “eternal life”(This should probably be translated “life in the age to come” but that’s a topic for another day). Jesus asks him what was written in the law and the lawyer says to love the Lord with all your heart, soul, strength, mind and also to love your neighbour as yourself. Jesus replies that he is right and he should do that. The lawyer however wants to redeem himself so he asks who is neighbour is. It is at this point that if we don’t understand what the lawyer is asking we will not be able to properly understand the parable of the good Samaritan. The question for us to understand is: What does the lawyer mean by neighbour?
The command to “love your neighbour as yourself” is not something that Jesus came up with but is a command from Leviticus 19:18. In looking at the context the verse we can see that the term neighbour is another way of saying “fellow Israelites” or “God’s people.” In fact, the full verse of Leviticus 19:18 says, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.” What this means then is that when the lawyer is asking, “Who’s my neighbour?” what he is actually asking is, “Who makes up the people of God?” This was an issue at the time as you have different groups within Israel breaking away from each other each claiming to be the “true” Israel or people of God. For instance, the Essenes, who actually left to live off by themselves in the mountains, were trying to escape contamination and thought of the themselves as the actual true Israel. So the lawyer is trying to ask Jesus who makes up the true Israel, or the true people of God, that he is supposed to love. It’s only when we begin to understand this point that we can begin to understand the meaning of the parable.
So to answer the lawyer’s question Jesus tells the story of the good Samaritan. In the story a man is going to from Jerusalem to Jericho when robbers beat and leave him half dead on the side of the road. A priest and a Levite happen to come down the road and upon seeing the person cross to the other side. Why? It’s not that they can’t be bothered to help or that they are in a hurry. But to them it probably looks like this person is dead and if they were to approach him then they would become unclean from touching a dead body. While perhaps for us today this wouldn’t seem like a big deal, it was to them and it was permissible by their laws that if you came across a body in the street that may appear dead you could cross to the other side of the street to maintain your purity. So the priest and the Levite were not being indifferent, rather, they were doing their best to remain pure and do what they thought God wanted.
Then a Samaritan comes along, a group of people of people that were thought of as worthless. When he comes across the man lying half dead on the road, rather than cross to the other side, he is moved with compassion to help the man.
Now this word for compassion is used of only three people in the New Testament. First, it is used of Jesus, who is often moved with compassion to help people. The other person who is said to show compassion in the New Testament is the Father in the story of the Prodigal Son, a figure who represents God. What we see then is that the Samaritan doesn’t just feel sorry for the man on the road, but feels a compassion that is the same compassion that God has for people. As a result of this compassion the Samaritan bandages up the man and brings him to the inn and pays the innkeeper for all the medical bills.
After Jesus finishes telling this story he asks the lawyer, who of the three do you think was the neighbour. This now is the key question and we need to remember what is actually being asked. Jesus is asking the lawyer, who is it that is a part of God’s people, is it the Priest, the Levite, or the Samaritan. The answer to the question is the one who showed mercy. This is a shocking statement. What Jesus is doing is redefining who makes up the people of God. No longer is it those who keep the purity laws, rather, what defines the people of God is the God-like compassion they show to others.