Parable of the Good Samaritan: Who Is My Neighbor?
Strangers, outsiders, neighbors, friends. How do you tell who is who?

Parable of the Good Samaritan: Who Is My Neighbor?

Finally, the moment has arrived. We are ready to ponder what it was that Christ was telling the lawyer whose question prompted the Parable of the Good Samaritan, as well as what Luke wanted his readers to understand as he related the events recorded in the tenth chapter of his gospel account.

We’ll start by considering an important theme of the chapter, the concept of hospitality. In fact, this theme ties the three major divisions of Luke 10 together.

We first see it at the beginning of the chapter when Christ sent the seventy disciples to the towns He planned to visit, instructing them not to take their own supplies. Instead, they were to rely on the hospitality of the residents for their needs. Next, within the Parable of the Good Samaritan itself we see an individual caring for a stranger, becoming the injured man’s host in absentia by paying for his stay at an inn. Finally, the chapter ends with Martha inviting Christ into her home.

Hospitality is a key to understanding this parable. But is that all we are to get from it? Is this story merely a means to provoke us to good works?

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

The best way to shed light on this parable is to take a closer look at the questions the lawyer asked Jesus, inducing Him to offer this teaching. The lawyer first asked about how to obtain eternal life (verse 25), after which Christ turned the tables on him, asking how he understood the law. The lawyer responded by reciting the two great commands to love God and to love one’s neighbor.

[At this point it’s probably best to assume that this lawyer was a Pharisee. After all, it was the Pharisees who were concerned with fulfilling the law and obtaining eternal life. The Sadducees did not believe the oral law was binding, and they did not believe in the resurrection.]

Jesus told the lawyer that he had “answered correctly” (verse 28, ESV). The lawyer already knew the demands of the law, but chose to pursue the matter further. His follow-up question was about whom he should consider to be a neighbor. In essence, he was asking Christ which people he should love, and which he could safely ignore.

Remember, the Pharisees were so intent on separating themselves from sin that they would not associate with Gentiles, Hellenized Jews, and the uneducated people of the land, or עם הארץ (am-ha’aretz). These people of the land lived within the boundaries of the Promised Land, but were not part of the community of Israel.

Only fellow Pharisees with the same zeal for the Law would have made good neighbors, or as the Pharisees referred to themselves, חברים (chaberim). This term, according to Emil Schürer, in his five-volume History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ, can be translated “neighbor,” though it is not the word used in Luke 10.

The Plot Twist

The lawyer would have listened to the parable, understanding the actions of the priest and Levite, probably agreeing with their decision to maintain ritual purity. (Ironically, the Pharisees’ zeal for the Law meant supporting the Sadducees in their priestly function, but only so long as the priests and Levites fulfilled the obligations of the sacrificial law.)

We don’t know what the lawyer may have expected from the parable. Perhaps he expected a fellow Pharisee to emerge as the story’s good guy, doing more than the priest and Levite. What is almost certain, though, is that our lawyer would have been dumbstruck by a Samaritan taking the good guy role.

To make matters worse, before the lawyer had time to get over the shock of a good Samaritan, Christ asked him a loaded question: “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” (verse 36, ESV). There was no denying the answer, yet the lawyer couldn’t bring himself to respond with a simple, “the Samaritan.” Instead, he grudgingly admitted, “The one who showed him mercy” (verse 37).

As if that wasn’t hard enough to say, he then had to hear Christ instructing him to emulate the Samaritan in the story. The very idea of modeling his life after a Samaritan – even a fictional one – must have felt demeaning.

Enough With the Lawyer – What About the First Readers?

We began this post with a brief discussion of the theme of hospitality that runs through the chapter. Let’s take a deeper look.

Remember, we learned that in the ancient near east, hospitality was both a virtue and a duty. In a dangerous world, travelers relied on the kindness of strangers. To show hospitality was a matter of looking beyond one’s own community, recognizing the needs of outsiders.

How Luke weaves this theme through the chapter is fascinating. He first tells of the seventy, who relied on the empathy of people for whom they were outsiders. In this initial part of the chapter, we read about the condemnation of three cities. Bethsaida, Chorazin, and Capernaum, cities populated mostly by Jews, were condemned for their lack of faith. They were unfavorably compared to three other cities, all of which were distinctly Gentile. All of these Gentiles cities serve as benchmarks for sin throughout Scripture, yet they will stand in judgment of the Jewish ones!

Next comes the section with the parable, which asks, through the mouth of the lawyer, “who is my neighbor?” (verse 29). Again, it is the outsider who comes out looking good in this story, even though he is compared, not to ordinary people, but to a priest and a Levite.

Finally, we end the chapter with a vignette about Martha and Mary. Martha had indeed embraced her duty of hospitality, inviting Christ into her home. The problem for her, though, was a matter of failing to see the “good portion” (verse 42, ESV). She offered hospitality to Jesus, but failed to love her own sister in this matter.

So what is it that Luke, a Gentile Christian, was telling his First Century readers? This chapter, as much as any in his gospel, taught the early Christian community that the command to love one’s neighbor didn’t end at racial, ethnic, or political boundaries. The duty to love one’s neighbor included the stranger and the outsider.

Next week we’ll wrap up our study of the Parable of the Good Samaritan with the final stage of the inductive method: application. In the meantime, think about what this parable, and all of Luke 10, means for you today.

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