Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
The lawyer was trying to trap Jesus, and Jesus, by answering with a penetrating question, trapped the lawyer. Lawyers are experts in verbal sparring. They don’t like losing.
The Jewish elite were very focused on avoiding impurity and sin. Israel’s religious idolatry and syncretism was a signficant part of why they lost God’s favor. In the process, they ended up creating a class system that devalued the impure and the sinful as second-class citizens. Samaritans were half-breeds with a syncretic religion, to be avoided at all costs. In their zealousness to follow God, they missed God’s heart: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” –Micah 6:8
The man on the side of the road, we don’t know who he was. It’s possible he was unclean, we don’t know. Mercy is a tough task, it requires risk, it requires time, it requires effort. Helping a person on the side of the road requires involvement. It’s also difficult to know whether it might be a trap, an ambush. Would it be worth it? The person was half dead, after all. Is it the type of person who’s worth helping? We don’t know. What we do know is that the Priest and Levite, not only saw him, but avoided him, passed by on the other side. Isn’t that what we often do when we’re around people or circumstances that make us uncomfortable?
Not only did the Samaritan, the unclean person, the person who Jews avoided, have mercy, but he took the time to help the person. He poured oil and wine, items of worth, on this man’s wounds. Then what? He brought him to an inn and payed them to take care of him while the Samaritan finished his journey. We don’t know where the Samaritan was going, but it certainly appears he had an agenda and some place he had to be. He seems like he was traveling on business. So, he interrupted his plans to help a man, but didn’t forsake his obligations to others, only delayed them as much as he could. It’s so easy to say we don’t have time. On the other hand, our existing commitments are important too.
Jesus said, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”
Notice the phrasing of the question. The lawyer asked Jesus who his neighbor was? Jesus turned it around and asked if he was BEING a neighbor. No matter how you look at it, it is both challenging and offensive. The Samaritan, the person who I may feel is less than me, is more of a neighbor to others than I am. The Samaritan is my neighbor. The person beaten and bloody on the side of the road asking for help is my neighbor. People I have never met are my neighbors.
Am I being a neighbor, or just walking right on by?