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Luke 10:25-37 Biblical Commentary:
LUKE 9:51 – 11:13. THE CONTEXT—DEEPER DISCIPLESHIP
In verse 9:51, Jesus began his journey to Jerusalem and the cross, a journey on which he will continue until his Triumphal Entry in chapter 19. Thus, while traveling to Jerusalem, he tells a story about people traveling from Jerusalem (Van Harn, 368).
In a recent prayer, Jesus characterized his disciples as “little children” to whom God had revealed great truths—and contrasted them with “the wise and the understanding” from whom God had “hidden these things” (10:21). The Parable of the Good Samaritan acts out that contrast in a story—the story of a wise and intelligent lawyer who stands up to test Jesus (v. 25) and to justify himself (v. 29)—and of two wise and intelligent men who pass by on the other side without helping (vv. 31-32)—and of a lowly Samaritan who renders the help that is needed (vv. 33-35).
In this text, the lawyer answers Jesus by stating that two things are necessary to inherit eternal life—loving God, and loving neighbor (v. 27). Several scholars have noted a link between the parable of the Good Samaritan (vv. 29-37) and the story of Martha and Mary, which follows it (vv. 38-42). The parable shows what it means to love one’s neighbor, and the story of Martha and Mary shows what it means to love God.
Bock takes that one step further by linking Jesus’ teaching about prayer (11:1-13) with these stories. It is only through a deep relationship with God, fostered by prayer, that we can love God and neighbor (Bock, 195).
LUKE 10:25-26. WHAT SHALL I DO?
25Behold, a certain lawyer stood up and tested him, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 26He said to him, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?”
Mark 12:28-34 and Matthew 22:34-40 parallel this Lukan text. Matthew and Luke say that the lawyer was testing Jesus, while Mark does not. Mark has Jesus commending the lawyer, saying, “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34). Only Luke uses the story of the lawyer to introduce the parable of the Good Samaritan, which is found only in Luke.
The lawyer’s training is in the Torah. He has spent much of his life asking and answering questions about the law. The question-answer format can lead to friendly contesting, rather like athletes testing their moves on each other. Perhaps the lawyer has exhausted the local competition and is anxious to test himself against this new rabbi. Jesus has just told his disciples, “Blessed are the eyes which see the things that you see, for I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see the things which you see, and didn’t see them, and to hear the things which you hear, and didn’t hear them” (vv. 23-24). Now the lawyer wants to see whether one who talks so grandly can answer a simple question (Culpepper, 227).
“Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (v. 25). His use of the word “inherit” is interesting. The control of an inheritance is in the hands of the giver—not the person who would receive the inheritance. God promised Israel that they would inherit the Promised Land (Leviticus 20:24), and everyone understood the inheritance as a gift. Of course, it is possible for a person to offend a benefactor and lose an inheritance. It is also possible to impress a benefactor and gain an inheritance. The lawyer is asking what he needs to do to impress God and thus gain the inheritance of eternal life.
The lawyer asked his question, not to gain understanding, but to gain advantage over Jesus (Craddock, 150).
At Pentecost (Acts 2:37) and in a Philippian jail (Acts 16:29), people asked essentially the same question—what must they do to be saved. At Pentecost, Peter answered, “Repent, and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins. In Philippi, Paul and Silas said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.”
There is a lesson here for us. We are tempted to enhance our witness to the unchurched by trying to learn the answer to every question. This, however, tempts us into a game of verbal jousting—unlikely to be effective. Our witness depends less on clever answers and more on love. If we truly love God, neighbor and self, as this text suggests, our neighbor will be drawn to our love.
“What is written in the law? How do you read it?” (v. 26). Jesus’ question returns the challenge to the lawyer. “You are the expert! You have spent your life studying the law! You tell me!” Jesus’ answer also steers the debate toward the scriptures, the foundation of Jewish life, and affirms the faithfulness of those scriptures to lead us aright.
LUKE 10:27-28. LOVE GOD—AND YOUR NEIGHBOR
27(The lawyer) answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”
28(Jesus) said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this, and you will live.”
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself”
(v. 27). The lawyer’s answer is drawn from two scriptures: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might (Deuteronomy 6:5) and “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). The Deuteronomy passage is part of the Shema, which Jews repeat twice each day, so it is no wonder that it comes to this lawyer’s mind.
The qualifiers in verse 27 differ slightly in Deuteronomy and the various Gospels. In Luke, Jesus says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind.” Deuteronomy has heart, soul, and might. Mark has heart, soul, mind, strength. Matthew has heart, soul and mind. But those differences don’t matter. The point is that we must devote ourselves wholly to God, reserving no corner of our lives to be untouched by God.
Heart refers to emotions—soul refers to vitality and consciousness—strength refers to power and drive—mind refers to intelligence (Fitzmyer, 880).
Jesus could respond to the lawyer by saying that salvation is not a matter of doing, but of God’s grace. However, he says, “Do this, and you will live” (v. 28) and “Go and do likewise” (v. 37), thus reinforcing the lawyer’s understanding that his actions are important to his salvation. However, the two commandments that the lawyer has cited, requiring him to love God and neighbor, are so global in nature that he cannot honestly claim to keep them—nor can we. Try as we might, we do not love God unreservedly. We do not love our neighbor as ourselves. It is important to keep these two commandments as faithfully as possible, but in the end they force us to throw ourselves on God’s mercy.
These commandments call for love of God and neighbor, but also acknowledge a third love—love of self. The second commandment assumes that we care about our own welfare, and calls us to bring our caring for our neighbor to that same high level—to be as concerned for the welfare of the neighbor as we are for our own welfare. It calls us to re-draw our “us/them” boundaries—to enlarge our circle so that there remains only “us.”
Not surprisingly, the Epistles echo Jesus’ call to love our neighbors as ourselves (Galatians 5:14; Romans 13:9; James 2:8).
“You have answered correctly. Do this, and you will live” (v. 28). The lawyer is a scholar of the law who knows the requirements of the law. He began his questioning of Jesus by asking what he must do to inherit eternal life. Now Jesus tells him that he has only to do what he knew all along that he should do. Then he will live.
Jesus’ answer both commends and convicts the man. “You have answered correctly” commends him for answering well—but “do this, and you will live” suggests that the man is not doing what he know that he must do. In that sense, “do this, and you will live” convicts the man for failing to bring his life into congruence with his understanding.
Brunner uses an analogy here. If a composer has written a symphony to the last note, no notes need be added—but the symphony is not complete until an orchestra turns the written music into beautiful sounds. So it is with religious teachings. They can be perfect on paper, but they mean little until put into action (Brunner, 53).
LUKE 10:29. WHO IS MY NEIGHBOR?
29But he, desiring to justify himself, asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”
“Who is my neighbor?” This is a practical question posed by a skilled debater “wanting to justify himself”—wanting to score some points in the debate. How can he obey the second commandment until he knows who his neighbor is? It is the kind of question that rabbis debate endlessly. Such debate sometimes represents true devotion to the law, but easily deteriorates into academic exercise. By continually debating the law, one can delay compliance with the law.
On the surface, the lawyer is asking who he must love. However, at a deeper level, he is asking Jesus to define the boundaries so that he will know who he is not required to love. If he can determine who is his neighbor, he will also know who is not his neighbor.
While there is a strong emphasis in the Old Testament on Israel separating itself from surrounding peoples (see Deuteronomy 7), the same chapter that requires love of neighbor also says, “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself; for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:34). This broadens the definition of neighbor considerably—a fact of which the lawyer is surely aware. What he cannot imagine, however, is how far Jesus is about to stretch that definition.
LUKE 10:30-37. A NEIGHBOR STORY
Jesus could answer, “Everyone is your neighbor.” Instead he tells a story that encourages us to shift our focus from the fence to the neighbor on the other side. When our eyes are focused on the fence, we cannot see our neighbor clearly. However, when we look at the neighbor, we hardly see the fence.
Jesus’ story might have its roots in 2 Chronicles 28:5-15. In that story, Samaritans rescued Judeans who had been defeated in battle, fed them, clothed them, anointed them, and brought them back to their home in Jericho—very much like the Samaritan will do for the traveler in Jesus’ parable.
LUKE 10:30. ROBBERS LEFT HIM HALF DEAD
30Jesus answered, “A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who both stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead.“
“A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho” (v. 30a). Jesus tells us little about the traveler who becomes a victim of robbers. We don’t know if he is Jewish, Samaritan, or an alien. We know neither his purpose for visiting Jerusalem nor the nature of his business in Jericho.
“going down” (v. 30a). Jerusalem is located on a mountain at an elevation of more than 2000 feet (610 m.), and Jericho sits in the Rift Valley near the Dead Sea—several hundred feet below sea level. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho winds through rocky mountain terrain, losing roughly 3,000 feet of elevation in just 17 miles.
Such terrain affords thieves opportunities for ambush and easy escape routes. Travelers are well-advised to travel such roads in convoy. Traveling alone, this man took a risk and paid dearly for his decision. The Samaritan, however, does not ask whether the victim brought trouble upon himself, but simply stops to help. We are inclined to sort needy people into deserving and undeserving categories, which allows us to excuse ourselves from helping those who are not deserving. Christianity, however, is about help for the undeserving (Romans 5:8).
“and he fell among robbers, who both stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead” (v. 30b). It would be possible for passersby to determine something of the fallen man’s identity by his clothing or speech, but the robbers have stripped him of his clothing and have left him unconscious, thus rendering him unidentifiable. Passersby might be quicker to stop if they could identify the man as a member of their group, but they cannot do that (Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes, 42-43).
LUKE 10:31-32. THEY PASSED BY ON THE OTHER SIDE
31“By chance a certain priest was going down that way. When he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32In the same way a Levite also, when he came to the place, and saw him, passed by on the other side.”
Both priests and Levites are from the tribe of Levi, but priests are also descendants of Aaron (Exodus 28:1). Priests serve as mediators between humans and God, and perform sacrifices and other rituals. Levites assist the priests with these duties (Numbers 3:6ff.).
We expect compassion from clergy and assume that the priest and Levite will help, but they pass by on the other side. Jesus does not tell us why they fail to stop:
• Perhaps they are on their way to perform religious services—except that Jesus tells us that the priest is “going down that way” (v. 31)—”down” being in the direction of Jericho rather than Jerusalem. Priests conduct their duties at the temple for a period of time and then return home. This priest is probably on his way home, and won’t preside at the temple for quite some time.
• Perhaps they are disgusted by the gore and prefer not to dirty their hands and clothes. That is such a trivial reason that we are inclined not to consider it, but many a person has passed by on the other side for just such a reason.
• Perhaps they fear that the victim is dead. A Jew touching a dead human body is rendered unclean for seven days (Numbers 19:11), and must go through a cleansing ceremony on the third and seventh days lest he be cut off from the assembly (Numbers 19:13, 20). An unclean priest or Levite is prohibited from conducting temple duties until cleansed—although the law specifies certain priestly responsibilities that render the priest and his assistant temporarily unclean—so unclean priests and Levites are not uncommon (see Numbers 19:1-10a, esp. v. 7). However, the law prohibiting a priest from touching a dead body is expressed in unequivocal terms—the priest “shall not go where there is a dead body; he shall not defile himself even for his father or mother” (Leviticus 21:11). The Levite, however, has more latitude at this point. He, too, will become unclean if he touches a dead body, but the law is less strict on this issue for him than for the priest.
• Perhaps they are afraid, fearing that the man has been placed there to lure them into an ambush. The fallen man’s wounds testify to the presence of brigands in the area, so an ambush is a very real possibility. The priest, Levite and Samaritan have reason to be concerned for their safety.
• Perhaps they are overwhelmed at the prospect of transporting an injured man through the mountains and finding assistance for him in the next town. Many people would be walking on this kind of journey, which would make it impossible for them to transport the man. However, the priest, as a member of the upper classes, is almost certainly mounted, and therefore has the means to transport the man (Bailey, 43). Jesus tells us that the Samaritan puts him on his own animal, which means that he too has the means to transport him. We don’t know whether the Levite is mounted or not.
• Perhaps the Levite sees the priest pass by, and is influenced by his example.
Whatever their reasons, Jesus’ story highlights that observing the letter of the law falls short of loving God and neighbor, which is the standard that the lawyer has outlined to qualify for salvation.
We would do well, however, not to demonize the priest and the Levite. Jesus did not choose the priest and Levite because they were the worst but because they were the best. If they are terrible people, the story loses its force. We would also do well to remember the good reasons why we pass by on the other side. We too have urgent duties that will not permit delay. We too want not to get dirty. We too are afraid of stopping on a deserted road to help a stranger. We too find ourselves overwhelmed with the logistics of helping needy people. These are very real concerns, and we must acknowledge them as such.
LUKE 10:33-35. A SAMARITAN WAS MOVED WITH COMPASSION
33“But a certain Samaritan, as he traveled, came where he was. When he saw him, he was moved with compassion (Greek: esplanchnisthe—moved to the depths of his bowels with compassion), 34came to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. He set him on his own animal, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, and gave them to the host, and said to him, ‘Take care of him. Whatever you spend beyond that, I will repay you when I return.'”
“But a certain Samaritan, as he traveled, came where he was” (v. 33). A Samaritan village only recently refused to receive Jesus “because his face was set toward Jerusalem” (9:53). Now Jesus has opportunity to get even—to make a Samaritan the butt of a story that will be told and re-told through the ages. But, as we will see, he will do the opposite.
The storytelling conventions of the day call for the third character in a series of three to break the pattern established by the first and second characters. This story conforms to that pattern, but the natural progression would be priest, Levite, Israelite. Jesus turns this into completely different story when he chooses a Samaritan as the person to break the mold (Culpepper, 229; Hultgren, 97-98).
Jews consider Samaritans to be half-breeds—intermarried with pagans—defiled—unfit for God’s service. Jews avoid contact with Samaritans whenever possible, and consider them worse than pagans. After all, Samaritans were people of the promise who did not value the promise enough to keep themselves pure. Furthermore, Samaritans opposed the rebuilding of the temple (Ezra 4:2-5 and Nehemiah 2:19), and established a rival temple on Mount Gerizim.
Just as we know little about the victim, we know little about the Samaritan. We know only that he is willing to help even though he is traveling through Jewish territory among people who would not be inclined to help him in similar circumstances.
“when he saw him” (v. 33b). This is the first of this Samaritan’s redemptive actions—he sees the wounded man. He doesn’t avert his eyes. He doesn’t see the wounded man as some sort of hopeless, disgusting lump of flesh. He sees a human in need and, as we will see, he feels his pain.
“he was moved with compassion” (Greek: esplanchnisthe—moved to the depths of his bowels with compassion) (v. 33c). The Jews spoke of the seat of emotion as the bowels, just as we speak of it as the heart. In both cases, the intent is to speak of that which is at the core of our emotional being—of our feelings.
“pouring on oil and wine” (v. 34). Oil and wine are not only used for dressing wounds, but are also used in Jewish worship. The priest and Levite, who handle oil and wine at the temple, fail to use them to relieve human suffering along the road.
“On the next day” (v. 35). The Samaritan treats the man’s wounds, manages somehow to get him on his animal, and transports him to the nearest inn. He gives the innkeeper two denarii, two days’ wages for a laborer (Matt 20:2), and promises to reimburse him for any additional requirements. His generosity to the victim gives credence to his promise of additional payment to the innkeeper.
The Samaritan’s actions reverse those of the robbers. They robbed the man, left him to die, and abandoned him. The Samaritan pays for the man, leaves him in good hands, and promises to return (Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes, 53).
LUKE 10:36-37. WHICH SEEMED TO BE A NEIGHBOR?
36“Now which of these three do you think seemed to be a neighbor to him who fell among the robbers?” 37He said, “He who showed mercy on him.” Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
“Now which of these three do you think seemed to be a neighbor to him who fell among the robbers?” (v. 36). Again Jesus turns the lawyer’s question back on him.
“He who showed mercy on him” (v. 37a). The lawyer could not even bring himself to say “the Samaritan,” but answered only, “The one who showed him mercy.” His answer reveals that he is not yet ready to accept the Samaritan as his neighbor.
In this exchange, Jesus leads us to define neighbor, not in terms of boundaries, but in terms of relationships and human need.
The limits of neighborliness come, not from without, but from within. We can be neighbor to anyone who will accept us as neighbor. The person in need is the best candidate to be our neighbor, because the person in need is most likely to accept us. The Samaritan is willing to be a neighbor to the wounded man, and the wounded man is willing to accept his help. That might not be the case had he not been wounded.
There is irony here. Their concern for religious purity prevents the priest and Levite from acting as neighbor to the fallen man, but the Samaritan, considered by Jews to be unclean, fulfills the requirements of the law to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).
“Go and do likewise” (v. 37b). After the lawyer’s first answer, Jesus said, “Do this, and you will live” (v. 28). After the lawyer’s second answer, Jesus says, “Go and do likewise,” but with no promise of salvation, presumably because the lawyer has revealed himself so clearly as so calculating.
Jesus is already doing likewise. Despised (Isaiah 53:3), even as the Samaritan is despised, Jesus nevertheless heals the sick and sacrifices himself to save sinners. He is the embodiment of the person that he calls us to be.
With whom do we identify in this parable. Some people feel like the wounded man in the parable, and would be delighted to have a Good Samaritan bring them relief. Others identify with the Samaritan. I personally identify with the priest and the Levite. I try to do the right thing, but human need is so overwhelming that I am tempted to pass by on the other side.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Bailey, Kenneth E., Poet & Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes: A Literary-Cultural Approach to the Parables in Luke (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976)
Barclay, William, The Daily Study Bible, The Gospel of Luke (Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press, 1953)
Bock, Darrell L., The IVP New Testament Commentary Series: Luke, Vol. 3 (Downers Grove, Illinois, Intervarsity Press, 1994)
Burghardt, Walter J., S.J., Sir, We Would Like to See Jesus (NY: Paulist Press, 1982)
Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; McCann, J. Clinton; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994)
Craddock, Fred B., Interpretation: Luke (Louisville: John Knox Press,(1990)
Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holliday, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, C (Valley Forge: Trinity Press, 1994)
Culpepper, R. Alan, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX. (Nashville: Abingdon , 1995)
Evans, Craig A., New International Biblical Commentary: Luke (Peabody, MA, Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1990)
Gilmour, S. MacLean & Knox, John, The Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 8. (Nashville: Abingdon , 1952)
Green, Joel B., The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997)
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Johnson, Luke Timothy, Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Luke (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991)
Nickle, Keith F., Preaching the Gospel of Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000)
Nolland, John, Word Biblical Commentary: Luke 9:21—18:34, Vol. 35B (Dallas: Word Books, 1993)
Ringe, Sharon H., Westminster Bible Companion, Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press)
Stein, Robert H., The New American Commentary: Luke (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992)
Sweet, Leonard, “Who is the Good Samaritan?” Homiletics, July 12, 1992.
Tannehill, Robert C., Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Luke (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996)
Van Harn, Roger, in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The Third Readings: The Gospels (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
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