25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27 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.” 28 And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” 29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 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. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 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. 35 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.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
Wrapped around one of the most popular parables of the New Testament is an intriguing Q&A session between Jesus and an expert on religious law. There are five questions in the conversation surrounding this parable, which provides a context that should shape the way one reads it. Two of those questions are posed by the lawyer, three by Jesus.
The first question that kicks off the conversation seems to be a fairly rudimentary question for someone to ask a religious teacher. But Luke indicates from the beginning that the lawyer’s question is a test, not a genuine search for truth.
The only other time this particular word for “test” is used in Luke is during the temptation story, when Jesus cited Deuteronomy to say, “You shall not test the Lord your God.” The beloved parable begins with a feint, a trap wrapped in the guise of a question.
Jesus responds to the test with two questions of his own. To those who imagine that it is possible to read the Bible “just as it is, without interpreting it,” these questions might appear to be redundant: “What is written in the law?” and “What do you read there?”
Of course, these questions are by no means redundant. Anyone who cites any particular Scripture as being pertinent to a particular question is already making an interpretive judgment. By framing these twin questions in terms of ‘what is written’ and ‘what one reads,’ Jesus is not letting this lawyer off of the interpretive hook.
After answering Jesus’ twin questions, the fourth question comes from the lawyer. If his initial inquiry had been genuine, he might have been satisfied that Jesus had elicited a good answer from him—to inherit eternal life one follows what is identified elsewhere as the two parts of the greatest command, to love God and neighbor.
But, whereas the lawyer’s first question was posed to test Jesus, his second question is posed to justify himself. When the narrator identifies this second question as another loaded question, it seems to indicate that it is less about “Show me who to love” and more about “And who, exactly, do I have to love?”
It is in response to this attempt at self-vindication posing as a question that Jesus tells the story of The Good Samaritan. The story seems a good, moral, stand-alone tale of showing compassion to the unfortunate, but to read it that simply is to ignore the narrator’s deliberate setting of the story. The beloved parable is best understood in conversation with the loaded questions that are passed back and forth between Jesus and the lawyer.
What seems to subvert the lawyer’s attempt at self-vindication is that the hero at the center of this story is a Samaritan. Preachers tend to go on and on about the antipathy between Samaritans and Jews back in the day, often stressing how offensive this story and its hero would be to the lawyer. All of that may be true, but in Luke’s story, there is every reason for the Samaritan to be an anti-hero for Jesus.
In the previous chapter, Jesus had sent messengers to find hospitality for him in a village in Samaria on his way to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51-55). The villagers refused to offer him hospitality because of the direction of his journey. James and John wanted to call down fire from heaven, reenacting the destruction of Sodom over their refusal to offer hospitality to God’s messengers in Genesis 18. Lest we think James and John were irrationally vicious in their response, Jesus himself invokes the destruction of Sodom when speaking of cities that refuse to show hospitality to the disciples that he sends out (Luke 10:12).
In other words, Jesus’ recent experience gave him very little reason to imagine a Samaritan as a hero of hospitality. And yet, Jesus’ story is of a Samaritan who offers over-the-top hospitality, the example of how one is to love one’s neighbor.
The fifth and final question takes us back out of the parable and into the conversation between Jesus and the lawyer. “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The not-so-subtle shift is away from “Who is my neighbor?” to “Who was a neighbor?” Perhaps now it is less a matter of “Who do I have to love to fulfill my duty and inherit eternal life?” to “How do I love well?” In the end, a conversation that begins with a trick question followed by a self-vindicating question becomes a matter of asking the right question.
D. Mark Davis is pastor and head of staff for St. Mark Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, California. Ordained in 1996, he holds a PhD. in theology, ethics and culture from the University of Iowa and a D.Min. from Union Presbyterian Seminary in Virginia. He is the author of two books: Talking About Evangelism (May 2006) and Left Behind and Loving It (Fall 2011), and he blogs intensive Bible studies regularly at http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com.