In this gospel, a certain expert in the law threw a question at Jesus that went as follows, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (Lk 10:25). This question was frequently asked by the Jews and the Greeks. They enquired after eternal life. It is the ultimate quest for humanity. What do we have to do to inherit eternal life? It is the most serious question that anybody could ever ask.
In the spirit of the question there was some hostility towards Jesus. Luke wrote that the lawyer “stood up and tested Him” (Lk 10:25), as the true intent of this question. The lawyer had a contentious disposition and tried to make Jesus stumble in His words.
Therefore, Jesus had no intention to give a direct answer to the shrewd intent behind his question. So, the Lord asked him back, “What is written in the law? What is your reading of it?” (Lk 10:26). The lawyer replied, it says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and also love your neighbour like yourself” (Lk 10:27). The Lord heard his answer and said, ‘That’s a correct answer’. But then the Lord added to His reply by saying, “do this and you will live” (Lk 10:28). That is, ‘if you put these statements into practice, eternal life is obtainable’.
Then Jesus answered with a simple parable (Lk 10:30-36). A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. The steep journey had been known to be dangerous. It was a vertical drop of one thousand meters and about thirty kilometres distance. Along the way the man was attacked by thieves, robbed to the bone, and left half dead.
Then, a priest, who served at the temple, happened to come by. He spotted the man who was almost dead. But, he ended up crossing to the other side of the road instead of helping him. Next, a Levite, who also served at the temple, happened to come by. He, too, spotted the man attacked by the thieves. But he, too, crossed over to the other side of the road and avoided the situation.
Why didn’t these men of religion help this poor man? Various reasons have been considered. They may have thought he was already dead. According to Mosaic Law, if you touched a dead person, you were unclean for seven days. While you were unclean, you couldn’t take part in temple services. In that sense they may have felt that they were being loyal to their duties of work. Or they may have even thought that the thieves were still lurking nearby, and if so they were in danger themselves. They had to get away from there as fast as possible. Whatever may have been the case, since the Lord did not give those reasons in His story, they don’t have much weight in the matter. The important things are the facts. The details are that they crossed to the other side and steered away from the person who was in need of some help.
However, in the Lord’s parable, a Samaritan, who had been travelling, happened to pass by the location (Lk 10:33). When you think about how it deliberately says here that “a Samaritan” comes into the storyline, it probably means that the person who was attacked by the robbers was a Jew.
There was between the Jews and the Samaritans a hostile relationship with a long historical background. The root of it is traced back to the eighth century BC when Assyria made conquest of Samaria (then the northern kingdom of Israel) and let several different races from the east settle in that land. As a result, the Samaritans became a people of mixed races and their religion intermixed with the religions of the different races. Therefore, some of the Jews would scorn and detest the Samaritans as a people who had lost the purity of their faith and their blood. Of course, some of the Samaritans also deeply hated the Jews for their intolerance, and they possibly had their own biased attitudes. This Samaritan, coming from such a context with the Jews, happened to come by that way.
The priest and the Levite, both of the same race as the victim in the story, and considered ‘neighbours’ to the victim, ‘passed by on the other side of the road’ away from him. Yet, the Samaritan, who was not considered his neighbour, “when he saw him, he had compassion” (Lk 10:33). He bandaged his wounds pouring oil and wine, and placed him on his donkey and took him to an inn to nurse and take care of him for the night. Then, the next day, he took out his money, two silver coins of denarii, and handed them to the owner of the inn and said, ‘Take care of him. If other expenses are made, I will pay them when I come past here again’ (Lk 10:35).
Why did this Samaritan help the half dead Jewish man? Jesus only gave the reason, because “he had compassion” (Lk 10:33). The various different reasons and motives he might have had in his heart did not seem to be of very much significance. The important things are the facts. The details in the story are that when he saw him, he went right up to the half dead man.
Upon telling this story, Jesus then asked the lawyer a question. He said, ‘So, between these three men, who do you think was the neighbour to the man who had been attacked by the bandit thieves?’ (Lk 10:36). What we see here is that Jesus repeats the same question back, which the lawyer had earlier tried to justify himself, when he asked, “And who is my neighbour?” (Lk 10:29). So, the Lord asked back, ‘Who had been the neighbour?’ in the story. The Lord is saying, it is not that ‘Someone ‘is‘ my neighbour,’ but that ‘I ‘be‘ a neighbour’. With this logic as taught by the Lord, we should not justify ourselves by the cultural and social boundaries drawn on those not regarded as neighbours.
Furthermore, in this story, we cannot merely compare ourselves with the Samaritan. Instead we are the man almost murdered and near dead by our passions or even like the self-righteous lawyer. Don’t you see it? We’re always trying to justify ourselves in our spiritual ignorance and self-centeredness. But if we take off the facade which we have worn with all our strength, what comes out into the open is our truly miserable condition.
We may know what is right, but we are not practicing it. We know that we ought to love others, but we don’t love them in the world of reality, and we seem to be desperately unable to love them when we are always justifying and taking care of our self interest. Instead, we harbor animosity and we wield our swords of ill will voluntarily or involuntarily. And so, there we are justifying ourselves with all our strength, even though we are wrong to do that. Eternal life is totally unrelated to that false attitude, but there we are, that’s the way we really are in this world, on the verge of self destruction, not willing to change ‘our way of life’ in light of ‘the true way as taught by Jesus Christ’. We are the ones in need of help!
Neither the priest nor the Levite were a help to the man who had been robbed by the thieves, and at death’s door. They symbolise the world of law and ritual. But, they weren’t a help. They crossed to the other side. But, in their blurred vision was a lone figure that was made visible to them as he approached. It was the Samaritan man whom they had detested. But, the Samaritan, in spite of the Jews animosity, still came near and was their neighbour to them. Who was this Samaritan and what does he mean? He symbolises none other than Jesus Christ. It was Jesus Christ whom this Jewish lawyer was showing animosity to, and it was Jesus who had come to be his neighbour in order to save him.
It is the same for us, too. When we still hadn’t known the Lord, when we used to be against the Lord, a person with the spirit of Jesus had kindly come up to us. Someone had compassion on us and came to us. Since we were dead the way we were, someone became a neighbour to us, and that someone poured their life and all their love on us.
The Lord asked, ‘Which of these three do you think was the neighbour?’ Jesus became our neighbour for our benefit and existence. So now, Jesus tells us to ‘Go and you too do the same to others’ (Lk 10:37).
“One day, a man who was visiting Mount Athos asked several wise elders the following question: ‘What is the most important thing in your life?’ Each time he was answered like this: ‘It is divine love; to love God and to love one’s neighbour’. He said: ‘I don’t have love, either for prayer, or for God, or for other people. What must I do?’ And then he decided by himself: ‘I will act as if I had this love’. Thirty years later, the Holy Spirit gave him the grace of love”.