Who is my neighbour? (Luke 10:25-37)

by on Aug.19, 2007, under Sermon

(This message was preached at St John’s on the 19/8/07, and the audio may be found here. )

The tale of the Good Samaritan is one of the most famous stories that Jesus told. Most Australians, even those with limited exposure to Christianity and Christian teaching, will have heard some form of this tale. The term ‘good samaritan’ has passed into our everyday vocabulary1.

Countless variations have been told and retold, for many different audiences, with the only consistent message that “it is good to be good”. Or perhaps more accurately, “it is good to do good”.

Prime Minister Howard, in his recent address to Christians across Australia2 cited this parable (along with the parable of the talents, which he called a “model for a free market” – a sermon in its own right!) as being influential for him as a Christian in politics. His exposition of the parable was twofold: everyone is valuable; and thus everyone deserves compassion.

Whilst these two things are unquestionably true, and can clearly be inferred from this parable, are they an adequate summary of Jesus’ message? To find the answer, let us turn to the text.

A story of doing

This episode in Luke’s narrative opens with a man questioning Jesus. This man, a lawyer, asks “What must I do to inherit the kingdom of God?” (25). He is asking Jesus’ opinion on one of the hot topics of the day, in the same way that we might quiz Mr. Rudd and Mr. Howard about their stance on refugee policy, stem cell research or abortion.

Jesus, in typical rabbinic fashion, answers with a question of his own: “What is written in the Law?… How do you read it?” In doing so, he not only turns it back on his questioner, he signals that his teaching is not something new, but something old; it is from the scripture that he is drawing his response.

The lawyer, of course, is delighted. After all, the Law is his specialty, and this gives him a chance to demonstrate his prowess in a very public setting. He quotes Deuteronomy 6:5 – “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” – and Leviticus 19:18 – “Love your neighbour as yourself.” To which Jesus responds, “You have answered correctly… Do this and you will live.”

Let’s pause, for a moment, and consider this. The lawyer asked what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus answers exactly that question: love the Lord your God and love your neighbour. Elsewhere, Jesus says that “[a]ll the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments,”3 and “[t]here is no commandment greater than these.”4 That’s what you have to do to inherit eternal life. Sounds simple, right?

Wrong. What Jesus doesn’t say is that you have to do those things perfectly. Every minute of every day. No breaks, no lapses, no rest, no mistakes, no errors of judgment. Perfectly.

Not going to happen.

Sorry, not a chance.

Can you imagine what it would be like to live like that, even if you could do it? Knowing that, even if you have somehow managed to live perfectly up until now – that is, you have done everything the Bible commands without fault – but slip up today, or tomorrow, or next week… all of your efforts will be lost. Or what if, like the rich ruler of Luke chapter 18, you can say “[a]ll these [laws] I have kept since I was a boy”5 and then Jesus goes and asks something more than what you’re willing to do? Perfect record… gone.

Paul takes up this theme in his letter to the Galatians:

All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law”.6

I think it safe to say that Paul does not believe this is a ‘winning’ tactic. In fact, in all of history there is only one man who has ever lived up to that standard, who has walked that path all the way into eternal life: Jesus himself.

But at least our lawyer now has the answer to the question that he asked. Had he asked a different question, he might have received a very different answer.

The lawyer’s second question, together with Luke’s commentary, reveal his motivation: “But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?'” (29).

I was never a good student at school. Don’t get me wrong, I always did well, but this was more by luck than good management. I knew every trick to maximise my marks, took every short cut in order to minimise the amount of work I had to do. As a result, twice a year at exam time I found myself praying for mercy and not justice! One of my most common techniques in preparing for an exam would be to pay very careful attention to what the teacher indicated as being most important. Quite often they would volunteer this information, but even when they didn’t they would usually give some guidance when asked. As a result, I would study those things in detail, sometimes to the exclusion of other material, on the assumption that their priorities would be reflected in the allocation of marks in the exam.

I hear something of the same attitude in the lawyer’s questioning. “What is the minimum that I have to do in order to gain eternal life?” Or perhaps, if we are to give him the benefit of the doubt, “What should be my top priorities?”

This guy knew the law. He understood the implications of being under the curse of the law. But he had a plan; reduce the law to the absolute minimum that was required and live by that. He is asking Jesus for a manageable ‘neighbourhood’ – not too big, and not too small, but just right. One common interpretation of the law was something like this: “love your neighbour, the Jew.” Some among the Pharisees went further and, reasoning that they were the only ones who followed the law they should be the only ones to benefit by it, narrowed it to “love your neighour, the Pharisee.”7

Jesus has other ideas. God is not in the business of minimising problems, but rather of maximising solutions. Can you imagine Jesus saying, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, not to send such big crops in future”? Of course not! Instead he says “Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”8

And so Jesus tells the well-known parable, to enlarge the lawyer’s vision:

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.

At this point, the lawyer is thinking to himself, “OK, I must be more compassionate than priests and Levites,” a task in itself, as these were the people most entrusted with helping people; perhaps modern day equivalents might be a rescue worker or a Salvation Army officer. The lawyer has already, in his mind, passed judgment on these two, and does not want to identify himself with them. Jesus continues:

But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper, ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

The Samaritans were traditionally enemies of the Jews. They claimed to worship Yahweh, but chose to do so in their own way, rather than in the way God had commanded; they set up their own temple at Mount Gerizim in opposition to the temple at Jerusalem. Whilst they were descended from the Jews, they had also intermarried with the nations around them. Jewish historian Josephus accuses them of being fair-weather friends, willing to identify themselves as Jews when the Jews were prospering, but distancing themselves whenever they saw the Jews suffering, so as not to share their fate9. For these reasons and more, they were held in utter contempt as a cowardly, mongrel, half-breed nation. John is not kidding when he says “Jews do not associate with Samaritans”10. In fact, in the chapter preceding the one we are concerned with today, James and John were ready to “call down fire from heaven” to destroy a Samaritan village for a minor snub11.

For a Samaritan to overcome social taboo, then, and help a Jew in such a sacrificial way was a powerful statement of compassion. Perhaps the traveller was so badly beaten as to be unrecognisable. The point was that it didn’t matter; the Samaritan’s compassion gave him no choice but to set aside his own journey, his own priorities, his (no doubt) urgent business and turn aside to help a neighbour in need. “When he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine [costly!]. The he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him [even more costly!]. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.'”12

It all depends on your outlook. To the thieves, this traveling Jew was a victim to exploit, so they attacked him. To the priest and Levite, he was a nuisance to avoid, so they ignored him. But to the Samaritan, he was a neighbour to love and to help, so he took care of him. What Jesus said to the lawyer, He says to us: “Go and keep on doing it likewise” (literal translation).13

Up until this point, I think most people would be willing to agree, no matter what their background – Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, atheist or any other. It is a suitably moral story, appropriate for the instruction of children and adults alike, exhorting us to have compassion and kindness on all. To hear him talk about it, this is what Prime Minister Howard would take away from this parable. But to stop there is to miss the point; it is like giving up a deep drink from the spring of living water and taking instead a sip from broken cisterns that cannot hold water14.

As Carson writes, in answering the lawyer’s query

Jesus does not supply information as to whom one should help; failure to keep the commandment springs not from lack of information but from lack of love. It was not fresh knowledge that the lawyer needed, but a new heart – in plain English, conversion.15

A story of being

Let’s back up a bit. The very first question that the lawyer asked was, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”16 One commentator notes that

[e]ternal life is something to be inherited. And to receive an inheritance, you have to be an heir. No amount of doing will make you into one. Keeping the law is a way of life; it is not a way to life. It is only when by God’s grace we have become the right sort of people – his people, by new birth – that we begin to do the right sort of things.17

There are two things to dwell on here: if we wish to inherit eternal life we must first become an heir; being an heir will lead us to act righteously. Let’s explore these.

Becoming an heir

In telling the tale of the Good Samaritan, Jesus laid a subtle trap. By the time the Samaritan appears on the scene, the actions of the priest and the Levite have already been heard and, in the lawyer’s mind, judged. In the same way that you and I might expect an “And they all lived happily ever after” ending, so he would have been expecting a role model character to come along, someone he could look up to and emulate. I can just imagine him recoiling in revulsion on hearing that it was a despised Samaritan. Many Jews would rather have died than thought of themselves in the same mental ‘breath’ as a Samaritan. But that only leaves one other character to identify with: the traveller. And this is exactly what Jesus intended, for the only difference between the lawyer (or you or me, for that matter) and the perilous pilgrim is that the pilgrim was only “half dead” (30). The Apostle Paul writes:

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.18

We need the ministry of a Good Samaritan to restore us to life or, more accurately, give us new life. Fortunately we have such a Saviour, and his name is Jesus. He offers the only alternative path to eternal life; one based not on doing but on being sons and daughters of God, and thus heirs together with Christ. Those are your two choices: try to earn your way to God, by living under the ‘curse’ of the law; or accept the free offer of God, by acknowledging his Lordship over you. As we’ve already seen, trying to earn your entrance into heaven, trying to cut the task of living righteously down to manageable proportions is chancy at best, even if your salvation isn’t riding on it; on the other hand, relying on the promise of God and the work of his Son is a sure thing.

I know which one I have chosen, and I hope that you have chosen or will choose the same.

But if the important thing is who we are, not what we do, why does Jesus command “Go and do likewise”?

Acting like an heir

Being children of God does not absolve us of responsibility to act. On the contrary: part of being an heir of God is acting like one.

Members of royal families are always under the microscope; every action is analysed, every comment studied and every slip-up proclaimed. We expect them to act in accordance with the dignity of their family, and are scandalised when they do not. How much more then should we who are royal heirs of the living God act in accordance with our parentage?

It’s fairly obvious, from Christians that I know and from my own life, that this does not happen instantaneously. There is a process involved, and that process centres around the work of the Holy Spirit. He works in us to change our hearts and minds and to conform us to the image of Christ, because this is God’s will for us19. Michael Wilcock puts it well:

It is much less important that [disciples of Jesus] should rush out doing the things they believe he wants, than that they should let him make of them the kind of people who inevitably will do such things.20

Do you struggle to give generously when the Salvo’s come to your door? When someone at the train station approaches you for money, is your first reaction one of compassion or of cynicism? When a single mum is struggling to shepherd 3 kids, do you grin and bear it, perhaps with a sad smile of sympathy, or do you offer to help? Perhaps participating in the 40 hour famine too much effort, or too inconvenient?

God says:

I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.21

We must continue to pray for the truth of this promise to be revealed in us.

So will you do or will you be?

Jesus offers us two paths to eternal life. The first involves living under the ‘curse’ of trying to live up to the law. Like the lawyer, you can seek to cut the law down to make it manageable, to carve out a neighbourhood for yourself and do your best. If this is your current strategy, however, I urge you to reconsider because it does not work. God’s way is not to reduce the problem; he wants instead to increase the solution!

The alternative is to accept the Good Samaritan’s help, to allow him to bring life through new birth into his family, and to thus become heirs together with him of eternal life. And if you choose this, he will make you into the kind of person for whom there is no neighbourhood too large.


  1. Even such a militant atheist as the celebrated Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins unblushingly uses the language of this tale to describe the presence of altruism amongst humans and other species (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion [Bantam, 2006] p. 215.).
  2. 2007 Make it Count, organised by the Australia Christian Lobby, and webcast to hundreds of Australian churches on the 9th August, 2007.
  3. Matthew 22:40
  4. Mark 12:31
  5. Luke 18:21
  6. Galatians 3:10
  7. Similarly, at Qumran the scope included only the “sons of light” – i.e. other members of the Essene community. “Sons of darkness” – anyone else – were to be hated! (1QS 1:9)
  8. Luke 10:2
  9. Josephus, Antiquities IX.xiv.3.
  10. John 4:9
  11. Luke 9:51-56
  12. Luke 10:33-36
  13. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary (Cook, 2001) p. 213.
  14. Jeremiah 2:13
  15. D. A. Carson et al, New Bible Commentary (21st Century Edition, IVP, 1994) p. 998.
  16. Luke 10:25, emphasis mine
  17. Michael Wilcock, The Message of Luke (IVP, 1997) p. 123.
  18. Ephesians 2:1-2
  19. Romans 8:29
  20. Michael Wilcock, The Message of Luke (IVP, 1997) p. 121.
  21. Ezekiel 39:26

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