But wishing to justify himself, he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29)
What has happened to our society? We are barraged constantly by news reports of worthless politicians attacking one another, the tragedy of daily shootings in our malls, and a society that seems to have thrown civility to the wind. What has happened to our world? Where is God in these situations? In seeking answers to these pressing questions we must first ask ourselves if we are asking the right questions.
Have you ever been in a situation where you did not know what to do? When we find ourselves in these predicaments we sometimes make the situation worse by asking the wrong questions. This is what takes place in Luke’s parable of the Good Samaritan. But, before we begin our exegesis of this parable we must first note how the parable is framed with the concept of listening to God.
In verses 23-24 Jesus turns to His disciples and says, “Blessed are the eyes that see the things you see, for I say to you that many prophets and kings wished to see the things that you see, and did not see them, and to hear the things that you hear, and did not hear them.”
In verses 38-42 the story of Martha and Mary emphasizes the significance of Mary’s decision to sit and listen to Jesus rather than assisting Martha in her preparation.
I. Howard Marshall noted in his commentary on Luke that parables often have a deeper meaning than what they first appear.1 Likewise, the reader must recognize that Jesus is being portrayed as the Samaritan in the parable who comes to us in our time of need. Notice the striking parallels of how Jesus’ work in going to the cross corresponds to the work of the Good Samaritan: He bandages our wounds, He pays our debt, He promises to return.
So what does this parable teach? This is a parable about God and it is often misinterpreted to provide only a model about humanitarian compassion rather than answering the deeply theological question, “Who is my neighbor?”2 In answering this question the story teaches us a great deal about the character of God, because Luke is emphasizing that God is our neighbor. He is the one who comes to us in our time of need!
The lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbor?” reveals both his character as well as his true intentions. He is not serious about following Jesus. He has all of the right answers, but his heart reflects a man who has followed boundaries endorsed by society’s unwillingness to listen to God. He is more interested in re- assuring himself of his own self-centered limitations that pertain to salvation and discipleship. Consider this, in a system with precise boundaries mankind will habitually attempt to justify himself before God and his fellow man. The lawyer wants it this way, because once he has reduced the system down to a series of do’s and don’ts he can easily accomplish the task of justifying himself to others.3 But in seeking to defend himself before both God and his fellow man, the lawyer asks the wrong question. An expert in the law and rhetoric should know the right questions to ask. The question should have been, “Who is God?”4 When we begin the Christian faith by asking the wrong questions we will inevitably come up with the wrong answers.
Jesus answers the lawyer’s question (challenge/repost) with a response that has a leveling type of effect that puts the lawyer squarely in his place. The lawyer begins the story by rising up to justify himself, but Jesus begins the parable with the religious elite going down from Jerusalem. Luke is emphasizing Jesus’ bold response by lifting up a model of what a neighbor is supposed to be. A neighbor is one who comes to us during our time of need. He bandages our wounds. He pays the price for us and then promises that He will return.
The boldness of Jesus’ response is often over looked in our culture, but Kenneth Bailey added the proper emphasis when he claimed that in twenty years of ministering to Middle Eastern Arab Christians he never “had the courage to tell a story to Palestinians about a noble Israeli, nor a story about a noble Turk to an Armenian.”5 The on-going debates that Jesus won at the expense of the religious elite in His day would eventually culminate with a conspiracy to crucify him. If this doesn’t emphasize the devastating cost of winning and losing debates in a culture based upon honor and shame nothing will. What are we prepared to pay in our society today?
So, how do we summarize this parable? In a world bent on self- destruction this parable is crucial for making sense of a culture that does not know what to do (listen to God) or what to ask. The story begins and ends with the emphasis for humanity to listen to God. Asking the right questions is essential for listening and to develop an understanding of both our faith and the fallen world in which we live. This is a parable that teaches us about the character of God. In His grace, he recognizes that we were failing to be neighborly and we are not even asking the right questions. It shows us that God looked down from heaven and saw the plight of broken humanity and came to us in our time of need through His Son, Jesus Christ.
Because God is our neighbor. He is the one who comes to us in our time of need in every circumstance, but are we listening to God or are we simply seeking to justify ourselves before Him?
1 I. Howard Marshall, The New International Greek New Testament Commentary: Luke (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing,1978), 440.
2 David Garland, Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Luke, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 2011), 447.
3 Garland, 447-48.
5 Kenneth Bailey, Poet and Peasant and Through a Peasants Eyes: A Literary-Cultural Approach to the Parables in Luke, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1976), 48.