Who is my neighbor?

In the parable of The Good Samaritan Jesus is offering a kind of quiet polemic against the prevailing notion of the day that your neighbor, those who were the proper objects of your charity were those who were within your own sphere of culture, ethnicity, and religion.

As Jesus tells the parable he moves his listeners toward the introduction of an extraordinary individual whose identity will stagger the expert in the law.

“But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion” (v. 33).

The striking contrast set up in this parable revolves around the Samaritan’s compassion. The contrast is not between Jew and Samaritan. It is not between cleric and layman. These are the contrasts the people would probably have anticipated. Rather the contrast is between the dreadful lack of involvement and care on the part of the priest and the Levite and the extraordinary compassion shown by this outsider.

The compassion of the Samaritan that shows the shocking immorality displayed by the priest and the Levite. We rightly speak out against the immorality of abortion and sexual perversion. But where is our outrage against our own pattern of neglect toward the wounded and outcast?

What would have made this story so unsettling to the expert in the law (and everyone else) is that Jesus was saying that this "unclean" Samaritan was reflecting the compassion and love of God in a way that the religious leaders of Israel did not. We might have expected a parable telling how a Jew should show love to anybody, even to a Samaritan, but in fact Jesus shows how even a Samaritan may be nearer to the kingdom than a pious, but uncharitable, Jew.

The lawyer asked, ‘Who is my neighbour (i.e. the person whom I should help)?’ Jesus suggests that the real question is rather ‘Do I behave as a neighbour (i.e. a person who helps others)?’ D.A. Carson writes, “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.”[1] How much more responsibility do we have who live on this side of the cross! We know things about the compassion and love of God which the priest and Levite had not yet seen.

Love for neighbor (the kind of love the Samaritan showed toward a stranger) is not the means by which we enter heaven. It is, however the responsibility of those who have received by God’s mercy the promise of heaven. The priest and Levite are proof that faithfulness to a creed is not enough if it locked away in a heart that lacks the compassion and love of God.

The Parable of the Good Samaritan Jesus is undermining the importance of status in the community of God’s people. Status in the kingdom of God has nothing to do with clerical titles or educational achievements. Status in God’s kingdom has to do with sacrificial love and humble service.

We also need to infer from this parable that the reality of salvation by grace alone through faith alone apart from any of our good works does not relieve us of the responsibility to do good works for the glory of God and the good of our fellow man. This is not about good works for the sake of our justification before God. It’s about good works joyfully offered because God in his lavish grace has justified us through the good work of Christ.

Jesus' parable is not meant to draw us into the drudgery of legalism. It is meant to coax us into the joy of lavishing compassion upon others as God has lavished compassion upon us.

The parable of The Good Samaritan is a wonderful invitation to us to search our hearts to see whether or not the compassion of God is being reproduced in our own lives. It can serve as a diagnostic tool, if you like, to determine the practical reality of our conversion or lack thereof.

Jesus asks the expert in the law a question: “Which one was the neighbor?” The man can’t even bring himself to say, “The Samaritan.” So he says, “The one who had compassion.” And in putting it like that, ironically, the reality is underscored all the more. God’s people will be recognized by their love; their compassion.

[1]Carson, D. A.: New Bible Commentary : 21st Century Edition. 4th ed. Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA : Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, S. Lk 10:25