It is surely one on the most significant conversations ever held, and so vivid and soul-piercing as to remain in the public consciousness for millennia. The conversation itself couldn’t have lasted more than a few minutes. But then, one of the speakers was the Son of God, so it wasn’t like the chit or chat of two mates bumping into one another on a dusty path.
Jesus had been instructing his disciples when he was interrupted by a “certain lawyer” who might have been a truth-seeker but may have been a mischief-maker. The Scripture says that he spoke up to “tempt” Jesus (Luke 10:25). Our Bible Dictionary says there are three chief meanings for the word “tempt”, to test or try, to seduce, and to provoke to anger.
This lawyer was not the kind of lawyer who overruns our Nation’s Capital. No, he was less troublesome than that. This lawyer was a kind of religious leader who today might be called a theologian or professor of divinity. His job was to study and think about and teach religious law and commentary. And, he was not a bumpkin, for he was about to give two very insightful (and true) answers to Jesus’ questions about the commandments.
The lawyer had interrupted to ask an essential question – not a frivolous one. “Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus said, “What is written in the law? How readest thou?” In other words, Jesus was asking if the lawyer was studying the scriptures every day, just as we – here in the 21st Century – are supposed to be doing.
And, this young man had indeed been a diligent student. He said, based on his understanding of what we Christians now call the Old Testament, that gaining eternal life required but two things: first, that one love God with all one’s heart, soul, strength, and mind (a doctrine taught specifically in Deuteronomy 6:5, 10:12, and 30:6); and second, that one love “thy neighbor as thyself”.
For many years, this writer had supposed, wrongly as it turns out, that the oft-repeated commandment to love our neighbors (e.g., in Matthew 19:19) was a doctrine unique to the New Testament. Leviticus 19:18 had escaped my notice. The people of the Old Testament had been given an abundance of seemingly trivial rules and regulations, but they also had the essentials of salvation, of which there are but two.
Jesus told the lawyer that he had answered correctly, adding “This do, and thou shalt live.” Notice, and we’ll return to this theme below, that Jesus instructed the lawyer to do the commandments, and not simply to know them or even just to believe them.
This was, indeed, a great, historic exchange, but Jesus was just getting started, and the lawyer wasn’t finished.
“Willing to justify himself, [the lawyer] said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29). It seems that the lawyer was willing to love his neighbor, so long as he, himself, got to define the term. A wife, for example, might be good candidate to be a neighbor.
The Jews of the time had a cramped definition of “neighbor”. A neighbor might be a fellow Jew, or, more expansively, a fellow Israelite, but the definition did not include gentiles or heathens or, God forbid, Samaritans, even though they lived down the road and were sort of cousins to the Jews, although apostate cousins. The Samaritan woman at the well was astonished that Jesus, a Jew, would even speak to her (John 4:6-9). And, the Jews’ antipathy was reciprocated: The Samaritans refused to allow Jesus to stop for the night at one of their villages merely because they saw that he was on his way to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51-53).
So . . . who is our neighbor? In response to the lawyer’s question, Jesus gave the parable of the Good Samaritan:
A man (presumably a Jew) traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho on a road known for being infested with brigands was set upon, beaten and robbed, and left for dead. A priest and a Levite (another kind of priest) came along, saw the injured man, but ignored him and went on their way. (Let us be liberal and suppose that the priests might have said a passing prayer for the beaten and disabled man.) After the priests, a Samaritan came by. He, a despised Samaritan, had “compassion” for the victim (Luke 10:33), tended to his wounds, took the victim to an inn, and paid for his care (vv. 34-35).
Then Jesus asked the key question. “Which now of these three [fellow travelers], thinkest thou, was neighbor unto” the victim.
Jesus asked the lawyer to think, which presumably was what the lawyer took pride in. Human reason, unless entirely corrupted, can yield only one answer – irrespective of where any of the actors resided. It wouldn’t matter if the victim and the Levite shared a house in the suburbs, the only possible answer was given by the lawyer, the logician, the deep thinker. He said that the authentic neighbor was “He that showed mercy on him.”
Jesus said, “Go, and do thou likewise.”
And here again is that pesky verb do! First the lawyer was told to do the commandments, and now he was being told to do mercy and compassion.
Thus ends one of the world’s foremost conversations. Top to bottom, maybe three minutes, but what light! What insight! What truth! What enlargement of the soul! Not just brief and brilliant but inspired.
It’s almost as if God Himself were speaking to us.
Author’s Note: Some authors may be reluctant to recount classic moral tales such as the parable of The Good Samaritan for fear that their readers will suppose that the writer has mastered both principle and practice. I am relieved to promise my readers that neither is the case in this instance. Meridian Magazine is willing to publish submissions from weaklings and sinners, as it has done here.