25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.* ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ 26He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ 27He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’ 28And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’
29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’ 30Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35The next day he took out two denarii,* gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” 36Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ 37He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’
“Just then” – Jesus has just said that prophets and kings would have longed to see what those he had sent out had seen, yet had not; and to hear what they had heard, but did not. At that moment a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. Think about the timing – miracles had been happening, everyone else is rejoicing, but the one focused on the law is thinking about how he can test Jesus. All that is going on is lost on him, because he is only looking for how he can prove he is right.
He asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Now, when the gospels refer to eternal life, they are not just talking about heaven after we die; eternal life is life in the here and now, in relationship with God, that extends into the future, after death. To have eternal life is to have a soul that is whole and filled with God’s love. How do I get that? That is what the lawyer is asking. Jesus knows the man is a lawyer – and he asks him a direct question that relates to his knowledge of the law, “What does the law say? What do you read there?” The lawyer replies with the two great commandments, love God with all your soul, strength, and mind; and love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus says, that is right – go do it.
But the lawyer, wishing to justify himself, asks another question, “Who is my neighbor?” The question, really, is, where can I set the limit? Who do I have to love? Who is outside the bounds of neighbor – who can I avoid, hate, scorn, and, basically, be mean to? But Jesus, instead of answering the question, tells a story.
You know the story – a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho is set upon by robbers. At this point the people hearing the story would have nodded their heads. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho is over rugged terrain, desert country, with large rocks and boulders where robbers could hide. No one traveled that road alone. The robbers took all the man had and left him for dead. A priest came along, and passed by on the other side; a Levite also passed by on the other side – we can give them all sorts of excuses, but the fact is, the ignored the man in need because they were in a hurry or their own needs were too important to them. But then a Samaritan came along. Most likely, Samaritan was a class of people the lawyer considered outside the bounds of neighbor, way outside. But the Samaritan stopped, and cared for the man, and put him on his own donkey, and took him to an inn, and gave the inn-keeper money to care for him until he was healed.
After telling the story, Jesus turned back to the lawyer and turned his question around, “Who was a neighbor to the man who was injured?” And the lawyer had to reply, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.” Go, and show mercy to all those you meet. Don’t worry about whether they are your “neighbor”; everyone is your neighbor. Go and show mercy.