But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’
In reply Jesus said: ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him, and went away, leaving him half-dead.’
Up to now we have been looking at the story that came before the parable itself, which sets the scene of the occasion when Jesus told it. Now we come to why Jesus told the parable, and we read that the reason was to answer the question of the expert in the Law.
But it is quite a strange way to answer a question. My experience of conversations these days is that people want direct answers to direct questions. They don’t have the patience to listen to a story first. There would be fidgeting, a sharp intake of breath maybe, and then an encouragement to ‘get to the point.’
This is not only something that I find with people that I speak with, I have to admit that I can be like this myself. Maybe you can also recall a moment when you told someone to ‘get to the point’. But then I see this passage of scripture with quite a complex little story, and we are not told anything about the reaction of the expert in the law while he was listening to this.
I think that we need to remember that this is Luke’s gospel we are reading, and how this gospel came to be. Luke was a scholar and physician, a Greek who was converted to Christianity. He has two books in the canon of scripture and is the only gentile to have works thus included. He was not a witness to the events, and may not even have been born until Christ had already died and risen and ascended.
Luke compiled the gospel by interviewing anyone with direct knowledge. Eye-witnesses if he could find them (and there is no certainty that he did), but certainly those who carried the stories told by eye-witnesses. It is accepted that there was already an oral tradition at this early stage simply because of the fact that Luke’s gospel contains the largest collection of parables and songs – hallmarks of an oral record that is created to help keep knowledge and history that would otherwise be lost.
It is simply a fact that, in such a record of events, the ‘finer details’ of individual events are not recorded – it simply adds too many details and complications.
So it is not a surprise to me that we do not really have a record of the attitude of the teacher of the law to Jesus. Or how he was reacting to not receiving a straight answer to a straight question. And actually I like to think of him shifting on his feet (we are told that he stood up for this encounter), rolling his eyes a bit, and at least thinking, if not actually saying, ‘get to the point!’
I don’t think this is too much of a stretch of the imagination – because I don’t think that people have changed all that much in two thousand years. Traditions and mentality, customs and even some morals – these things have changed. But how we are as people, as it says in the book of the priest-king Ecclesiastes, nothing is new under the sun.
We do have a clue as to the attitude of the expert of the law. We are told that the extra question was asked because he was wanting to justify himself.
There is a particular theological use for this verb ‘justify.’ Some preachers play with the word in its theological context and say that it means that, for those in Christ, it is ‘just-as-if-I’d’ never sinned. It is a simplified way of saying that now we have the legal right to enter the presence of the Father and to be His children, because now we are not clothed in the filthy rags of our own righteousness, but in the pure white garments of the righteousness and holiness of Christ. So the Father does not see our sins, but the righteousness of Christ instead.
I think I can safely say that this is not the meaning of the word ‘justify’ in this particular case.
In the Cambridge dictionary (which is also readable online) it says this about the meaning of ‘justify yourself’: if you justify yourself, you give a good reason for what you have done.
I think this is the meaning that we can apply directly to the context of the scripture and the expert in the law. His question was asked to explain, or give reason, for his first question: ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life.’ And to make the kindest link, one can say that he was pointing out a particular area where he wanted to make sure that he was getting it right. He knew the verses, and Jesus told him that he was on the right track, and so to go and do it. But he was wanting clarification of the second commandment to make sure that he was doing it the right way, as God wants it, to be able to inherit eternal life.
That was the kind interpretation. There are others who think that he was only trying to trick Jesus into saying something that was not correct according to the Law and the Prophets. And when you take this interpretation, then the parable and the question following it can be interpreted as a clever way of avoiding the tricks and the snares that were prepared for him.
If you remember, the second love commandment is actually a quote from the Old Testament, Leviticus 19:18 “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbour as yourself. I am the Lord.”
It could be interpreted, from this scripture, that the love required in Leviticus is only to be shown towards to the Lord’s chosen people, the Israelites. Or it could be interpreted as referring even more specifically to those who lived properly as the Lord’s chosen people and were following the ‘correct’ religion.
So for this, and for many other reasons, including many scriptural ones, there was great racial conflict and discrimination with the Samaritans at the time.
It was difficult enough in Israel, because by then there had been many proselyte families, not of Jacob’s blood, but included among the Israelites through several generations of adherence and intermarriage. But also there were Canaanites, Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, and many other races to be found living and working in Palestine at the time. Sometimes racial tensions broke out, and problems had to be dealt with quite severely by the Roman authorities or the soldiers of Herod.
There were many reasons for the Jewish community to pursue exclusivity, and not to consider any of God’s blessings for others. It could have been a source of criticism against Jesus if he had simply answered that your neighbour is whoever you live next to, or work next to – because that could mean someone outside of what was accepted for a law such as this. But of course God sees things differently to the way men sees things, and so Jesus had to find a way to show this.
It becomes an even bigger problem with the Samaritans, because this was an even more mixed race. Descendants of Jacob with the blood ‘watered down’ with so many other races. And those that followed the Judaic religion did not honour the temple in Jerusalem. They had their own ‘high places’ – and even this was considered sacrilegious. Then the fact that they dwelt on land from the ancient promise of the ‘promised land’ – this was another point of contention. And lastly, that they seemed to have accepted the invading empires that the Israelites had always openly rebelled against – first the Greeks and now the Romans.
Even Jesus revealed the tension, in the verse that causes a lot of problems for some people, when he called a Samaritan woman a dog. (Is this another ‘polite’ translation, I wonder? Like the ‘filthy rags’ that Paul refers to, which should more accurately be translated as soiled menstrual cloths. I mean to say, what really is the word for a female dog?)
And so, if you take the negative interpretation of ‘justify himself’ you can see that there can be the legalistic and nationalistic twist on the Law, and that in this way they could try to entrap Jesus into saying something worthy of criticism and holding against him. And if this is the case, then indeed Jesus was very clever to use the parable of the Good Samaritan. There really could only be one answer to his question at the end of the parable. No twisting of the Law or any scripture could deny that true answer.
And so, from this, what can we learn that applies to our lives?
I would say that it is all about the motivation for the question. It is easily seen that there are two interpretations for why the expert in the law wanted to justify himself. So which is it for you?
When you read scripture, do you do so with an open heart, wanting to learn the truth and to get it right? Or do you read thinking that you already know all about the truth, and so interpret scripture through the filter of your own certainties and arrogance?
And when you approach a teacher in the church, or listen to a preacher, do you do so with an open heart, wanting to learn how to get it right? And then are you willing to ask questions, go home and study and pray, and then to put into practise what you have learned?
Or do you listen with your heart already knowing ‘all the truth’ (but in your own understanding), and so filter what is said, and judge what is said. And then, if it fails to pass through your ‘filter’ openly criticise the preacher. This should be in discussion to his face first, but most often it is through unrighteous gossip with others. As it is sometimes said in England, a common church Sunday lunch is roast preacher….
You have a teachable heart or a heart that is proud of the knowledge and the facts you are ‘certain’ about? Which is it?
On this hangs your ability to understand the parable being told.