The parable is set up by the lawyer’s question, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (10:25). This is a question about salvation. It can be understood as equivalent to “What must I do to share in the resurrection of the righteous at the end?” (cf. Dan. 12:2). Or, How can I obtain “the eschatological blessings of the righteous as opposed to the rejection of the unrighteous”? (Bock, 1023).
Jesus directed the lawyer to the Law: “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” (10:26). The lawyer responded by conflating Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. Deuteronomy 6:5 requires the love of God with one’s complete being. Leviticus 19:18 requires loving one’s neighbor as if he were one’s self (Snodgrass, 350; cf. Jones, 50). These commands summarize the law, and Jesus echoes Leviticus 18:5 in affirming this to be the right answer: “do this, and you will live” (Crowe, Perfect Life, 81). In context, Jesus is speaking of eternal life.
However, the way Jesus phrased this affirmation implied that the lawyer was not yet fulfilling the law and thus still lacked eternal life (Garland, 438-39).
The lawyer, who begin with the intent of testing Jesus (10:25), now finds himself on the defensive, so he asks a question to justify himself. (Bilkes notes, “he wished to scrutinize Christ’s words, all the while shielding himself from any scrutiny. Isn’t that a picture of our natural tendency as well, especially as religious people? Instead of justifying God and putting ourselves to the test, we are prone to do the exact opposite” .) He seeks to limit the definition of neighbor to manageable proportions. If “neighbor” is properly restricted, he “can then proudly announce, ‘All of these I have fully loved from my youth'” (Garland, 439).
Jesus, however, replied with a parable that reversed the question and removed all limits on the definition of neighbor. The setting is a man on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho who is beaten, robbed, and left for dead (10:30). Two men, a priest and a Levite, then pass him by without helping (10:31-32). The reasons for their neglect are not given (though some suggest that they wished to maintain ritual purity, Jewish law required them to seek to save a life, or even take care of a corpse, rather than maintain ritual purity; Edwards, 321, n. 114). The point is that the most law-observant and religious classes among the Jews failed to act as neighbors (Bock, 1031).
It was common at this time to refer to “priests, Levites, and all the people.” The expectation of the story is thus that a Jewish layperson will be the neighbor, in contrast to the corrupt religious establishment (Garland, 442; cf. Bock, 1031). However, Jesus subverts these expectations by having the Samaritan act as the neighbor (10:31). The Samaritan has compassion and shows love at significant cost to himself (10:33-35).
Jesus’s question at the conclusion of the parable shows that he has transformed the question from “Who is my neighbor?” to “Am I being a neighbor?” This transformation removes the limits that the lawyer was seeking to impose (Bock, 1019, 1034; Garland, 445).
The lawyer knows the right answer to the question: “The one who showed him mercy” (10:37), but notice that he was not willing to say “the Samaritan.” His prejudice remains (Garland , 446). So Jesus commands him, “You go, and do likewise” (10:37).
Christians do not typically respond to questions about how to obtain eternal life with the answer, do the Law and you will live. This was just as true in the early church (cf. Acts 16:30-31) as today (Snodgrass, 356). However, the answers “do this and live” and “believe on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ” are both true answers to the question of how to obtain eternal life. If one kept the law perfectly, he would obtain eternal life (Crowe, Perfect Life, 82-83). “The reason why God justifies us freely is, not that the Law does not point out perfect righteousness, but because we fail in keeping it, and the reason why it is declared to be impossible for us to obtain life by it is, that it is weak through our flesh, (Rom. 8:3)” (Calvin, 60). This parable demonstrates that it is impossible to keep the law well enough to obtain eternal life by it. The man sought to justify himself, and he failed (Horton, 92). Only Jesus perfectly kept the law (Crowe Last Adam, 180), and his “resurrection proved that he was able to ‘do this and live'” (Crowe Perfect Life, 83). Blessedly, because he is perfectly merciful and compassionate eternal life is found in him.
This does not undermine the applicability of Jesus’s “go, and do likewise.” Jesus’s obedience is to be imitated by his followers. True faith manifests itself in works. Thus, Christians love their neighbor as themselves by being neighbors to all. In particular, they should be aware of those in their culture who due to race or ethnicity or social class, etc. are shunned and not shown love. Love must transcend these distinctions (Hays 2003: 170-71). No limits can be placed on love (though love needs to be defined biblically)(Snodgrass, 357).
Bibliography: Bilkes, Glory Veiled and Unveiled; Bock, BECNT; Calvin, Commentary on the Harmony of the Evangelists; Crowe, The Last Adam; Crowe, Why Did Jesus Live a Perfect Life?; Edwards, PNTC; Garland, ZECNT; Hays, From Every People and Nation, NSBT; Horton, Justification, NSD; Jones, Biblical Christian Ethics; Snodgrass, Stories with Intent.