The parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) continues to challenge me. Luke, the gospel writer, introduced Jesus’ telling of the parable with an expert in the law asking, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”—in other words, what must he do to be saved? This seems like a perfect setup for Jesus to teach salvation by faith in him alone. Instead, Jesus replies with another question: “What is written in the Law? … How do you read it?”
The expert in the Old Testament law answers that we need to love God with our whole being and love our neighbor as ourselves. In the gospels of Mark and Matthew, it is Jesus who says this; in Luke, the expert does, and Jesus affirms the response, saying, “Do this and you will live” (v. 28). In other words, Jesus is saying, you inherit eternal life by loving God and loving your neighbor.
I am curious as to why Jesus, in this instance, chose to emphasize love, rather than faith or belief, as the key to salvation. Of course, faith and love are not mutually exclusive. But it is surprising, given the perfect setup question on how to be saved, that Jesus did not emphasize believing rightly (faith in him), but rather loving rightly.
The expert in the law then tries to find boundaries for love. “Who is my neighbor?” he asks. Perhaps he is thinking of the popular saying “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy” (Matt. 5:43). He might be trying to determine whom it’s OK for him to hate. By replying with the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus essentially says, “Your neighbor is anyone and everyone who needs your mercy and compassion; there are no people you can ‘correctly’ hate.”
Furthermore, by casting the hated, impure, and heretical Samaritan as the hero, the model of loving one’s neighbor, Jesus implies that the Samaritan inherited eternal life because he showed mercy. Jesus ends by telling the expert in the law, “Go and do likewise (as the Samaritan did).”
The shocking implication for Jesus’ original Jewish audience is that the revered priest and Levite, who chose to love and obey God’s rules for purity instead of helping the victim on the road, did not inherit eternal life! Is it any surprise that the religious authorities wanted Jesus dead?
Remember that Luke frames this story with a salvation question: What must I do to be saved? Luke, the only gospel writer who includes the parable of the Good Samaritan, hammers home the truth that we must be merciful, just as our heavenly Father is merciful (Luke 6:36). Being merciful to our neighbors—and even to our enemies—is a salvation matter for Luke.
Recently I read and was challenged by the great medieval theologian St. Augustine’s words: “Whoever … thinks that he understands the divine Scriptures or any part of them in such a way that it (i.e., his interpretation) does not build up the double love of God and of our neighbor does not understand (the Scriptures) at all” (On Christian Teaching, quoted in Charitable Writing: Cultivating Virtue Through Our Words, p. 79). Augustine made the promotion of love for God and neighbor the mark of good biblical interpretation. I am trying to learn to do likewise.