Context is Key: “Who Is My Neighbor?”

Context is Key Who Is My Neighbor Article Image

The Parable of the Good Samaritan is one of my favorite lessons in the Bible. I believe out of all the stories Jesus ever told, this one story has the power to shape the way we live and view others, the way we experience relationships. I believe it can improve all our relationships and fill our lives with purpose and joy. It sums up the essence of who Jesus is, why He came, and what the power of the gospel can look like in our lives. But in order for this story to be effective, we have to understand what Jesus is saying and why. So, let’s dive right in!

Who Was Jesus Addressing?

Luke 10:25 (NIV) tells us He was approached by an expert of the law who wanted to test Him. He asks, "Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Truth be told . . . this is the most important question ever asked. And it’s a question that was on the minds and hearts of the Jews all the time. You see, the Jews knew the Old Testament promised eternal life, a resurrection, and an eternal kingdom where they would live in the presence of God. They wanted to inherit eternal life. 

Jesus Himself spoke about eternal life often because that was a major issue. In fact, many of the Jews were more concerned about heavenly life than earthly life. They were consumed with what would happen after death and they didn't want to miss it. Could you blame them? The Jews as a people had spent most of their existence in slavery, oppressed by some empire, in captivity to the Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans. And although they had the law, though they relied on following the law, being faithful to God, and yearly sacrifices, there was still a nagging sense in their hearts, a realization of their own sin. 

They must have felt deep inside they needed something more, something beyond their laws and sacrifices. They wanted to be sure they weren’t going to miss out. So, the question arose, "What must I do?" 

Instead of directly answering, Jesus says, “What is written in the Law?” (Luke 10:26 NIV). So, the lawyer responds, “’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, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live” (Luke 10: 27-28 NIV). 

At this point, the man should have admitted his inability to do this on his own. He should have humbled himself and cried out for God’s mercy and forgiveness. Instead, in verse 29 it says: “But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” You see, this scribe wanted to convince people that he was righteous . . . even though deep down, he had to have known that he wasn't. 

So, Jesus tells Him a story . . .

In the first few verses of the parables, Jesus tells us that a traveler was taking a road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Now, the thing that sticks out to me is that even though Jesus gives no details about the man who was robbed, we do know two things: 1) He was left half-dead and unconscious, and 2) he was completely robbed of all he had and stripped naked.

Why are these two things important? Historically, a person could be identified in one of two ways: his clothing or the way he spoke. But this man was stripped of his clothes and jewelry and left unconscious. He could have been anyone. He could have been a king or a peasant. No one knew. You can’t overlook this because it’s essential to Jesus’ lesson. 

An Exercise in Cleanliness? 

The first person to pass him was a priest who moved to the other side of the road. This tells us that he didn’t believe this man was his neighbor. He didn’t feel the need to love this man as he loves himself. In fact, he put himself first. 

The priest didn’t see the man before he was beaten, stripped, and left for dead, so he had no idea if the person lying there is a non-Jew. He had no idea if he was a Roman, a Greek, an Ethiopian, or a Samaritan. By touching a non-Jew—possibly a dead one—the priest would have become unclean. 

Priests were supposed to be ritually clean, perfect examples of the law. There would be immediate shame and embarrassment for such a defilement. 

In order to get clean, he’d have to go through a process of restoring ritual purity, which was both time consuming and costly. So, the priest was in a pickle. In addition, he couldn’t get closer than six feet to a dead man without being defiled, so he’d have to overstep that boundary just to check on the man.

Now, I’m not saying it wasn’t a tough situation. But even though it could have made things difficult and costly for him, the one who loves his neighbor as himself wouldn’t hesitate, because loving your neighbor as yourself means putting your neighbor first. 

In the midst of this current pandemic, what should the Christian's response be? It's funny that we think we're unique and living in an unprecedented moment in the history of the Church, but really this isn't our first rodeo with pandemics or—as they called it then—plagues. Martin Luther produced a tract, Whether Christians Should Flee the Plague, where he provides a clear articulation of the Christian response to epidemics: "Christian doctors cannot abandon their hospitals, Christian governors cannot flee their districts, Christian pastors cannot abandon their congregations. The plague does not dissolve our duties: It turns them to crosses, on which we must be prepared to die."

Philippians 2:3–4 (NASB) says, “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.”

If we want to love our neighbor and fulfill the second greatest commandment, we need to put others first. We mustn't be afraid to help someone or avoid people in need as if they have the plague (or COVID-19). We should be safe, practice good hygiene, social distancing, and take precautions to avoid spreading the sickness (this is certainly a manner of loving our neighbors and an ethic of service to the people around us), but we must also serve well, care for others well, and shine the light of Jesus and preach the name of Jesus as you “look after orphans and widows in their distress and [keep yourself] from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27 NIV). When we do that, God will bless us! Maybe we won’t receive that blessing in this life, but our reward will absolutely be waiting for us in heaven!

Monkey See, Money Do

Next, we see that a Levite came through the road to Jericho and passed by the man. Now, Levites were basically assistants to priests. 

Some context: According to people who have walked it, a person traveling this road can see ahead of him a long way. The Levite, who is of a lower social class than a priest, likely saw the priest ahead of him and may have thought to himself, If the priest passed this man, then so should I.

Who knows what his logic was for going around him. Maybe he was in a hurry, maybe he was late or had an emergency. I’m sure he had a good reason for not helping the man. But again, we see that he clearly didn’t consider this man his neighbor. 

It makes me think of someone pulled over on the side of the road because their car broke down—hazard lights on, hood open, and the owner just standing outside of the car. To be honest, I’ve seen this scenario so many times, but sadly, have only stopped once or twice. Most people never stop. I usually drive by and say, “Oh man, I wish I could stop to help, but I don’t know anything about cars. I don’t have any cables or tools in my car” or “I’m sure AAA has already been called.” 

But what if they just needed someone to wait with them? What if they were having a terrible day and then THIS happened? What if they left their phone at home? What if it were me? Wouldn’t I want someone to stop and at least offer to help? Of course, because loving your neighbor as yourself means treating your neighbor how you want to be treated.

In Matthew 7:12 (NIV), Jesus gave us the key to fulfilling the law and living a godly, fulfilling life when He said, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”

If we want someone to help us, we have to be willing to help others. If we want to be treated fairly, we have to treat others fairly. If we want forgiveness, we must forgive others. If we want mercy, we must be merciful. If we want respect, we must show respect. If we want to be loved, we must give love. 

An Unexpected Twist in the Story

So, now in Luke 10:33 (NIV), we see Jesus drop something on this man and all the Jews who were listening that was definitely shocking, and for some maybe even offensive to their ears: “But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him.” Here, we see a Samaritan helped the man. Now, the Samaritan man was not from that area, he didn’t live anywhere near it, so in the minds of most, the half-dead man certainly wouldn’t technically qualify as his neighbor. In fact, he could’ve been an enemy, a rival. 

But what did he do? The Samaritan risked defilement. He approached the unidentifiable man and helped him. He didn’t care if the man was a king or a slave, Samaritan or Jew. He had compassion. He bandaged the man, “pouring on oil and wine.” Oil and wine were poured out on the high altar before God as a part of worship. This sticks out to me because Jesus specifically mentioned it after the Priest and Levite have failed to do so, implying to the listeners, and to us, that they didn’t see mercy and compassion as acts of worship. But as Jesus pointed out in Matthew 9:13, God does: “Now go and learn the meaning of this Scripture: 'I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices.’”

The Samaritan then put the man on his own donkey and walked the rest of the way while pulling his donkey. Then he took the man to an inn and nursed him back to health. Now, obviously the wounded man had no money on him. So, when he finally woke up and got ready to leave, if he couldn’t pay the debt, he could have been arrested. 

The Samaritan knew this and volunteered money—two denarii, which is the same as two days’ worth of pay—and told the innkeeper that he’d come back to cover any other costs needed to take care of this unidentified man. Knowing all of this, I think it’s pretty safe to say the Samaritan wasn’t expecting his money back. 

Jesus: The Good Neighbor

Let’s review the story: The robbers hurt the man by violence, the priest and Levite hurt him by neglect. All three are guilty. James 4:17 (NLT) says, “Remember, it is sin to know what you ought to do and then not do it.”

Consider this for a moment and see a powerful dual-lesson from the Master: Jesus lived this story by example. He was like the Samaritan. He was willing to touch the unclean. He was willing to go to the lost and needy. The power of the gospel is that a perfect and pure God died for imperfect, unclean people. Jesus didn’t worry about the fact that we were sinners, that in our sin we were God’s enemies. He didn’t stop to consider the fact that we were defiled in every sense of the word. Romans 5:8 tells us: “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

Jesus didn’t put Himself above us, even though He is God, and is far above us! In fact, Philippians 2:7–8 tells us, “He gave up his divine privileges, he took the humble position of a slave, and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross.”

Upon finishing His parable, Jesus asked the expert: “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The man replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” So, Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

Examine the opposing questions that both started this parable and ended it. The man asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus asked, “Who was a neighbor?” He wanted to show this man and us today that we shouldn’t ask “Who is my neighbor?” Instead, we should ask, “Who can I be a neighbor to?” 

By telling this story, Jesus is demonstrating that we can be a good neighbor to anyone . . . Kings, slaves, Jews, Samaritans, Democrats, Republicans, Muslims, atheists, LGBTQ, pro-life, pro-choice. Our job isn’t to ask who our neighbor is, to find out if they’re like us, to determine whether they’re worthy of being our neighbor, but to be a neighbor to anyone and everyone we encounter. That’s how Jesus loves us and that’s how He calls us to love others.

Jesus closed his conversation by saying: “Go and do likewise.” Right now, my friends, there are a lot of people who need a good neighbor. There are a lot of lonely, scared, hurting, grief-stricken, depressed, anxious people in your building, at your workplace, in your neighborhood, at the grocery store, maybe even in your own home. As you walk around your neigborhood in the evenings, as you have groceries or dinner from a restaurant delivered, as you encounter a neighbor on your jog, as you make phone calls, get on video chats, and log onto meetings, consider how, in this season, you can heed our Lord’s words. Maybe it looks like praying for people from a distance at the grocery store, maybe it means asking the delivery person how they're doing or if there's anything you can pray for them about, maybe it means asking your elderly neighbors if you can grab anything for them when you go to the store or shop online. Whatever it looks like for you, "Go and do likewise" in the Name of Jesus, and know that He is being glorified through your neighborliness, and that He can use your neighborliness to draw people to Himself! Amen? 

About the Author

Danny Saavedra

Danny Saavedra has served on the staff of Calvary since 2012, managing the Calvary Devotional and digital discipleship resources. He has a Master of Arts in Pastoral Counseling and Master of Divinity in Pastoral Ministry from Liberty Theological Seminary. His wife Stephanie, son Jude, and daughter Zoe share a love of Star Wars, good food, having friends over for dinner, and studying the Word together as a family.