The entire identity of Israel was bound up in the Covenant. It was not in just the Law as written by Moses, but all of the implications of that Law. Further, it was not found in Hellenistic analysis underlying the Talmud, nor in any other brand of mere human logic. It was in the heart-led mysticism of choosing to act according to the divine moral character of Jehovah.
This passage sounds similar to others, but we must avoid trying to stuff them into a single event. The subject was a popular question among both legalists and genuine seekers. The answer was not unique to Jesus, but could be heard in the mouths of other rabbis.
The narrative Luke offers makes no sense unless we see ourselves jumping into the middle of a situation where the dispute is already underway. Luke zeros in on the significant part of this debate. A Scribe is trying to get Jesus to step into a verbal trap. The Pharisees kept a stock of key tests by which they could declare someone outside the acceptable standards, and proceed to accuse these troublesome rabbis before some official Jewish council.
Jesus refuses to play the game. Something in the foregoing discussion raised the issue of what the “Real Messiah” would require when He appears. So the Scribe asks just how he might be included in the Messiah’s kingdom. Jesus indicates the issue is already settled in the Law of Moses. What does the Law say? The Scribe answers with a popular summary, one Jesus had used in other contexts. Live in ardent feudal loyalty to Jehovah and treat your neighbor as your equal — the ancient “do unto others” moral maxim.
The Scribe’s next question indicates he had been pushing stock Pharisaical legalistic definitions of who can gain God’s favor. How does Jesus define the common term “neighbor” in the context of the Law of Moses? Who is qualified to be treated as an equal?
Jesus launches into a story that is realistic at first. The road away from Jerusalem toward Jericho first went up over the Mount of Olives, then followed a long switch-backing path down the face of the steep slope into the Jordan Valley. There were some pretty isolated places where common thugs could lie in wait to ambush anyone foolish enough to travel alone. There must of have been some kind of serious urgency to this trip, since most folks would wait in Bethany for a caravan or at least a few fellow travelers.
Sure enough, the man in the story is attacked, beaten, robbed and left to die in the blistering sun and dry slope. The first fellow Jew to come along was a priest. No Pharisee is surprised that an arrogant aristocratic Sadducee would refuse to help the man. The same could be said about Levites. Most of them were Sadducees and despised by the Pharisee crowd Jesus is addressing.
But then comes along someone they hated even worse: a Samaritan. Jesus turns everything on its head here. This hated enemy of Jews stops and rescues this hapless victim. Further, he spares no expense in seeing that man is cared for while he goes on about his important business. Jesus asks which of those three passers-by was a “neighbor” to the victim.
Obviously the definition in the Law is now clear. A neighbor is anyone whose behavior is clearly merciful and humane. The Scribe may have avoided saying “Samaritan” (they were supposed to spit when they said it), but he could not avoid the issue of mercy. The Samaritan treated this Jewish man as his equal, someone deserving mercy, someone created in God’s image and worthy of respect. He treated the victim as kinfolk; the victim’s welfare was his own shalom, too. Nobody could argue this wasn’t the crux of the Law.
Jesus then summed it up by saying this is how the Scribe could qualify as a citizen in the Messiah’s kingdom — go and act like that Samaritan. Your heart knows how you should act; context is everything.