Good Samaritan, Rembrandt 1630
How does Jesus reframe the original question of the lawyer?
Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?" (Luke 10:36)
The parable of the Good Samaritan is one of the most highly quoted sections of the bible, since even secular thinkers can appreciate Jesus answer to the lawyer's question, “and who is my neighbor?” However, what seems to be unfortunately left out is the purpose and thus main thrust of the parable itself. For the the original question had nothing to do with being a good neighbor, the question that prompted the entire conversation was “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:25). Jesus probed the man's understanding, to which Christ affirmed his answer:
Love God perfectly, love your neighbor perfectly – the two summative commands of the Old Testament (Leviticus 19:18, Deuteronomy 6:5). Thus, the second question (that we are familiar with) is produced because the scholar was “unwilling to face the spiritual bankruptcy that such an unattainable standard exposes,” for in the mind of the scholar salvation was still preconditioned by “doing” (Howell, 219). To drive home the naivety of such an approach to salvation, Jesus deliberately altered the question in the form of the famous parable casting the traditional Law keepers as unneighborly, thereby changing the answer to “One cannot define one's neighbor; one can only be a neighbor” so that further debate is avoided (Marshall, 450) .
Did the Torah scholar realize that Jesus was saying that such a command was impossible to obey perfectly and that he must abandon every attempt at justifying himself before God?
He said, "The one who showed him mercy." And Jesus said to him, "You go, and do likewise." (Luke 10:36)
Jesus parable showed two quintessential experts in “doing the law,” both an exalted priest, the holy and blameless men responsible for offering sacrifices for all of Israel's sin, and a privileged Levite, the righteous responsible for temple liturgies and enforcement, as failing the second summative command of the law while a despised law breaking Samaritan fulfilled its requirements. When Jesus then asked him a “restructured...active question of engagement: 'Which of these three...proved to be a neighbor?'” (Howell, 220), the lawyer is left with no recourse but to answer “the one who had mercy on him.” The fact that the lawyer may have “avoid[ed] actually naming the despised Samaritan” (Marshall, 450) would reveal that no “Damascus road experience” occurred for the man and he was still jaded by his cultural conditioning; however, it would seem inevitable that he would ultimately have to come to the conclusion of impossibility (that is of being a neighbor to all perfectly) as he worked out Jesus' logic and concluding command to “go and do likewise.” We can only pray that he later heard of the repentance and forgiveness of sins available through Christ's suffering and rising to fulfill all of the Law (Luke 24:44-49).