25 And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” 27 And he answered, “You shall 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 your neighbor as yourself.” 28 And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”
29 But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. 34 He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”
Robert Capon, one of my favorite interpreters of the Parables of Jesus, wrote about this parable that he thinks it is misnamed. It should be the Parable of the “Man Who Fell Among Thieves.” He admitted that his campaign to have the parable officially renamed had met with stiff resistance from the American Medical Association who were afraid of the implications of renaming all the Good Samaritan Hospitals, “Man Who Fell Among Thieves Hospital.”
The man who approaches Jesus is very confused about a number of things. First, he wants to know what he has to do to become an heir of heaven. Inheritances are not things you get because you did something. Inheritances come you because you are who you are. Second, after Jesus tells him essentially to be perfect, he seems to think he can do this if the bars are not set too high. That is what is behind his second question about the identity of the neighbor. But Jesus is still working on the first problem when he answers the question – the man’s mistaken idea that somehow heaven is earned, and he can do it if he tries hard enough and the neighbors are defined the proper way.
Jesus blows up his world and his self-made righteousness with this parable. Neighbors are not defined by race, religion, or any of our usual criteria, but by proximity to need and the help they offer in that need. The Levite and Priest who primly walked by lest they render themselves unclean and hence unfit for service in the temple by touching a potentially dead man were not neighborly, despite their Jewishness. It was the hated Samaritan who was the neighbor.
Jesus must have had a bit of a twinkle in His eye when finished this parable and told the man to go and do likewise. He knew that the man would fail to earn heaven that way, but he had just raised the bar so high that soon he would be back, looking for a gift from God instead of a reward. From the first words of this conversation Jesus wanted to give him that gift which cannot be earned. We often hear this parable as an exhortation to be a good person. That is never a bad exhortation to hear but have a care. Jesus is not telling this man how to earn eternal life. He is crushing the very idea that eternal life can be earned. When he turns to you and also says, “Go and do likewise,” he leads you to that same conclusion.