Jesus’ teaching attacked the arrogance, the sense of entitlement, and the acts of oppression of those in power—Sadducees, Pharisees, Herodians—and others. As a consequence, he had enemies who confronted and tested him. Out of such confrontations emerged this question put to Jesus as a test:
“Teacher, which command in the law is the greatest”? (Matt 22:34-40).
In response, Jesus prioritized two commands: the first and greatest: “You shall love Yahweh your God with all your heart, and with all your being, and with all your mind” (Deut 6:5) and the second which is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18b). Then he functionally synthesized them into a unified hermeneutic: “On these two commandments hang all the Torah and the prophets” (Matt 22:40; cf. also Mk 12:31).
It appears that prioritizing the commands to love God and one’s neighbor resonated favorably among some of the teachers of the Torah of Jesus’ day (cf. Mk 12:32-33; Lk 10:27). Such a resonance surfaces in Luke’s account where a legal expert already has these two commands in mind when he “tests” Jesus by in effect asking: “Can I inherit eternal life by keeping these two commands?” (Lk 10:25-27). Jesus commends obedience of these commands to the lawyer: “Do this, and you will live”. However, the command to love one’s neighbor as oneself was apparently too open-ended for this legally driven mind. His need for self-justification required a specific definition of “neighbor”. In an attempt to limit (i.e. manage) rather than broaden his responsibility, he pursued the issue with: “And [just] who is my neighbor?” (Lk 10:29). This elicited from Jesus a story.
Jesus crafts a parable, unique to Luke’s gospel, which convicts the lawyer in his duplicity and bigotry. It ends the legal inquiry by a revealing if not embarrassingly simple question and a command. To understand the import of the parable for our topic, we need to consider the fuller context of the “loving your neighbor” command at Lev 19:18b. Jesus both cites and endorses this text in the Synoptic Gospels. There in the context of naming the greatest command of the Torah (Deut 6:5), he characterizes Lev 19:18b as “a second like it” (Matt 22:39; Mk 12:31). However, it is important to note that this “second greatest command” is extended through further specification and application in the closing verses of Lev. 19. Below we extract two texts from this chapter which as we shall see comprise the full “law of loving one’s neighbor”:
“You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin (‘akh); [rather] reprove your kinsman (‘amit) but incur no guilt because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen (bene-‘ameka), but you shall love (‘ahab) your neighbor (re’a) as yourself: I am Yahweh” (19:17-18)
“When an alien (ger) resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress him. The alien (ger) who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen (‘ezrakh) among you; you shall love (‘ahab) him as yourself, for you were aliens (gerim) in the land of Egypt: I am Yahwh your God” (19:33-34).
By extending and further specifying the implications of 19:17-18 to encompass the alien, it becomes clear that 19:33-34 comprises Part II of what Jesus has taught us to regard as “the second greatest command”. Taken as a whole, Lev 19 teaches that commitment to Yahweh entails not only love for both one’s Israelite brother as well as the alien, but also regarding the alien as one born among Israel in the land of Promise (i.e. a fellow countryman / citizen)!
When we turn to Jesus’ story itself, we see that it addresses the lawyer’s pressing need to delimit the ethical terrain of “neighbor”. He rather impertinently asks: “And [just] who is my neighbor?” By traversing the contours of the parable, Jesus leads the lawyer into ethical terra incognita. In reality, the parable discloses two “neighbors” rather than one; neither of which is an Israelite! As long-time readers of this story, we are familiar with the behavior of the despised and alienated Samaritan. He becomes the living illustration of “neighbor” as he puts his mercy, compassion, and generosity into action on behalf of the brutalized victim left for dead. However, in identifying the “neighbor” of our Torah text, Jesus would have us consider a second “neighbor” in his story; namely, the unidentified and uncredentialed alien who was the beneficiary of the Samaritan’s compassion.
Note that every person but one in the parable is defined by position and / or social class: the priest, the Levite, and even the lowly disenfranchised Samaritan. However, the brutalized and robbed victim is identified only as “a certain man”. He possesses no title; he holds no social class or standing; he has no credentials. He thus represents any and every individual in the world who is estranged, brutalized, and abandoned. He is the narrative embodiment of the alien dwelling in the land whom Israelites are commanded to love as themselves—to love as a citizen (Lev 19:33-34). He is “everyman” whose care Yahweh commends to his people.
When Jesus asks this expert in the Torah (and every hearer and reader) to draw a conclusion as to which of the three (priest, Levite, Samaritan) was a “neighbor” to the robbed victim left for dead, the conclusion is embarrassingly straightfoward. The lawyer must concede to Jesus that the despised Samaritan’s motivations and actions do indeed define him as “neighbor” (Lk 10:36-37). In this unexpected turn, the alienated Samaritan is the “neighbor” whom this expert in the Torah is commanded to love as himself. The lawyer had not foreseen this outrageous answer to his self-serving question. Having now convicted the lawyer of his self-satisfaction and bigotry, Jesus presses the teaching of the “law of loving one’s neighbor” to its full application by commanding the expert in the Torah: “Go and do likewise”. He is to follow the example of the Samaritan who alone among the three fully implemented the law into practice (i.e. Parts I and II of the Second Greatest Command).
The lawyer had intended to test Jesus. He was trying to “manage” the Torah to validate his present way of life and to enhance his own perception of righteousness. As it turned out, the law he sought to manage had deeper implications than he had ever imagined. Both then as now the full “law of loving one’s neighbor” comprises an unrelenting claim upon us which requires a re-formation of our allegiance to Yahweh. His all encompassing concern and compassion must elicit from us a parallel allegiance to both “Samaritan” and “everyman” left for dead on the road to “Jericho”.