Being neighbor: to who?

good_samaritanWho is my neighbor? But because he wished to justify himself… And who is my neighbor?” One wonders why the scholar did not “quit while he was ahead?” It is almost as though the scholar’s first question was entrée to the real question about who is (or is not) neighbor. In Leviticus 19 the word root neighbor (-ger) include fellow Israelites, but also stranger and travelers. While that Semitic custom remained present in Jesus’ time, the Pharisees also professed extensive limitations on interactions with non-Jews. (m. Abodah Zarah 1:1, 2:1-2, 4:9-10) To “justify himself” the scholar raises the disputed question about the identity of the neighbor. When the scholar added the Leviticus text, one may well speculate that the scholar’s understanding was that “neighbor” included only one’s fellow Israelite.

Jesus’ response is the parable of the Good Samaritan. As a parable, the story of the Good Samaritan is intended to challenge a wrong but accepted pattern of thought so that values of the kingdom can break into a closed system of living.

“With Jesus, the device of parabolic utterance is used not to explain things to people’s satisfaction but to call attention to the unsatisfactoriness of all their previous explanations and understandings.” (Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of the Kingdom, 6)

The unsatisfactoriness of the parable lies with those one would expect to fulfill the two great commandments. To appreciate the power of this parable, the listing of priest, Levite, and Samaritan may be significant. Scholars have shown that forms of the trilogy “priests, Levites, and people” are common in postexilic texts (1 Chron. 28:21; 2 Chron. 34:30; 35:2–3, 8, 18; Ezra 2:70; 7:7, 13; 8:15; 9:1; 10:5, 18–22, 25–43; Neh. 7:73; 8:13; 9:38; 10:28; 11:3, 20; cf. 1QS II, 11, 19–21), and this is what first-century Jews would have expected. The appearance of the Samaritan instead of a lay Judean is therefore striking, and this directly challenges the Jewish interpretation of the “neighbor.”

The Parable. Culpepper [229] identified the central character as being noticeably undefined. He is not characterized by race, religion, region, or trade. He is merely “a certain man” who by implication could be any one of Jesus’ hearers. The phrase “a certain man” (anthrōpos tis), however, will become a common feature of the Lukan parables (12:16; 14:2, 16; 15:11; 16:1, 19; 19:12; 20:9). Jesus’ audience no doubt imagined the man to be Jewish, but Luke’s audience may have assumed he was a Gentile. The point is that he is identified only by what happened to him.

This “certain man” was traveling a road that was difficult (3300 feet elevation change in 17 miles) with narrow passes and many places for ambush. The man fell prey to bandits who stripped and beat him and went off leaving him half-dead. Since the man was ‘half-dead’ the priest would probably not have been able to be certain whether he was dead without touching him. But if he touched him and the man was in fact dead, then he would have incurred the ceremonial defilement that the Law forbade (Lev. 21:1ff.) and been unable to fulfill his ceremonial duties. But m. Nazir 7.1 offers the opinion that a priest who, while traveling, comes upon a dead body, has the duty to bury the person.

Ceremonial purity won the day. Not only did he not help, he went to the other side of the road. He deliberately avoided any possibility of contact. Other factors may have weighed with him, such as the possibility that the robbers might return, the nature of his business, and so on. We do not know. We do know that the priest left the man where he was in his suffering and his need. Much the same happened when a Levite came by. He also was a religious personage and might be expected to be interested in helping a man in need. But perhaps, he also was a man interested in ceremonial purity. He also thought it better not to get involved. And he also passed by on the other side.

The two operated out of the paradigm current in the scholars mind. It is probably best captured by William Danker’s expansion on the question: “I am willing to love my neighbor as myself, but don’t get me involved with the wrong neighbor.” It is another way of saying “who do I have to help (and who can I ignore)?”

Green (The Gospel of Luke¸426) interprets the question this way:

Whereas Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Plain had eliminated the lines that might be drawn between one’s “friends” and one’s “enemies,” this legal expert hopes to reintroduce this distinction. He does so by inquiring “Who is my neighbor?” – not so much to determine to whom he must show love, but so as to calculate the identity of those to whom he need not show love. By the end of the story, Jesus has transformed the focus of the original question: in fact, Jesus’ apparent attempt to answer the lawyer’s question turns out to be a negation of that question’s premise. Neighbor love knows no boundaries.

Joachim Jeremias takes a similar approach in his presentation of this dialogue:

Lawyer: “What is the limit of my responsibility?”

Jesus’ answer: “Think of the sufferer, put yourself in his place, consider, who needs help from me? Then you will see that love’s demand knows no limit.”

Jesus shockingly moves directly to the one limitation that would have been clear and deeply ingrained in the psyche of an observant Jew. This it does by showing a Samaritan, a member of the people despised and ridiculed by Jews, performing a loving service avoided by Jewish religious leaders. This would have been shocking and, for many Jews, unbelievable and unacceptable.

A failing of the scholar is that he is only concerned about himself. This is in contrast to the Samaritan in the parable who expresses his concern for the other person, even crossing established borders and limits to “acceptable behavior.”


Luke 10:29 who is my neighbor: Lev 19:18 makes “sons of your own people,” i.e., fellow Israelites, as neighbors. Later Lev 19:33-34 extends this understanding to ger – the stranger or sojourner in the land. The Septuagint (LXX) translated ger as “proselyte” giving a more narrow understanding of the term to those drawn to Judaism. In the understanding of the Pharisees the limitations on interactions with non-Jews was extensive (see m. Abodah Zarah 1:1, 2:1-2, 4:9-10)

The focus is on the definition of one’s “neighbor.” To appreciate the power of this parable, the listing of priest, Levite, and Samaritan may be significant. Scholars have shown that forms of the trilogy “priests, Levites, and people” are common in postexilic texts (1 Chron. 28:21; 2 Chron. 34:30; 35:2–3, 8, 18; Ezra 2:70; 7:7, 13; 8:15; 9:1; 10:5, 18–22, 25–43; Neh. 7:73; 8:13; 9:38; 10:28; 11:3, 20; cf. 1QS II, 11, 19–21), and this is what first-century Jews would have expected. The appearance of the Samaritan instead of a lay Judean is therefore striking, and this directly challenges the Jewish interpretation of the “neighbor” of Lev. 19:18.Two specific OT passages may have further contributed to this parable. First, the story of the compassionate Samaritans in 2 Chron. 28:8–15 provides a conceptual parallel to Jesus’ parable. Second, Hos. 6:6 may also have played a part, where one finds the discussion of mercy (or love) in the context of the cultic practices of Israel.

Luke 10:30 Jesus replied: hypolambanō – used for the understanding of a point and then furthering that understanding in the following response. A man: from the context of the on going conversation, the “man” of the story is himself a Judean. robbers: lēstēs is used by Josephus for organized bands of highwaymen who made traveling perilous. (Jewish Wars 2:228-230). he went down from Jerusalem to Jericho: Given Jericho was 3,500 feet lower in altitude, “down” is geographically correct. Augustine, allegorizing the parable, saying that the descent was from the heavenly city (Jerusalem) to the one that signified mortality (Jericho). The 17 mile journey was desolate and rocky and filled with places for an ambush. half-dead: the term in unclear in Greek usage. It may mean the man appeared unconscious and corpse-like or so badly injured that his life was in peril.

Luke 10:31-32 Priest . . . Levite: those religious representatives of Judaism who would have been expected to be models of “neighbor” to the victim pass him by. The priests and Levites were not among the wealthy or aristocracy, but where part of the religious leadership. They were also subject to purity regulations which limited their contact with others – Jews as well as Samaritans. It is likely the story, while contrasting Jews and Samaritans at one level, is more pointedly contrasting those who were established and recognized as part of the people and those who were not (ger – see note on Luke 10:29).

Luke 10:33 Samaritan: Luke has already noted hostility to Jesus’ ministry (9:53). Who are the Samaritans? Samaritan Version. The Samaritans have insisted that they are direct descendants of the N Israelite tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, who survived the destruction of the N kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians in 722 b.c.e. The inscription of Sargon II records the deportation of a relatively small proportion of the Israelites (27,290, according to the annals [ANET, 284–85]), so it is quite possible that a sizable population remained that could identify themselves as Israelites, the term that the Samaritans prefer for themselves. Samaritan theology of history would place the basic schism with the South at the time Eli moved the sanctuary from Shechem to Shiloh, establishing both an illegitimate priesthood and place of worship. From the time of Moses until that move was the Era of Divine Favor. With that move began the Era of Disfavor, which would exist until the coming of the Taheb or savior. Old Testament Version. Jewish accounts, characterized by 2 Kings 17 and Josephus (Ant 9.277–91) claim that the Samaritans are descendants of colonists brought into the region of Samaria by the Assyrians from other lands they had conquered, including Cuthah, and thus the Jewish designation of Samaritans as Cutheans (Ant 9.290). The Jews have argued that the veneer of Israelite religion displayed by the Samaritans is the result of instruction by an Israelite priest repatriated from Assyria after the colonists had been attacked by lions sent by God (2 Kings 17:25–26).

moved with compassion: splagchnizomai; this term is most commonly used by Luke to express the divine compassion revealed in Jesus.

Luke 10:36 Which of these…was neighbor: Jesus reverses the question from one of legal obligation (who deserves my love) to one of gift-giving (to whom can I show my love as neighbor).


  • Joel Green, The Gospel of Luke, vol 3 of The New International Commentary on the New Testament Gorden Fee (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1997) 229-30
  • Arland Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 2000) pp. 93-103
  • Joachim Jeremias, Parables of Jesus 2nd Edition (Princeton, NJ: Prentiss Hall, 1992)
  • Leon Morris,. Luke: An introduction and commentary. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries 3: (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988) 205–9.
  • Brian Stoffregen, “Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes” at

Scripture quotes from New American Bible by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. © 1991, 1986, 1970 available at

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