This coming Sunday our gospel is the well known story called the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). In yesterday’s post the questions from the scholar continue, moving on to an inquiry about who is (or is not) a neighbor whom one is to love. It is at this point that the parable begins. Culpepper  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 scholar’s 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.”