Why I can't love my neighbour
When I googled “the most famous parables of Jesus”, the list I found had the Good Samaritan at the top, followed by the Prodigal Son. Which sounds about right to me, don’t you think? ‘Good Samaritan’ has even entered the English vernacular. When someone does something unexpected to help a stranger, they often get referred to as a good Samaritan. You hear it on the news regularly.
But just because a parable is well known doesn’t mean it’s well understood. Would it surprise you if I said I don’t think the parable is meant to teach us to love our neighbour?
The first thing we’re told in Luke 10:25–37 is who Jesus speaks this parable to: an expert in God’s law (v 25). If this guy was a contestant on Mastermind, his specialist subject would be ‘knowing exactly what God wants us to do’. Luke also tells us that this man comes to test Jesus, asking probably the most important question he could: “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” If Jesus gets that wrong, why should they listen to him?
But Jesus often finds a way to turn the spotlight back onto the person doing the asking; he answers the lawyer’s question with a question. Fortunately, this lawyer does have a good grasp of the law on which he claims expertise. He responds with exactly what Jesus says in Mark 12:28–31 about the two most important commandments.
The lawyer asks what he should do. “Do this,” says Jesus in Luke 10:28. It’s not complicated. There’s a lot of rules in the Torah, but if you keep these two commandments—love God and love your neighbour—you’re all good.
However, the lawyer has a follow-up question.
But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?” (v 29)
It’s in response to this question that Jesus tells the familiar parable of the Good Samaritan.
The Levite and the priest in the parable don’t seem to think they’re obligated by God’s law to love the beaten man as themselves. Despite being very familiar with the commandment, they apparently have a very narrow view of who falls into the category of ‘neighbour’. Whereas the Samaritan—who has a much stronger argument for denying any neighbourly obligation—unexpectedly shows great compassion.
The lawyer gets Jesus’ point. He accepts that it was the Samaritan who was the good neighbour. Then Jesus says, “You go, and do likewise” (v 37).
It’s very easy for us to jump to the conclusion that that’s the application for us too: just go and do likewise. Go and love anyone and everyone, even your enemies. Isn’t that what Jesus is saying?
But look back just a little earlier in chapter 10 to verses 8–16, where Jesus gives instructions to his 72 disciples as he sends them out. If they aren’t treated well, Jesus says they should go onto the streets and shout condemnation to the people of that town, leaving the people who need healing behind and moving on.
Does that sound like compassionate treatment of neighbours? It makes me wonder if I’m missing something significant in these two stories. What’s the Good Samaritan parable really about?
Let’s come back to the reason why Jesus talks about the Good Samaritan. We’re told that the lawyer was “desiring to justify himself” (v 29). ‘Justify’ is a pretty common word in the New Testament, and it basically means ‘shown to be righteous’. This lawyer wants to establish that he is doing well at keeping God’s law , thank you very much. God will, he assumes, find him to be righteous and therefore suitable for inheriting eternal life.
Being a good lawyer, he’s also pretty pleased with himself, because he thinks he’s found a loophole that makes it easier to successfully fulfil the law’s requirements. The loophole is all about how you define ‘neighbour’. If he can define that word narrowly, he has a much better chance of being able to do it.
In other words, the lawyer wants to be like the parable’s priest and Levite. He wants to be able to say, “No, that guy on the road is not my neighbour. I don’t even know him. He’s not in my family, he’s not in my tribe. The word ‘neighbour’ can’t possibly mean someone as removed from me as that.”
But this parable of Jesus blows that narrow idea right out of the water. Jesus effectively says, “No, let’s give the word ‘neighbour’ as big and broad a meaning as we can. Let’s make it anyone you come across who is in need—even someone you hate. And I don’t want you just to help the people you hate, I want you to treat them with the same love, pity, compassion and generosity as you naturally treat yourself with. Go and do that, and then you’ll be justified.”
Now, here’s an interesting thing: in Luke 18:18, a rich ruler asks what in the Greek is an identical question of Jesus: “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
This ruler claims to be righteous, to have kept the commandments, but Jesus knows otherwise: “Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (18:22). And the man became sad, because he was very wealthy. He wanted to justify himself, but he couldn’t. So Jesus points out that it’s seemingly impossible for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. At which point:
Those who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?” But [Jesus] said, “What is impossible with men is possible with God.” (18:26–27)
Do you see the similarity in the two accounts? Both men wanted to make sure they were righteous enough to inherit eternal life, so they came to Jesus and asked him: “I’m good enough, aren’t I?” But the standard Jesus sets for them makes it clear: there’s no way you can ever be righteous enough to deserve eternal life. It’s humanly impossible, Jesus says.
How are you ever going to love your neighbour as yourself? Especially a neighbour you dislike! How can anyone be saved if the Good Samaritan represents the standard to which we have to keep the second great commandment? Not to mention the little problem of keeping the first commandment!
The lawyer came into the conversation wanting to justify himself, and Jesus showed him that would be a lot more costly than he thought. In fact, so costly he’s got nowhere near the capacity to do it.
And that’s why Jesus sent the 72 disciples out—introducing people to a new way of being right with God through Jesus. The way to be justified is by accepting and receiving the Christ, and accepting and receiving the message brought by Jesus and his disciples.
It’s why Jesus has “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (9:51). He’s going to pay the price for us to be justified through his death. If the lawyer could justify himself, why would Jesus take that drastic step of going to Jerusalem to die? Why would God send Jesus to die if it wasn’t needed?
The truth is, it is needed. Not just for the lawyer, but for all of us. None of us can justify ourselves.
I think, in the end, that’s what the parable of the Good Samaritan is teaching us: that no-one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law (Romans 3:20a)—e.g. by loving our neighbour. Instead, when we read that second commandment, it ought to make us conscious that we don’t love our neighbours as ourselves (Romans 3:20b). We can’t!
But, thankfully, God has another way to justify us—as Paul says in Romans 3:24, he justifies us by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
Does that mean we don’t have to love our neighbour?
Well, no. We’re definitely called to love our neighbours, including by this parable. We just don’t do it to justify ourselves. We do it because we’ve already been justified by God through his Son, Jesus.
It’s so natural and intuitive to want to justify ourselves, isn’t it? Our pride makes us think we can. We really don’t like to admit that we’re sinful and weak and dependent. But the main thing the Good Samaritan parable shows us is how impossible it is for us to fulfil all the law’s requirements. It warns us not to try and justify ourselves. So let’s not. Let’s keep relying solely on God’s grace.