by Ed Gallagher
We’ve heard stories about the search for eternal life. I seem to remember learning during my school days that the conquistador Ponce de León was searching for the fountain of youth in Florida, but apparently that’s just a legend. King Arthur and his knights were allegedly on the lookout for the Holy Grail, which was also supposed to be a source of eternal life. Of course, Indiana Jones found the Holy Grail, and it did give him eternal life (on a limited basis). Early in the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), the antiquities collector (and villain) Walter Donovan explains the significance of the lost cup of Christ: “Eternal life, Dr. Jones. The gift of youth to whoever drinks from the grail … every man’s dream.” A real example: Ted Williams is frozen (in two pieces!) so that he can someday come back to life.
Ancient Jews were also interested in eternal life, sort of. Their conception of what that entailed was quite a bit different from what Ponce de León might have been looking for, or what the Holy Grail reputedly offered. When ancient Jews thought about eternal life, it wasn’t a continuation of the current life without any death; it was life in a new manner of existence, in the age of eternity.
But how does one achieve this vision of eternal life? How does one qualify for life in the age to come?
That was a question upon which Jesus had something to say. Particularly in the Gospel of John, Jesus has quite a bit to say about eternal life. For instance: “those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:14).1 The way to attain eternal life is to believe in him, or to drink the water he provides, or to eat his flesh. The theme occasionally comes up in the other Gospels, such as when Jesus promises that the sheep on the right of the enthroned Son of Man will enter into eternal life (Matt 25:46). Here, the sheep that enter eternal life are those who feed Jesus, or give him drink, or clothe him, etc., by means of performing these acts of service for “the least of these my brethren.”2
Sometimes people flat-out asked Jesus how to attain life in the coming age, or how to inherit eternal life. Each of the Synoptic Gospels records this exact question from the Rich Young Ruler to Jesus (Matt 19:16; Mark 10:17; Luke 18:18). The gospel of Luke also records an incident in which a “lawyer” asked Jesus this question. The answer to this question led to the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
Situating the Encounter
Luke does not tell us exactly where Jesus’ encounter with the lawyer took place. By this point in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is already on his way to Jerusalem to accept crucifixion (cf. 9:51). He must be still somewhere in Galilee in Luke 10 because at Luke 17:51 he is still in the area between Samaria and Galilee. He won’t arrive in the area around Jerusalem until 19:29.
The Greatest Commandment
Luke records no incident in which someone asks Jesus about the most important commandment in the Torah. Such an episode does appear in Matthew (22:34–40) and Mark (12:28–34). Apparently Luke did not feel it necessary to include that story since he includes this similar story. In Matthew, a Pharisee lawyer approached Jesus with the question about which commandment in the Torah was the most important. In Mark, the person who asks this question is a scribe (and Mark’s story generally seems more positive toward this scribe). Jesus’ answer according to both Matthew and Mark is to highlight a commandment in Deuteronomy and another in Leviticus. These same two commandments are also cited by the lawyer in Luke 10:27 as summarizing the means by which one may inherit eternal life, a summary with which Jesus heartily agrees:
You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.Luke 10:28
The most important commandment, according to Jesus and the lawyer of Luke 10:25, is taken from Deuteronomy 6:5, “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.” Actually, this is the way the lawyer says it in Luke 10:27, which doesn’t precisely match what we find in Deuteronomy 6:5, where the “mind” is not mentioned. I have no good explanation for why the “mind” comes up in all three Synoptic presentations of this commandment (Matt 22:37; Mark 12:30), or why Matthew’s version omits “strength.”3 At any rate, the original command in Deuteronomy—love God with all your heart, soul, and strength—surely intended to require complete devotion, and the New Testament quotations reflect this same requirement.4 “[O]ne should love God with every globule of one’s being” (Davies and Allison, 1997, vol. 3, p. 241).
The passage from Deuteronomy is the first part of the Shema, a Jewish prayer traditionally recited twice each day, morning and evening, a practice perhaps going back to the time of Jesus. The beginning of the Shema is Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear, O Israel,” words that give the prayer its name (“hear” in Hebrew is shema). The whole prayer, or confession of faith, includes Deuteronomy 6:4–9; 11:13–21; and Numbers 15:37–41. Detailed instructions about how to recite the Shema are given in the Mishnah,5 the earliest rabbinic document, dating to around 200 AD but often preserving earlier material. Josephus seems to assume that Moses himself instituted the practice of reciting the Shema twice each day.6 Tiny scrolls called in Hebrew tefillin (or, in Greek, phylacteries) containing the Shema have been found among the Dead Sea Scrolls.7
So it is no surprise at all that Jesus would consider the command to love God to be the most important commandment in the Torah, nor that the lawyer in Luke 10 would suggest that it is the primary avenue to eternal life.
The Neighbor Command
The lawyer in Luke 10 tacks on to the end of his answer, “and your neighbor as yourself,” as if this phrase was part of the same law. In fact, the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” comes from a different book of the Torah, Leviticus (19:18). In his response to the question about the greatest command, Jesus (in both Matthew and Luke) adds this quotation from Leviticus 19:18 as the second most important commandment. According to Jesus, no commandment is greater than these (Mark 12:31), and all the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commandments (Matt 22:40). What Jesus seems to be saying here is that these two commandments, Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18, encapsulate all of the laws in the Torah.
In the New Testament, it is the second greatest commandment that actually appears more often than the Shema.
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.Romans 13:8–10
For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”Galatians 5:14
You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”James 2:8
All of these passages indicate that you can summarize the entire Torah, all 613 commandments (according to the traditional Jewish reckoning),8 in the one commandment, “Love your neighbor.”
This way of summarizing the Torah would have seemed very normal within first-century Judaism. The two same commandments, Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18, were also brought together in a work known as The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs,9 though this work may be not a Jewish composition but a Christian one.10 Philo provides a Jewish source contemporary with Jesus who summarized the Torah essentially just as Jesus did, without citing the specific commandments of Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18.
But among the vast number of particular truths and principles there studied [i.e., in the Torah], there stand out practically high above the others two main heads: one of duty to God as shown by piety and holiness, one of duty to people as shown by humanity (philanthrōpia) and justice.Philo, On the Special Laws 2.6311
In fact, Philo indicates that the Ten Commandments are already a summary of the entire Torah, and the Ten Commandments can themselves be summarized as two: the first five commandments (he says) correspond to love of God, and the second set of five commandments correspond to love of people.12 Moreover, there were summaries of the Torah along the lines of something like the Golden Rule,13 showing that Jews in the first century understood that the Law was essentially calling on them to treat others well. This is illustrated by the famous story in the Talmud about the Gentile asking Rabbi Hillel to recite the Torah while standing on one foot; Hillel responded, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor; that is the whole Torah, the rest is commentary; go and learn it.” (This story is found in the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Shabbat 31a.) There’s a statement attributed to the important second-century AD Rabbi Akiva that labels Leviticus 19:18 “an all-embracing principle [כלל גדול] in the Torah.” (This is in the rabbinic document called Sifra, a type of legal-based commentary on Leviticus, in the section Kedoshim 4.12.)
Luke presents these two commandments as the lawyer’s understanding of how to inherit eternal life. There is nothing at all unusual about this way of thinking for a first-century Jew. The rub—as always—is, “Who is my neighbor?”
If we need to love neighbors like ourselves, then it’s perfectly reasonable to ask who this includes. I don’t mean that the lawyer was perfectly reasonable; Luke says he was trying to justify himself (Luke 10:29), which I think means that he was pretty sure Jesus was going to tell him what he already believed to be true: that the law of Leviticus 19:18 is limited to people who think and act like you do.
Is it really necessary to point out that people today are just like this lawyer, looking to confirm our own biases? People watch the news channel that tells them the kinds of things they want to hear: that their lifestyle is right and everyone else is wrong. We like to justify ourselves in this way. The books we read or the people we’re willing to listen to are determined, often, by whether or not we are likely to agree with the argument. We want to justify ourselves.
Yes, Jesus does justify people, but not without calling for repentance. He’s certainly not into confirming our own biases. What he offers this lawyer is a story so clear that the lawyer is forced to admit the very point that he had wanted to avoid.
First of all, in the context of Leviticus 19, two things are clear: (1) love is not so much an emotion as an action; and (2) the neighbor does not exclude anyone. As for the idea that “love” entails action, look at the commandments in Leviticus 19:9–18. That’s not to say no emotion is involved (Lev 19:17), but there must be a practical outcome of love. And as for the identity of the neighbor,14 note that sometimes the Torah refers to Canaanites as neighbors of God’s people (Gen 38:12, 20), and to Egyptians as neighbors (Exod 11:2). Moreover, the Torah commands Israel repeatedly to love the “alien” (52x). For instance, later in the same chapter of Leviticus:
When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. 34The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.Leviticus 19:33–34
Both the command about loving neighbors (Lev 19:18) and the command about loving aliens (Lev 19:34) concludes with the affirmation, “I am the LORD,” as if the identity and character of God is bound up the principle of treating others fairly.
The parable that Jesus tells in response to the lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbor?” features a Samaritan as the hero. So before we get to the parable itself, let’s review a little bit about Samaritans.
The Samaritans are a religious group that still exists today, numbering 818 people (in 2020), centered around Mt. Gerizim in Israel (cf. John 4:20), about 40 miles north of Jerusalem. They are not a sect of Judaism; they are a different religion. Samaritans do accept the Torah as God’s law, revealed to Moses on Mt. Sinai, but they have their own version of the Torah, somewhat different from the Jewish version.15 The main difference in terms of doctrine is that the Samaritan Torah has an extra paragraph within the Ten Commandments that explicitly commands worship on Mt. Gerizim (you can read that paragraph here).
The Samaritans do not call themselves Samaritans. They refer to themselves as Israelites, or as “Keepers” (of the commandments).
It’s not clear when the Samaritan religion began as a distinct form of Torah-observance separate from Jews. The story told in 2 Kings 17 about a group of people mixed between pagans and Israelites does not seem to describe the group later (and today) known as Samaritans. Archaeologists have uncovered a temple on Mt. Gerizim dated to the fifth century BC. This temple was destroyed by the Jewish high priest John Hyrcanus in about 111 BC, in an effort to forcibly convert the Samaritans to Judaism. It didn’t work; it just made them mad. In the first century, there was much animosity between Samaritans and Jews.
Luke’s Gospel represents a Samaritan as the hero of two stories: the Parable of the Good Samaritan, and the story in Luke 17:11–19 about the thankful Samaritan. But there’s another story in Luke about Samaritans that illustrates the animosity that Jews harbored against them (and vice versa). As soon as the Travel Narrative in Luke begins, this happens:
And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; 53but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. 54When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” 55But he turned and rebuked them.Luke 9:52–55
It’s hard to imagine that James and John would have been so ready to obliterate a Jewish village that didn’t receive Jesus, such as Nazareth, or even Capernaum (cf. Luke 10:13–16). But they seem pretty eager to wipe out this Samaritan village.
Jesus did not approve of the Samaritan religion. When he was speaking to the Samaritan Woman in John 4 about the appropriate place of worship, he basically told her that Jews are right (Jerusalem) and Samaritans are wrong (Mt. Gerizim), though pretty soon it wouldn’t matter. He told her that “salvation is from the Jews,” i.e., not from the Samaritans (John 4:22). Just because Jesus thought we ought to show love to the Samaritan does not mean that he approved of the doctrines of the Samaritan.
To whom should we compare a “Samaritan” in our own context? Of course, there are still Samaritans today, but most American Christians I know do not hold much animosity toward Samaritans. It might be useful to think about the Parable of the Good Samaritan in terms of someone American Christians typically do not like. I think we could nominate several candidates: Muslims, illegal immigrants, abortion providers, homosexuals, Democrats. This is a list based on my experience in conservative churches in the Tennessee Valley. You might need a different list. Who’s your enemy?
We might also think about these verses, a few chapters earlier in Luke.
But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.Luke 6:27
But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.Luke 6:35
A man was going down from Jerusalem (2500 feet above sea level) to Jericho (800 feet below sea level), and he fell among robbers. A priest and a Levite ignored him, but a Samaritan took care of all his needs, thus proving to be a neighbor.
Why did the priest and Levite pass the man by? Notice that Jesus says in regard to both of them that they “saw” the wounded man. One would think that if anyone was religious, if anyone kept the Law of God, it would be a priest or a Levite, and yet Jesus has these two people breaking the second most important commandment.
I like the way the VeggieTales—yes, that’s right, I said the VeggieTales—interprets the actions of these two characters.
We’re busy, busy, dreadfully busy.
You’ve no idea what we have to do.
Busy, busy, shockingly busy.
Much, much too busy for you.
I like that interpretation for two reasons.
One, I identify with it. I’m busy, much too busy to be spending my time helping people I don’t know. I mean, just look at the amount of time the Samaritan spent with this wounded man. I don’t have time for that!
Two, it nicely leads into the very next story in Luke, the one about Mary and Martha. Jesus was talking to Mary, whereas Martha didn’t have time to join her. She was busy, busy, dreadfully busy. But Jesus said Mary had chosen better than Martha how to spend her time.
If you’re not too sure about adopting your biblical interpretation form singing vegetables, how about someone with undeniable gravitas: Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Nobody is too good for the lowest service. Those who worry about the loss of time entailed by such small, external acts of helpfulness are usually taking their own work too seriously. We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God, who will thwart our plans and frustrate our ways time and again, even daily, by sending people across our path with their demands and requests. We can, then, pass them by, preoccupied with our more important daily tasks, just as the priest—perhaps reading the Bible—passed by the man who had fallen among robbers. When we do that, we pass by the visible sign of the cross raised in our lives to show us that God’s way, and not our own, is what counts. It is a strange fact that, of all people, Christians and theologians often consider their work so important and urgent that they do not want to let anything interrupt it. … But it is part of the school of humility that we must not spare our hand where it can perform a service. We do not manage our time ourselves but allow it to be occupied by God.Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works–Reader’s Edition (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015), pp. 76–77.
So I don’t really think about the priest and the Levite as unusually bad people, just completely normal people. It’s the Samaritan here who is unusual. Look again at what he does for this wounded man: bandaged his wounds, put him on his donkey and walked beside it, paid for a room in the inn and spent more time there taking care of the man, actually spending the night with him. Then he made arrangements to return to the inn at some later date to check on the wounded man.
Good grief! That is not a normal display of concern. That is extravagant generosity. That is an imitation of God.
When Jesus got to the question at the end of the parable, the lawyer could not deny that the Samaritan had proven to be more of a neighbor to the wounded man than had the priest or Levite. But Jesus does not then tell the lawyer to go and love Samaritans because Samaritans, too, are our neighbors. Rather, Jesus tells him to go act like the Samaritan. Prove yourself to be a neighbor and thus worthy of love.
Martha was too busy to be with Jesus (Luke 10:38–42). Jesus tells us that he is with the poor and oppressed (Matthew 25:31–46), so if we are too busy for the poor and oppressed, we’re too busy for Jesus. We fill our lives with so many things, it may be that we need to let something go. It may be that we need to sacrifice something that we really want to do in order to leave us time to love our neighbor. Would I rather my sons learn baseball or learn to care for the homeless? Would I rather my girls take piano or take care of widows? I’m not saying that you have to choose, but if you find that your life is too full to love your neighbor, you might have a tough decision to make. You might have to let something go, or run the risk of being too busy for Jesus.
Jesus gets the same question twice in Luke’s Gospel, about inheriting eternal life, once from a lawyer (10:25) and once from the rich young ruler (18:18). How does Jesus respond each time?
What do you think Luke means that the lawyer was “wanting to justify himself” (10:29)?
In the parable told by Jesus, the priest and the Levite do not help the wounded man. Can you imagine some ways that they might “justify themselves” in not helping?
How would you describe the actions of the Samaritan toward the wounded man? Is this the way religious people normally behave? Is that the way you would behave in a similar situation?
What sorts of sacrifices did the Samaritan make on behalf of the wounded man? Which of these sacrifices do you find most difficult to replicate in your own life?
(1) For the phrase “eternal life” in the Gospel of John, see also 3:15, 16, 36; 4:36; 5:24, 39; 6:27, 40, 47, 54, 68; 10:28; 12:25, 50; 17:2, 3.
(2) Similar in concept to eternal life, the kingdom of God was more frequently the object of Jesus’ proclamation (e.g., Luke 4:43; 8:1). The “kingdom of God” referred to the coming age, when God would reign through his Messiah and God’s people would dwell securely. The way to get into the kingdom of God is to do the will of the Father (Matt 7:21). One must enter God’s kingdom like a child (Mark 10:15). Rich people will only with difficulty enter God’s kingdom (Mark 10:23–25). One should strive for (Luke 12:31) or seek God’s kingdom (Matt 6:31). Sometimes people asked Jesus when God’s kingdom would become manifest (Luke 17:20; 19:11). It would take nothing short of a birth from above to enter God’s kingdom (John 3:3, 5).
(3) The scribe speaking to Jesus in Mark 12 repeats the commandment after Jesus and omits “soul” and substitutes “understanding” (σύνεσις) for “mind” (διάνοια).
(4) On the various forms of the Shema in the Bible, see the chart at W. D. Davies and D. C. Allison, The Gospel according to Saint Matthew, 3 vols., International Critical Commentary (London: T&T Clark, 1988–1997), 3.242.
(5) The recitation of the Shema is the very first topic addressed in the Mishnah, in the opening tractate Berakhot. On the recitation of the Shema, see Emil Schürer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ, rev. ed., 3 vols. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1973–87), 2.454–55.
(6) See Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 4.212, with the commentary of Louis H. Feldman, Flavius Josephus: Judean Antiquities 1–4 (Leiden: Brill, 2000), 406–7.
(7) See the phylacteries called Mur4 edited by J. T. Milik and published in Les Grottes de Murabba‘ât, Discoveries in the Judean Desert 2 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961), 85, with digital images here (esp. this one); and Phylactère C (4Q130), ed. J. T. Milik, in Qumran Grotte 4, II, Discoveries in the Judean Desert 6 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 55, starting at line 15, with digital images here.
(8) The number 613 is found in the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Makkot, 23b–24a. (See here, at the very end of 23b.)
(9) The text is here; scroll down to the Issachar section and look at ch. 5. The Greek is ἀλλ᾽ ἀγαπᾶτε κύριον καὶ τὸν πλησίον; see M. de Jonge, ed., The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs: A Critical Edition of the Greek Text (Leiden: Brill, 1978), 85. On love of neighbor in the Testaments, see H. W. Hollander and M. de Jonge, The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs: A Commentary (Leiden: Brill, 1985), 418, commenting on Testament of Benjamin 3.3. See also M. de Jonge, “The Two Great Commandments in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs,” in Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament as Part of Christian Literature: The case of The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs and the Greek Life of Adam and Eve (Leiden: Brill, 2003), 141–59.
(10) See Hollander and De Jonge, Testaments, 82–85; and M. de Jonge, “The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs as a Document Transmitted by Christians,” in Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament, 84–106.
(11) Philo, On the Special Laws 2.63. I have used the translation (slightly adapted) by F. H. Colson in Philo, vol. 7, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1937), 347. For other Jewish parallels to the Torah summary offered by Jesus, see Dale C. Allison, Jr., “Mark 12.28–31 and the Decalogue,” in The Gospels and the Scriptures of Israel, ed. Craig A. Evans and W. Richard Stegner (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1994), 270–78.
(12) Philo sets out this understanding of the Ten Commandments in his work called On the Decalogue §§106–10, but for the interpretation see Allison in the article just cited (note 11).
(13) See the “Golden Rule” article at Wikipedia. For other reflections on such summaries, see this article by Jeffrey Peterson.
(14) On this topic, see Richard Elliott Friedman, “Love Your Neighbor: Only Israelites or Everyone?” Biblical Archaeology Review 40.5 (September/October 2014), 48–52.
(15) The Samaritan Pentateuch is available in an English translation: Benyamin Tsedaka, The Israelite Samaritan Version of the Torah: First English Translation Compared with the Masoretic Version (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013). For an overview of the Samaritans, see Reinhard Pummer, The Samaritans: A Profile (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016).