Most commentaries on the gospel of Luke note that Jesus reverses the lawyer’s original question. He had asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Now Jesus tells a story and asks, “Who was the neighbor?”
What was Jesus trying to do? One of the older commentators writes,
“[Jesus is] compelling the lawyer to give a reply very different from what he would like, . . . making him commend one of a deeply-hated race. And he does so, but it is almost extorted.”
How is Jesus able to “compel” the lawyer to acknowledge the hated Samaritan as the hero of the story? Even a fictional description of a real act of mercy is by its very nature attractive and compelling. Even an unwilling bigot must bow begrudgingly in honor.
Had we confronted this lawyer, most of us would have concocted a story like this: A Jew (with whom the lawyer could identify) comes down a road and finds a man lying in the road, dying in his own blood, robbed of all his possessions. Upon closer look, he sees it is a Samaritan. Nonetheless, he alights from his animal, bandages up his wounds, and takes him to safety. “Now,” we would have said to the law expert, “there is your answer! ‘Who is my neighbor?’ you asked. Why, even an enemy like a Samaritan is your neighbor if he is in need!”
I doubt the lawyer would have been moved. He would have said, “Ha! If I came upon a dying Samaritan, I would ride over him and finish him off! What a ridiculous story! What Jew with any integrity would act in such a foolish way?”
But Jesus is a far wiser counselor than any of us. He reverses the expected roles of the characters. He puts a Jew (with whom the lawyer could identify) dying in the road. Along comes a hated Samaritan. What does the Jew want from the Samaritan? Why, help of course! And to everyone’s surprise, the Samaritan stops and shows mercy.
Now we see how Jesus deftly cornered the law expert. Of course, if the law expert had been dying in the road, he would have wanted aid from the traveler, even if he was a Samaritan. In a sense, Jesus is asking, finally, “Now friend, who was a neighbor to you?” The only answer is: “My enemy, the Samaritan!” And the final word? “Well, then, go and give as you would receive! How can you really insist on acting differently yourself?”
This article is adapted from Ministries of Mercy, Third Edition, by Tim Keller.