The Greatest Commandment And The Parable Of The Good Samaritan

Jesus engaged in much public debate with the Pharisees and Sadducees, two Jewish factions that opposed Him and his teachings. It was during one of these debates that Jesus stated the Greatest Commandment:

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (NIV, Mark 12:28-31).

Parable of the Good Samaritan by Samuel Nixon, St. Paul's Church (Halifax), Nova Scotia

Parable of the Good Samaritan by Samuel Nixon, St. Paul’s Church (Halifax), Nova Scotia

“Love your neighbor as yourself” was part of the Old Testament law (Leviticus 19:18). But the Jewish teachers had often interpreted “neighbor” to include only people of their own nationality and religion. In Luke, the man who asked Jesus about the greatest of the commandments wanted justification for that interpretation, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” In response, Jesus told the famous Parable of the Good Samaritan. A Jewish man had been beaten by robbers and left half dead beside the road. Two different religious leaders passed by but did nothing to help. Finally, a Samaritan man came by and took pity on the injured man. He gave him water, patched up his wounds, put him on his own donkey and took him to an inn where he could rest and recover:

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?” He answered: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’ “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” (NIV, Luke 10:25-37 )

Samaria was a region of central Palestine that was once the capital of Israel. In 721 B.C. it was captured by the Assysrians who deported much of the population and replaced them with foreign colonists (2 Kings 17:24-33). The colonists were pagans who eventually intermarried with the remaining Jews. They adopted the religion of Israel, but they also continued to worship their pagan idols. The Jews considered the Samaritans to be religious heretics of a foreign nationality and inferior race. The Samaritans offered to help rebuild the Jewish temple, but their offer was rudely rebuffed (Ezra 4:1-3). Finally the Samaritans built a rival temple on Mt. Gerizim and proclaimed it, rather than the Jewish temple, to be the true house of God. By the time of Jesus, the Jews and Samaritans had hated each other for hundreds of years.

With that background, it is easy to understand that there was no one the Jewish expert in the law would have considered to be less of a “neighbor” than a Samaritan. If a Samaritan man could be a “neighbor” to the Jewish man who was robbed and beaten, then the definition of “neighbor” would have to include all people, regardless of race, religion, nationality or any other artificial distinction.

The Samaritan man gave freely of both his time and his money to help a Jewish man who was not only a stranger, but also was of a different religion, a foreigner and an enemy of his people. In His Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus challenges us to “Go and do likewise.” We do not have to agree with other people’s beliefs and opinions or condone their actions, but Jesus calls us to overcome our prejudices and show our kindness to all people of the world and consider them our “neighbors.”

Related verses: Matthew 5:43-48, 22:34-40, Luke 6:27-36, John 13:34-35, Romans 12:17-21

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