Two Men, One Question; Two Answers, One Jesus (part 1)

Luke 10:25-37 and Luke 18:18-30 in Tandem

jesus-questioned-by-lawyer04This is part 1 of a 2 part “series.”  For part 2, either scroll up or click here. It is based on lessons I taught in an adult Sunday School group at my local church.  Each teaching session was roughly 25 minutes, which is why these two posts will be longer than usual!  I’ve posted this mostly for the benefit of those who are a part of The Well, but all are welcome and I pray whoever reads is edified by the word.


In Luke 10:25 and Luke 18:18, two different men ask Jesus the same question (verbatim both in English and original Greek).  Jesus approaches each man slightly differently, and answers each slightly differently.  Why?  Because each man is coming from a different place.  But, as we’ll find, Jesus’ answer was essentially the same.  So in this post, we’ll examine Luke 10:25-37, and in the next we’ll examine Luke 18:18-30 and compare the two.


Luke 10:25-37
  1. The Context

Luke’s narrative flow can be summarized broadly as follows:

  • Younger Years (1:1-2:52)
  • Ministry Preparation (3:1-4:13)
  • Ministry in Galilee (4:14-9:50)
    • Miracles
  • Road to Jerusalem (9:51-19:44)
    • Parables & Teaching
  • Jerusalem (19:55-24:53)

So our narrative falls in the fourth and penultimate segment of Luke’s gospel. In 9:51, Luke writes, “When the days drew near for him [Jesus] to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Jesus knows his death is imminent, and so he takes pains in this section to prepare his disciples for his departure, which accounts for the higher concentration of parables and teaching. His encounter with a “lawman” in 10:25ff is an opportunity to give further instruction on what discipleship entails, and how it countermands cultural bigotry and other forms of un-love. (When I say “lawman”, read “expert in the Old Testament”, not sheriff!)

…Now you better get your Bible out and read along, as I won’t reproduce the biblical text here… 

  1. Lawman’s Question (v. 25)

The lawman is insincere, as evidenced in v. 27 when he is “desiring to justify himself.” Essentially, he has come to Jesus for help with a dilemma: His arm is not long enough, so he needs Jesus to help him reach behind and pat his own back. He wants affirmation and accolades. So even if Jesus were to give him a dazzling reply, he is not liable to agree; he has the answer already, and his inquiry is just a façade.

  1. Jesus’ “Answer” (v. 26)

Why does Jesus answer with a question? There’s a common joke about rabbis: “Why does a rabbi answer a question with a question?” Answer: “Why shouldn’t a rabbi answer a question with a question?” So Jesus asked a question because that was a form of rabbinic pedagogy. But there’s more to it than that. Jesus had a habit of avoiding direct answers, particularly when he knew his questioners were either insincere or seeking to entrap him in his words. Yet there’s even more to it than this. When there is a serious question like this, a simple answer is not always what is needed. Jesus wants to know where the scholar’s question is coming from—“the question behind the question” so to speak. Yeah, Jesus already knows. But other people are listening too, and Jesus will take the opportunity to instruct. It’s also worth noting that there is probably some bite to Jesus’ response:   “You’re the expert with all the credentials…you tell me.”

At this point, a brief “timeout” is in order. Does Jesus’ response have bearing on our discipleship? I think so. For one, Jesus doesn’t give us “pat answers.” Rather, he starts where people are. He doesn’t answer questions that nobody is asking, and he is certainly more keenly aware of our actual questions, and the “question behind the question”, than we are!

  1. Lawman’s Answer (v. 27)

Here the lawman gives the common answer of the day, conflating Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. These two, paired together, were referred to as “The Great Commandment” in 2nd Temple Judaism. Loving God entailed loving neighbors.

  1. Jesus’ Reply (v. 28)

Jesus basically responds by saying, “Yep. Now practice what you preach.” He is interested in internalization, not mere memorization.

Another “timeout”: Does Jesus have bad theology? Does he not understand sola gratia? Did Jesus miss the Reformation? Or worse, is he unaware of Paul’s statements in Galatians 2:8-9?! Well, no dummy! This is where context saves the day (particularly Luke 10:20-22). The mantra in realty is “Location Location Location!” The mantra in hermeneutics is “Context Context Context!” I’m convinced that half of misinterpretations would be avoided if we’d simply look at the paragraph where the sentence we’re quoting is located (along with the paragraph before and the one after). In this case, we must simply back up a few paragraphs, then we will broaden out to the rest of the NT. In Luke 10:20-22, we can draw the conclusion that the person who is humble like a child is brought to Jesus. Jesus reveals God to that person. That person, in turn, is enabled to love God and thus answer God’s call to love his neighbor.

The following chart diagrams what we find in Luke 10 in black, then in the rest of the Bible in red:

Luke 10:21-22
God Draws Us (John 6:44) Childlike Humility Jesus Receives Us Father Revealed to Us Holy Spirit Received by Us (Acts 2:38) Holy Spirit enables us to…Love God and neighbor (Acts 26:20; Galatians 5:22)
We Repent and Believe the Gospel (Mark 1:15; Acts 2:38)
“…rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20)

Back to lawman’s question: Jesus understands that you cannot “do something” in order to inherit. You’re either an heir or you are not. You can’t make yourself an heir, but God can. Jesus’ response is true, read in context of course —when we respond to God as a child (10:21), we are able to answer his call to love our neighbor. And that is evidence that we have eternal life. So Jesus wasn’t a heretic! Woo-hoo! (An interesting side note: How does Jesus define “eternal life”? John 17:2: “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”)

“Time-in” 🙂

  1. Lawman’s Follow-up Question (v. 29)

What is the lawman’s motive? The words “justify himself” are loaded. He’s after a back patting again. Readers will recall Luke 16:15, “And he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.”

What is his meaning? He seeks to legitimize un-love for people he deems unworthy, so his question is actually an attempt to limit the scope of the “Great Commandment”—“who do I not have to love?” You see, Jews of the period assumed “neighbor” didn’t include certain people, “non-neighbors: as it were.

So our lawman friend probably expects the typical answer from Jesus, “Your neighbors are your friends and relatives first, then other Jews!” Then he can say, “I have done all this!” And everyone would admire him and he would have an ego boost. That’s what he’s after.

  1. Jesus’ “Answer” (vv. 30-35)

But Jesus is nobody’s “yes man”, and stroking our egos is not his mission. Once again, Jesus does not give a direct answer. Rather, he tells a parable and then turns the question back on the lawman. David Garland comments,

The magic of parables is that they give us a glimpse of the transcendent through the lens of ordinary existence — a man getting mugged on the Jericho road, the age-old Jewish enmity toward Samaritans. Something incongruous happens in the story that jolts the expectations of the listeners and points to something about God that transcends.[1]

The main point of the parable is to challenge the age old assumption that the pious Jews with good upbringing and good blood get to categorize who is enemy and who is neighbor. In the course of the story, a priest and a Levite bypass the man in need. After “priest” and “Levite”, hearers would have expected to hear “Israelite”—those were the three divisions of Jews in the time. We too easily loose sight of how jarring it would have been to instead hear “Samaritan.”

Lets look at some Jewish documents that reflect the feeling toward Samaritans in this historical period. (One note: I quote the Apocrypha below…don’t get your undies in a bundle! While the Apocrypha is not inspired Scripture, it is a valuable source for understanding the various New Testament genres as well as the historical, social, cultural, and religious backgrounds of the New Testament.)

  • A Jewish midrash, or interpretation, on Exodus 21:35 (Mekilta Nezikin 12:11–13):

    When one man’s ox hurts another’s — the ox of his neighbor — This excludes the ox of a Samaritan, the ox of a foreigner, and the ox of a resident alien.

  • The Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach 12:1-7 (Apocrypha):

    If you do good, know to whom you do it…Give to the devout, but do not help the sinner. Do good to the humble, but do not give to the ungodly; hold back their bread, and do not give it to them, for by means of it they might subdue you; then you will receive twice as much evil for all the good you have done to them. For the Most High also hates sinners and will inflict punishment on the ungodly. Give to the one who is good, but do not help the sinner.

  • Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach 50:25-26:

    Two nations my soul detests, and the third is not even a people: Those who live in Seir [i.e. Edomites], and the Philistines, and the foolish people that live in Shechem [i.e. Samaritans].

So the question arises, “Whom would the original audience have identified with?” Well, even if priests and Levites were present in the audience, I don’t think anyone wanted to be identified with the priest and Levite in the parable! As Jesus was telling the story, they would have expected to identify with the third man, an Israelite, from whom they no doubt expected a heroic act. But man #3 ends up being a Samaritan! That’s Jesus’ “surprise” plot twist. So while we might read it and try to identify with the Samaritan, the original hearers had no choice: Jesus put them in the ditch, bloody and needing mercy. And that’s where we should start too.

So Jesus has effectively shifted the original question. You see, the lawman’s question assumes that he is the superior one with the power to help a “neighbor” in need. But Jesus puts the Israelite in the ditch, a position of weakness and desperation. He puts the Israelite’s so-called neighbors on the other side of the road, abandoning him to his fate. He then puts the man’s so-called enemy in the role of merciful savior. When you are in need of mercy, group boundaries are no longer such a big deal! The question then is, “Which kind of neighbor do you want? Go then, and be that kind of neighbor.” This requires radical love. This requires divine love. The kind of love we see on the cross. I’ll sum this verse up with a remark from Darrell Bock: “By reversing the perspective Jesus changes both the question and the answer. He makes the call no longer one of assessing other people, but of being a certain kind of person in one’s activity.”[2]

Jesus’ Question (v. 36)

Once again, Jesus asks a counter-question…he’s forcing the lawman to answer his own question via responding to the parable!

Lawman’s Answer (v. 37a)

Notice how the lawman couldn’t even bring himself to say “Samaritan.” But his answer is actually unintentionally profound. “Neighbor” is no longer abstract concept, but an action. Be neighborly. David Garland helps us understand “show mercy”:

English speakers tend to think in terms of doing mercy to or on another. Showing mercy, however, is something that is to be done with people and always makes us vulnerable. For the Samaritan, it meant getting down in the ditch with the victim, getting bloody lifting the man up, walking while another who cannot walk rides, reaching into one’s own pocket to pay for another, and risking never being appreciated and perhaps still being hated for all the trouble.[3]

Jesus’ Reply (v. 37b)

Jesus replies, “You go, and do likewise.” He is more interested in action than debate. Interestingly, we saw the word “do” in v. 28 and again now in v. 37, so this action word acts as bookends, framing the parable. Its not a matter of merely reading and discussing the meaning of the Bible, but obeying it to the full.


Concluding Summary

What is the lawyer’s concern? His own salvation—“What’s the bare minimum?” What is the Samaritan’s concern? Another’s “salvation.” Jesus turns the tables…selfish preoccupation with our own eternal life is not to be our attitude. Eternal life should lead to an attitude of giving.

Garland insightfully summarizes the motive of the lawman:

Being able to know precisely what is required provides one with a shell inside of which one can live peacefully because everything is familiar. It gives one a sense of certainty and security because everything is cut-and-dried. The story is a means of rescuing this questioner from being destroyed by the spiritual stockade that hems him in and keeps him from loving others.[4]

So then, the main point of the story is not to give us an example of how to show love (I would call that the secondary point). The main point is to address the lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbor?” And what is the answer? “The one we decided beforehand cannot be my neighbor.”[5]


Applying the Text

Anne Lamott writes,

You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.

Darrell Bock writes,

Neighbors may come in surprising places. The lawyer’s attempt to limit his neighbors may actually be limiting where his fellowship might come from. Those who run people through a sieve limit their capacity for meaningful friendships…Neighborliness comes in all shapes and sizes. It is limited only by our failure to see, feel, and respond.[6]

Reflect on the Following:

Who is my neighbor? In other words, who have I/we written off? Who have I/we decided I/we don’t like? Who do I/we disagree with? Who do I/we avoid because our hobbies and interests are different? Who do I/we have trouble loving? What does God require of me in this relationship?

[1] David Garland, Luke (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).

[2] Darrell Bock, Luke (NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 301.

[3] Garland.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Bock, 301-303.

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