The Christian relationship to the law of Moses is complicated, particularly in light of what the Apostle Paul said about the law in his letters. But Paul understood that the law’s origin lay with God and that it was not insignificant but rather was fulfilled through Christ Jesus “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” Since “in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell” (shorthand for Jesus’ divinity), the fullness of the law and its intentions rested with him and in him. Moses said that the law was the equivalent of hearing “the voice of the Lord, your God” and that the law “is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts; you have only to carry it out.”
Hundreds of years later, when a scholar of the law asked Jesus, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” it is not surprising that Jesus asked him in reply: “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” This is not a pop quiz that Jesus sprang on the lawyer, but a question that has to do with the foundation of a well-lived Jewish life. The scholar replied with a portion of the Shema, which remains a basic prayer for Jews today, based on Dt 6:4–9, 11:13–21 and Nm 15:37–41. What the lawyer recites in Luke’s account is a variation of Dt 6:5: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind,” combined with Lv 19:18, “and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus’ response to the lawyer is direct: “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.”
This is not the end of the matter since the scholar, as scholars often do, wants to have the last word. He has a final question: “And who is my neighbor?” Whether the scholars’ intentions were true, his question gives us one of the best and certainly the best known of Jesus’ parables. The parable has so many profound spiritual levels that this simple story has taken pages, even books, to unravel it all, but let the focus fall on what it means to follow the law and who is able to follow the law in Jesus’ story.
In the account there is a beaten man, half dead, who is passed by both a priest and Levite who appear to be going to the Temple. It is possible they pass the traveler by because they consider him already dead and do not want to place themselves in a state of impurity, which would render their Temple service impossible. Maybe they are just concerned with the fact that if the robbers beat one man to death, they might be looking for more victims.
It is the Samaritan, representing a group at odds with the Jews both religiously and politically, who puts aside all concerns for his well-being and acts out of compassion for the victim. Van Gogh’s famous painting of this scene moves us with its depiction of the strain on the Samaritan’s face as he hoists the beaten man onto his horse, having already cleansed and purified his wounds with oil and wine and bandaged them.
He does more. He takes the victim to an inn and gives two denarii to the innkeeper, money out of his own pocket, and does not stop there: “Take care of him. If you spend more than what I have given you, I shall repay you on my way back.” The Samaritan not only opens his wallet, but leaves his credit card number behind. His actions say, “Put it on my account.”
“And who is my neighbor?” Jesus answers the question, as he so often does, with a question: “Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?” In answering Jesus’ question, though, the scholar answers his own question. The one who acted like a neighbor was the foreigner, maligned by those around him, and in so doing he identified anyone in need as a neighbor. Jesus’ instructions to “go and do likewise” place the fulfillment of the law where it was always intended to be: in love of God and neighbor. As Moses said, “you have only to carry it out.”