The question “Who is my neighbour?” was thought to be a difficult moral problem by people in Jesus’ time, but Jesus shows through this parable that it is actually very easy to grasp. God’s law is “natural” it is affirmed by our intellect, our desires, our nature and our conscience; as Moses said, this Law is “very near to you.” (Deut 30:14) God speaks to us through this fact in important ways:
Firstly, it helps us to see that often it’s not that we don’t know what the right thing to do is, it’s that for a variety of reasons we don’t want to do it or think it’s not possible. Like the priest and the levite, we allow things like moral complexity, fear of man, risk or difficulty to sway us from obedience. We choose a lower standard and then try to justify it. The amazing thing about faith in Christ is that God gradually gives us the power to obey his commands, to experiencing the beauty of loving others as he loves.
Secondly, God is not a nominalist! That means God’s rules aren’t just made-up lists, rather they are based on reason and cause life to flourish. Often in our culture obedience to God is painted as irrational, superimposing an unhealthy agenda on what would otherwise be a normal world (think “Imagine”, by John Lennon!) This view matches the “religious” behaviour of the Priest and the Levite. But Jesus’ point isn’t that their religion and love conflict, it’s that they hadn’t understood God’s law properly. If God’s commands did lead us to to despise people then we would be right to reject them, but they do not, “For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ ” (Gal 5:14) This gives us confidence in the face of ridicule: there are times when obedience to God may cause people to accuse us of being unloving, and to claim that religion is a dangerous ideology, but if we trust God’s Word he will always show us how his commands are loving. And we don’t have to do this on our own, as we look at the Church through the centuries we find a storehouse of wisdom making sense of all of God’s commands in the light of his love in Christ.
Thirdly, the parable shows us how carefully we should guard our hearts against objectifying people. If love for others fulfils the law then it follows that treating people as less than persons made in God’s image is very destructive. This is a particular challenge in our culture because of things like social isolation, social media, pornnography, and films, TV and books that train us to think of people as one-dimensional “bad guys” instead of complex individuals. In our personal relationships (and especially in church) we should also be allergic to depersonalising others, especially by judging their motives or reducing them to character types. God calls us to repent of all such behaviour.
The Samaritan’s love points to Jesus’ love for us. God says, “Because I loved you first, go and do likewise”.