The smooth-talking attorney wanted to make himself look good. He had already given the right answer to Jesus’ question–love God and love neighbor and you will fulfill the expectations for obedience to the law. Pushing the envelope a little further, he was hoping to limit his level of responsibility. Certainly Jesus would help him define the boundaries for who qualifies for neighborly treatment. Once defined, he would be off the hook for his treatment of anyone outside those boundaries.
In responding, not only does Jesus blow the doors off any boundaries that the lawyer might be anticipating. Using one of his favorite teaching methods–storytelling–Jesus instead turns the question on its head. As the story begins, a man is in trouble. Listening intently, the lawyer is certainly expecting a Jew to show up as the hero, demonstrating the model for appropriate behavior. After all, the attorney wants to know the limits for how he, a good Jew, should act neighborly. Instead, Jesus has two Jews–both respected community leaders–walk right by the beaten man lying in the road. Then, the one who finally shows up to help is, of all things, a Samaritan, a member of the “unclean” clan.
In telling this story, Jesus uses elements of both irony and surprise to communicate a radical message to his listeners. In the kingdom of God, everyone is neighbor. Acting out of our love for God, there can be no limits to whom we will be willing to help in their time of need. It is the good Samaritan who shows us the way today.