Luke tells us that when an expert in the law of Moses asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus confirmed that he should follow the biblical injunction to love God and to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This prompted the lawyer to ask Jesus “And who is my neighbor?” – setting the stage for the parable of the Good Samaritan that Jesus then gave.
In this parable, of course, Jesus related that when a traveler was attacked by robbers and left naked and almost dead at the side of a deserted road, a priest and later a Levite traveling the same road both ignored the injured man and continued on their ways. Only a Samaritan – one of the neighboring group of people hated and despised by many Jews – who had pity on the injured man and helped him.
At the conclusion of the parable Jesus asked the lawyer “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” (vs. 36), to which the lawyer correctly replied “The one who had mercy on him.” We read that Jesus then told him, “Go and do likewise.”
But as we finish our own reading of this parable and move on to the following story in Luke’s Gospel, it is likely that we will miss a profound aspect of this final exchange between Jesus and the lawyer. Remember that at the beginning of the story we are told the lawyer asked “who is my neighbor,” but if we look carefully we see that what Jesus asked at the end of the story changes the wording of this question.
It is hard to see this subtle change because it is obscured in most English translations of the Bible. For example, the NIV – which we have quoted here – has ““Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” By translating this question with “was” – the verb to be – the translators made it match the lawyer’s original question “who is my neighbor?”
However, that is not what the Greek of the New Testament actually says. The word (gegonenai) used by Luke to record Jesus’ reply to the lawyer literally means “to have become,” and the question should be translated “who became a neighbor to the man?” This literal translation is found in some carefully done recent Bible versions such as the New English Translation which has “Which of these three do you think became a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” (10:36 NET, emphasis added).
While this may seem like a small difference in meaning, it is actually a very important one. Jesus changes the lawyer’s question of “who is my neighbor” – meaning “ who must I regard as my neighbor”– to “who became a neighbor” – meaning “who did something that made him a neighbor?” Consider this difference. “Who is my neighbor” implies only theoretical acceptance of the person. “Who became his neighbor” implies an action that resulted in a relationship being established. The difference is that of what we believe as opposed to what we do.
To really understand this difference, we must go back to the parable itself. It is easy to presume that any priest who passed by the injured man must be callous and uncaring, but that is a judgment that may not be true. In the circumstances described in the parable it may be that a priest could accept the injured man as a neighbor but be afraid to do anything to help him. Even apart from the possibility of being attacked himself, a priest might well have considered the fact that if he touched a dead or dying man he would have been rendered ceremonially unclean for a whole week (Numbers 19:11). That would have resulted in him having to return to Jerusalem to undergo lengthy purification rituals – leaving his wife and family not knowing why he had not returned home when expected. According to the priestly system in place at that time, it would also mean that he and his family would lose expected income.
So, under such circumstances, it is perfectly possible that a priest could have viewed the injured man as a “neighbor,” and still not have done anything about the situation through selfishness or fear. Seen this way, we realize that the change of wording Jesus insisted upon in the lawyer’s question was one that taught him – and all of us who will listen – that in our relations with others we must be willing to move beyond acceptance to action. The changed wording teaches us that acceptance alone is not enough – our neighbor is anyone in need to whom we extend help, anyone to whom we actually become a neighbor.