I’m not aware of any Christian who hasn’t been taught that Jesus summarized the whole law (the Hebrew Bible) with just two simple commands – Love God (Deut 6:5) and love your neighbor (Lev 19:18). And, this is a solid tradition found in Mark 12:28–34 and Matthew 22:34–40.
However, not many people are aware that Luke 10:25–28 gives an alternative origin story for these two commands. If we’re trying to harmonize the Gospels, then Luke’s story takes place well before Mark and Matthew’s story during Jesus’s temple controversies. We may also consider that Luke’s Gospel may have contained the only record of Jesus’s ministry for Luke’s community. Or, if we follow the lead of most scholars, then Luke was aware of Mark’s tradition, but he chose to tell a different origin story for these commands.
What is really surprising is that in Luke’s version of the story, Jesus doesn’t come up with these two commands. Instead, it is his opponent, the lawyer, who makes the suggestion, which Jesus affirms. So, Luke presents a tradition where Jesus learned/adapted/affirmed a teaching of one of his opponents, and this became the central ethic of Christianity. I wonder how many Christians today would enter a debate with our “enemies,” find common ground, and learn lessons about ethics and piety?
But the debate wasn’t over. The lawyer, “wanting to justify (dikaiōsai) himself,” asks another question: “Who is my neighbor?”
Even more shocking is Jesus’s follow-up illustration explaining “love of neighbor” using the story of the “Good Samaritan.” Because most people highlight lessons of racial reconciliation in the passage—the Jewish leadership represented by the priest and the Levite ignore their fellow neighbor, the hurt man, while this unknown Samaritan helped him—we won’t till that familiar soil.
Rather, what’s truly shocking is that Jesus wants to teach a fellow Jew, an expert in the law, about love using a story about a man who believes the wrong things about God. He’s of the wrong religion. You see, Samaritans had their own version of the Jewish Scriptures called the Samaritan Pentateuch, and they worshiped God in the wrong way and on the wrong place, Mount Gerizim (see Jesus’s story of the Samaritan woman in John 4).
Reflecting upon the two commands—love God, love neighbor, we could say that the priest and Levite had prioritized their love of God (maintaining their ritual purity) over their love of neighbor. In contrast, the good Samaritan did not love God properly, but he knew a thing or two about loving his neighbor.
I bring this up because I occasionally hear Christians wonder if non-Christians can truly love other people if they don’t have a right relationship with God (and here, I’m going to disagree with my favorite theologian, Augustine, who claims true love is only ordered through love of God). To put this parable in a modern context, a pastor and a theologian are driving home from church, and they both pass a car broken down on the side of the road, but then a Muslim woman stops, discovers the person had been robbed, and helps get the person get their life back on track.
Luke’s Jesus is teaching his disciples that we should be able to look around our world and be willing to be taught lessons of proper love. Jesus both learns a lesson from the lawyer about love AND teaches him a broader understanding of love. You don’t have to be a Christian to love your neighbor. In fact, maybe the church needs to be listening better to other people of other faiths or no-faith, and maybe we can learn some lessons on what it means to love our neighbor.