Bible Study

Who Was the Neighbor? (Luke 10)

"We often find ourselves coming to Jesus looking for justification, not conviction." by Major Valerie Carr
Helping Homeless

A phrase that has grown in popularity is “confirmation bias.” The online Encyclopedia Britannica defines the idea as “people’s tendency to process information by looking for, or interpreting, information that is consistent with their existing beliefs.” In other words, we tend to seek out answers and sources of information that will affirm what we already believe. We seek affirmation of current thoughts and actions and are predisposed to avoid any source that might challenge our current thoughts. It’s a struggle for all people, regardless of the topic, culture or viewpoint.

In this month’s Bible study, we find that this practice of looking for justification for ourselves is not a modern problem either. Luke 10 tells the story of an expert in the law approaching Jesus with a question of his own, only to be answered with a story and a question from Jesus.  

In Luke 10:25 we read that “One day an expert in religious law stood up to test Jesus by asking him this question: ‘Teacher, what should I do to inherit eternal life?’”  This man had come to expose Jesus’ teaching. He came with questions he hoped would back Jesus into a metaphorical corner. He was hoping for a specific response to either validate his knowledge or expose Jesus as a fraud. 

Jesus, rather than being thrown off, answered the expert with His own question: “What does the law of Moses say? How do you read it?” (v 26). The expert quoted Old Testament laws of loving God with all your heart, strength and soul and loving neighbors as yourself (v 27; Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18). Jesus’ affirmation of this answer was not enough because Luke goes on to tell us that “the man wanted to justify his actions, so he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” (v 29).

One can imagine the scene, the self-righteous man peppering Jesus with questions. A flurry of words rattled off to impress others with his knowledge of Scripture. His finger extended towards Jesus to indicate a new question forming in his brain. Each question is patiently and wisely answered. Just when it seems that the exchange has ended between the two, the real issue comes to light: he wanted to justify his actions (v 29). The Greek word used for “justify” indicates that he was looking for vindication, specifically to have deeds exposed as wisdom. The expert in the law wasn’t asking for clarification but for confirmation. In the book “Jesus Is the Question,” the author suggests “he wants to be told that he is already doing it right.” He wanted justification for how he already lived his life.  

This character in Luke’s Gospel is a challenge for us today. We often find ourselves coming to Jesus looking for justification, not conviction. We want Him to validate our actions, thoughts and beliefs. We are not looking for His grace to lead us to new places, or His holiness to spear our consciousness towards laying down the comfort of our sinfulness. We too come to Jesus under the guise of interest and growth, but what we are hoping for is confirmation of how we want to live our lives.  

Jesus turns this interaction in Luke 10 around on the expert in the law. He does not answer the man’s question directly but with the famous parable of the Good 

Samaritan (v 30–35). The parable tells the story of a Jewish man who was hurt on the side of the road after being robbed and beaten. He is separately passed by a priest and a Temple assistant, but neither stops to help the man (v 31–32). In verse 33, “a despised Samaritan came along, and when he saw the man, he felt compassion for him” and then cares for his wounds and provides him with care to recover.  

The story is so famous that its main character has become culturally synonymous with anyone who goes out of their way to help a stranger. One important point in the parable is that Samaritans would have been the villains in any other person’s story, but Jesus makes him the hero. The author of “The Questions of Jesus” suggests that “it would be like saying that the only compassionate people today are those we hate the most.” Jesus deliberately inserts two characters who should have helped in the scenario, but who ignore the man in need. There is a bigger point to be made in Jesus’ tale. 

Samaritans were despised by the Jewish people for being the embodiment of the intermarriage of the Jewish people and people of other nations during the Assyrian captivity in the Old Testament. Generations later the Samaritan people and the Jewish people were living at odds with one another for a difference of ethnicity, belief, and religious practices. We find confirmation of this cultural belief in John’s account of Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4). The dislike for this people group is so deep that the expert in the law cannot even say “the Samaritan” in response to Jesus’ question, but can only bring himself to say “the one who showed him mercy” (v 37).

It would be nice to believe that we have moved past these types of beliefs, but a glance at newspaper headlines, social media feeds or supermarket tabloids prove us wrong. We too struggle to accept people who are different in culture, appearance, socioeconomic status, political thought, understanding of Scripture and many other ways. Our human nature wants to put people in categories and then justify our notions about grace and kindness based on that arbitrary organization.  

Jesus finishes His parable with our question of the month: “Now which of these three would you say was a neighbor to the man who was attacked by bandits?” (v 36). Rather than answer the expert’s question of “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus asks what it looks like to be a neighbor. The point is not to determine who deserves mercy and compassion, but to see what mercy and compassion truly look like. It is not the source or recipient that is the definition of compassion, but the action itself.  

Compassion becomes a verb by which a believer guides their actions and behavior towards others.  Jesus tells us that “your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples” (John 13:35). As followers of Jesus, we are challenged to stop looking for justification for kindness and instead see kindness as the life God has called us to.  

Jesus asks each of us, “What does it look like for you to be the neighbor?” It is a call to see every person we encounter as deserving of true love and kindness. We choose to show compassion and grace to the people we are least likely to enjoy being around. We create a sense of safety and love for the people God puts in our path, regardless of whether they agree with us on everything. Kindness becomes a natural extension of our interactions. Jesus’ question challenges us to consider that perhaps mercy isn’t so much about who deserves it, but about how we are being called to love others deeply because He first loved us deeply, even and inevitably when we didn’t deserve it (1 John 4:19). 

Questions to ponder

  1. How do I participate in confirmation bias in my approach to God, the Bible or my actions?
  2. Who is God putting in my path that I can show mercy to?