The Law of Love

25 And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” 27 And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” 28 And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”

29 But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. 34 He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.” – Luke 10:25-37 ESV

At this point in His ministry, it appears that Jesus is taking advantage of every situation in order to teach His followers about the cost and commitment of discipleship. He had just sent the 72 with instructions to heal the sick and to declare the coming of the kingdom, and they had returned with news of their exploits.

“Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” – Luke 10:17 ESV

While they were enamored with their recently acquired power over the demonic spirits, Jesus attempted to refocus their priorities by declaring that there was a much better reason for them to rejoice.

“…rejoice that your names are written in heaven. – Luke 10:20 ESV

Their recent display of power and authority was a heady experience, but Jesus wanted them to know that His coming was intended to usher in something far more important and long-lasting. He had come to conquer sin and death and to provide them with eternal life, which would make their temporal victories over demonic spirits pale in comparison. Jesus wanted His 12 disciples and the 72 followers whom He had recently commissioned to understand just how fortunate they were. He told them, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see!” (Luke 10:23 ESV).

They were privileged to be eyewitnesses as God unveiled His long-promised plan of redemption for mankind. And Jesus even expressed His gratitude to His Heavenly Father for having chosen to reveal the mysteries of the kingdom to these innocent and childlike individuals.

“I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.” – Luke 10:21 ESV

God had not sent His Son to the rich, powerful, and well-educated leaders of Israel. Jesus had been born to a poor Galilean couple in the backwater town of Bethlehem. His team of disciples was made up of fishermen, a tax collector, and other unimpressive and uncredentialed candidates. These men were not members of the religious elite of Israel. They were not known for their education and erudition. And yet, they had been chosen by God and empowered by Jesus. Their relationship with Him had placed them at the forefront of the most significant revolution the world has ever seen.

The coming of the Messiah and the inauguration of the kingdom of God was ushering in a radically new way of life for the people of Israel. Things would never be the same again. And one of the most significant differences would be seen in their relationship with the Mosaic Law. For centuries, the law had been the key determining factor in their relationship with God. But with the Messiah’s arrival, things were beginning to change. In fact, Jesus’ sermon on the mount was intended to reveal that law-keeping alone was not enough. A purely ritualistic and legalistic attempt at rule-keeping was an insufficient means to win favor with a holy and righteous God. In fact, just after delivering His list of beatitudes, Jesus declared to His audience:

“…let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father.

“Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose.” – Matthew 5:16-17 NLT

Jesus had come to fulfill the words of the prophets concerning the Messiah. But He had also come to faithfully observe every one of the laws given by God to Moses. He would be the first Israelite to live in perfect obedience to God’s commands. But His adherence to the law would not be an outward display of moralistic rule-keeping. His faithfulness to obey the will of the Father would emanate from a heart of love and affection. Jesus obeyed the will of God because He was the Son of God. Throughout His earthly ministry, Jesus would emphasize His desire to do the will of His Heavenly Father.

“My nourishment comes from doing the will of God, who sent me, and from finishing his work. – John 4:34 NLT

“I can do nothing on my own. I judge as God tells me. Therefore, my judgment is just, because I carry out the will of the one who sent me, not my own will.” – John 5:30 NLT

“For I have come down from heaven to do the will of God who sent me, not to do my own will.” – John 6:38 NLT

Jesus never diminished the value or efficacy of the law, but He provided a far different way of understanding the purpose behind the law. So, when a lawyer or scribe approached Jesus with a question regarding the Mosaic Law, Jesus used the opportunity to teach another valuable lesson on life in the kingdom of God. According to Mark’s gospel, this was not the first time Jesus had been approached by a scribe with a question regarding the law. On another occasion, a scribe had asked Jesus, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” (Mark 12:28 ESV). Scribes were considered to be experts in the religious law of Israel. As a result of their role as copyists of the law, they were intimately familiar with every single regulation and prohibition contained within it. And they spent a great deal of time debating with their peers as to which law was to be considered the most important. That is what led this particular scribe to posit this question to Jesus.

In Luke’s account, another scribe came to Jesus with a question regarding how to inherit eternal life. But this too was a question regarding the law. He was essentially asking Jesus which one of the laws was most vital in determining one’s justification before God. So, in a sense, he was asking the same thing as the other scribe. And Jesus responded to both men with the same basic answer. In Luke’s account, Jesus asked the scribe what he thought.

“What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” – Luke 10:26 ESV

And the man answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27 ESV). In Mark’s account, Jesus stated virtually the same thing.

“The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” – Mark 12:19-21 ESV

In both cases, Jesus affirmed that a love for God and love of one’s fellow man were the two most important commandments and the keys to inheriting eternal life. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus even confirms the scribe’s answer and states, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live” (Luke 10:28 ESV). But Jesus knew that this man was incapable of keeping either one of these laws fully and faithfully. And the scribe’s follow-up question reveals his desire for further clarification and self-justification.

The man wanted to justify his actions, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” – Luke 10:29 NLT

This response reveals the man’s desire to qualify just what the law meant by “neighbor.” It seems evident that he had clearly determined what he believed to be the definition of that term, but now he was seeking confirmation from Jesus. But rather than give the man an answer, He told a parable. Jesus told the story of a man who was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho and was set upon by thieves. They beat and robbed the man, leaving him nearly dead by the side of the road. This would not have been an uncommon occurrence in those days, so the story would have resonated with the scribe. But it was the details contained within the story that would have left the scribe surprised and more than a little bit disappointed. 

Jesus includes three other characters in His story: a priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan. Two of them were Jews and members of the religious class of Israel, while the other was a despised Samaritan, considered by the Jews to be half-breeds and religious heretics. But in His story, Jesus describes each of these men coming upon the beaten stranger lying by the side of the road. The first two men, one a priest and the other a Levite, choose to pass by, leaving the man in his sorry and helpless state. These men were representatives of God. The priest would have been responsible for the spiritual care and well-being of the people, while the Levite would have been charged with the upkeep of the temple. But despite their intimate connection with Yahweh, both men show the dying man no compassion. Yet the despised Samaritan not only stops to help, but he commits his time and resources to see that the man is properly cared for. 

Having finished the story, Jesus asked the scribe, “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” (Luke 10:36 ESV). And the scribe answered, “The one who showed him mercy” (Luke 10:37 ESV). He can’t even bring himself to say the word, “Samaritan.” But he clearly knows that this character was the hero in the story. The Samaritan was the one who proved to be a neighbor. And then Jesus provided the story’s application: “You go, and do likewise” (Luke 10:37 ESV).

Remember the scribe’s opening question: “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:25 ESV). He was concerned with law-keeping. What he wanted to know was which law he needed to concentrate on in order to guarantee eternal life. But Jesus focused his attention on matters of the heart. He asked which one of the three men in the story showed mercy. This brings to mind the words of Paul recorded in his letter to the church in Corinth.

If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing. If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing. – 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 NLT

As Paul clearly points out, law-keeping without love means nothing. And that was the very same point Jesus was attempting to make. This scribe was looking for a set of rules he could keep that would guarantee His future salvation. But Jesus wanted him to know that righteousness was not about outward displays of rule-keeping, but an inward disposition of the heart. And when Jesus told the scribe to go and do likewise, He was giving him an impossible task to keep. Without a change of heart, the scribe would be unable to truly love God and love his neighbor. He was incapable of living up to God’s holy expectations despite his knowledge of the law. And, as Jesus told Nicodemus, the Pharisee, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3 ESV).

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

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