Jesus taught that the precepts of the Torah are encapsulated in the two commandments, love for God and love for neighbor (Mt 22:36-39). “On these two great commandments,” he said, “depend all the Law and the Prophets” (v. 40). His apostles faithfully communicated the same message in their inspired writings (Ro 13:9-10; Gal 5:14; Jas 2:8; 1 Jn 4:20-21).
This summary of God's commandments was among the least controversial of Jesus' teachings.
One scribe who heard it heartily agreed (Mk 12:28-34). Moreover, Luke mentions a Torah expert who endorsed it (Lk 10:25-28), indicating that it was a familiar formulation. As further evidence, the great commandments are juxtaposed in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, a Jewish work of the Second Temple period (T. Issachar 5:2; 7:6; T. Dan 5:3).
Although pairing the love commandments was not unique to Jesus, the way he elevated and applied them was distinctive. His story of three men, a parable he told the Torah expert in Luke 10:30-37, is a good example. This parable powerfully illustrates his teaching on the relative importance of the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18).
Jesus tells of a man who, assaulted and robbed, now lies half-dead on the road between Jerusalem and the priestly suburb of Jericho (v. 30). A priest walking by sees the man and has a decision to make. If he checks and the victim turns out to be dead, he would be violating the commandment forbidding priests from having contact with the corpse of any person who is not a close relative (Lev 21:1-4).
So the priest decides not to risk breaking this commandment and gives the suffering man a wide berth (v. 31).
Later a Levite comes down the same road and sees the man. For the Levite, there presumably was less at stake in coming in contact with a dead body. If he checks and the man turns out to be dead, he would contract a temporary ritual impurity and would not be allowed to serve at the Temple for seven days (Nu 19:11-13). The Levite also decides to avoid the possibility of corpse defilement. He walks by the man on the other side of the road (v. 32).
Finally, a third traveler comes along, a Samaritan who stops to check on the victim. Finding the man alive, he overflows with compassion evidenced by his actions. He immediately treats his wounds, uses his animal to transport him to an inn, and cares for him overnight. But wait, there’s more. The following day he leaves the innkeeper money, his pledge, and a charge to continue providing for his care.
The Torah expert agreed with Jesus that the Samaritan had made the best choice by treating the assault victim as his neighbor (vv. 33-37).
Jesus carefully constructed the parable to create a hypothetical situation where two commandments were in conflict. Situations of this type were frequently discussed by Jewish sages of his day. When faced with such a dilemma, one has to decide which commandment takes precedence. The parable, appealing to mercy and compassion, makes a persuasive case that the love commandment of Lev 19:18 should carry more weight than the stipulation for priests in Lev 21:1-4.
To make his point, Jesus could have had the third person in his parable be any layperson who was obedient to the Torah. However, having a Samaritan play this role added a twist to the story. Samaritans, who did not recognize the authority of the Jerusalem Temple, were deemed to have an inferior understanding of the Torah. But in the parable, the Samaritan’s obedience surpassed that of the other men.
The parable should not be taken as a condemnation of priests and Levites or a rejection of the rules in Leviticus about ritual impurity. One could argue that following the Samaritan’s example by saving the lives of people in danger would decrease the amount of ritual impurity in the world.(1)
The point Jesus is driving home is the overriding priority of the love commandments.
We do not know what the majority of first-century priests and Levites would have done in the situation described in the parable. For instance, the obligation to give every deceased person a prompt burial, based on Dt 21:23, could have influenced their thinking. This responsibility was taken very seriously, as illustrated by the book of Tobit, in which the title character is diligent to bury abandoned corpses (Tob 1:17-19; 2:3-9; 12:12-13). A priest or Levite who deemed Dt 21:23 to outweigh Lev 21:1-4 would have checked on the man beside the road.
We do know about a relevant decision made by later rabbis. The Mishnah, the written compilation of Jewish oral law dating from around 200 AD, proposes another hypothetical situation in Nazir 7:1. In this scenario, a priest and a Nazirite come upon a dead body. (Nazirites, during the time of their vows, were also forbidden to go near a corpse—Nu 6:6.) The rabbis agreed that one of the two should bury the body, and they discussed the question of which one should do it. For them, the obligation to bury the dead clearly took precedence.
It is worthwhile to compare Nazir 7:1 and Luke 10. The rabbis in the Mishnah ruled that burying the dead had more urgency than the instructions for priests and Nazirites. In Jesus’ parable, the obvious implication is that the love commandments have the highest priority of all.(2)
In his life and death, King Jesus demonstrates the overflowing love he advocates. Now, as his loyal subjects, our calling is to “go and do likewise” (Lk 10:37).
(1) See the discussion by Matthew Thiessen in Jesus and the Forces of Death: The Gospels’ Portrayal of Ritual Impurity Within First-Century Judaism, Baker Academic, 2020, pp. 113-119.
(2) New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham believes that Jesus was unique in the emphasis he placed on the love commandments. See “The Scrupulous Priest and Good Samaritan: Jesus’ Parabolic Interpretation of the Law of Moses,” New Testament Studies 44 (1998), 475-489.
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