Friday, April 1, 2011

New Testament Lesson #14 "Who Is My Neighbour?"

Matthew 18: Luke 10

The commandment to love one's neighbor as oneself was not new with Christ's earthly ministry.  It is found as early as Leviticus (Lev. 19:18).  So when the young lawyer came up to Christ "tempting him" and asking what he could do to gain eternal life, Christ knew he knew the answer, and he replied with a question:  "What is written in the law?  How readest thou?"

The lawyer replied, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself."  Jesus said that was correct and if the man did it, he would achieve his goal of eternal life. 

But then the lawyer wanted to qualify the commandment:  "And who is my neighbour?" he asked (Luke 10:25-29).

Aha!  There was his trick question!

But there was no trick.  There was no qualification.  All mankind was his neighbour.  And that is what Jesus taught very bluntly in the Parable of the Good Samaritan.


(Illustration of the Good Samaritan in a Chartres Cathedral window)

The practical meaning of this parable is so obvious that, unlike other parables, its meaning was not hard to grasp, and the young lawyer would clearly have understood it, as would everyone around.  The priest and the Levite were more concerned with being made "unclean" themselves (by touching a "half-dead" man) than they were with helping ease suffering.  Their adherence to "the Law" actually prevented their living the gospel.  Yet the Samaritan, the low-life half-breed foreigner in the Jewish opinion, acted as a kind and compassionate savior for the traveler.  He was not a "neighbor" in the traditional sense, because he was a visitor from a strange country.  Yet he was prepared to help others, having oil and wine (natural medicines) with him.  When he saw the victim, he went to him.  He was aware of others, not trying to avoid them.  Then he went well beyond what might have been hoped for, leaving money for the innkeeper to continue the care of the injured man until his healing was complete (Luke 10:30-37).

And now, at the end of the parable, Christ turns the question.  It is no longer a question about the person being served: "Who is my neighbor?" Now is a question about the person doing the service: "Who was neighbor unto him?" (Luke 10:29, 36).  If you are a "neighbor" or a "good Samaritan," it doesn't matter who the other person is.


In the ancient Christian cathedrals of Europe, stained-glass windows were made to teach and remind the members of gospel truths and scripture stories.  The windows in several of these ancient cathedrals have depictions of the story of the Good Samaritan, surrounded by illustrations of the Garden of Eden and the crucifixion, as if they were related.  Curious!

A Good Samaritan Window
in a French Cathedral.
The diamond-shaped insets depict, top to bottom: 
the crucifixion, the Garden of Eden, and the Good Samaritan.
The panes all around these three tell the story of the
plan of Salvation, from the Garden of Eden to
the Empty Tomb.

"This parable's content is clearly practical and dramatic in its obvious meaning, but a time-honored Christian tradition also saw the parable as an impressive allegory of the Fall and Redemption of mankind..."

"This allegorical reading was taught not only by ancient followers of Jesus, but it was virtually universal throughout early Christianity, being advocated by Irenaeus, Clement, and Origen, and in the fourth and fifth centuries by Chrysostom in Constantinople, Ambrose in Milan, and Augustine in North Africa"  (John W. Welch, "The Good Samaritan: Forgotten Symbols," Ensign, Feb. 2007, p. 40).

Here are the symbols understood and taught by the early Christians:

The man = mankind
Jerusalem = God's presence (the elevated Holy City
          housing the temple)
Jericho = the fallen earth (being the earth's lowest city at 825
          feet below sea level)
Thieves = the devil and his co-workers
Raiment = immortality, grace (this is the only thing the thieves
          were after)
Half Dead = spiritually dead
Priest = Law of Moses (it cannot save)
Levite = the prophets (came close, but cannot help)
Samaritan = a foreigner not of this place who came purposely,
          prepared to heal (Christ)
Compassion = Greek for "divine mercy"
Wounds = sins, disobedience
Oil = can be the Gift of the Holy Ghost (the oil in the
          Parable of the 10 Virgins was the Holy Ghost--see
          D&C 45:56-57)
Wine = Christ's atoning blood--initially it stings (godly sorrow),
          and then it heals and purifies
Beast = Christ's mortal body
Inn = the Church
Innkeeper = the church members
The promise to return = the Second Coming of Christ

"This interpretation is found most completely in...medieval stained-glass windows in the French cathedrals at Bourges and Sens [and Chartres]" (Welch).

The MedievalArt website has beautiful pictures of the entire windows, with a detailed description of every single panel, and its typological explanation.  (Typological means "doctrinal studies of the symbols."  I looked up that word so you wouldn't have to.)  Not only that, but you can click on an individual window pane, and a pop-up will show it isolated and large enough for detailed viewing. 

Click here for the link to the Bourges Good Samaritan Window.

Click here for the link to the Chartres Good Samaritan Window

Click here for the link to the Sens Good Samaritan Window.


All of the messages of these two chapters, Luke 10 and Matthew 18, are elaborations on this same theme: our treatment of others.  Jesus teaches us in Matthew 18:
  • we must be humble in order to be a great member of his kingdom (1-4)
  • the importance of avoiding offence (5-10)
  • the value of the individual, even the stray (11-14)
  • how to treat one who has offended you (15-17)
  • God will honor even tiny gatherings of saints and their covenants (18-20)
  • the vital principle of forgiveness of others (21-35)
Note on the parable of the unforgiving servant:  10,000 talents of silver was a ridiculously exaggerated amount, a sum the servant could never expect to repay in his lifetime.  One talent alone was 750 ounces of silver!  (v. 24)  An hundred pence was less than 1 ounce of silver (v. 28)--a pittance.  (Institute Manual)  David Stern writes, "In Roman times one talent equalled 6,000 denarii, a denarius being roughly a day's wages for a common laborer.  If a day's wages today is in the neighborhood of $50, 10,000 talents would be $3 billion!  In the Tanakh [Old Testament] a talent weighs 75.6 avoirdupois pounds.  This amount of gold, at $350/troy ounce, is worth nearly $4 billion; the same amount of silver, at $4/troy ounces, comes to over $40 million" (Jewish New Testament Commentary).


In Luke 10, Christ sent out his Seventy, commanding them to heal the sick and preach the gospel.  We can see a tremendous spiritual growth in these men if we notice one thing.  In Matt. 17:14-21, the disciples were unable to cast out the devil from a child and asked the Lord why.  He said it was because their faith was immature:  "For verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you. Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting."

Thomas Mumford, in his Horizontal Harmony of the Four Gospels in Parallel Columns, places the sending forth of the Seventy much later in Christ's ministry than it appears in the New Testament, showing up as it does in the very next chapter.  Certainly the return of the Seventy would have occurred much later.  This chronology aligns with the increase of their faith.  Now, "The seventy returned again with joy, saying, Lord, even the devils are subject unto us through thy name.  And he said unto them, I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven.  Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy" (Luke 10:17-19).

As our faith increases, our power to "be a neighbor," or a rescuer or savior, increases as well.


It is always good to ask why one thing is placed next to another in the Bible.  The parable of the Good Samaritan is placed right after this brief report of the travels and ministry of the Seventy and Christ's reaction of joy, which we have already discussed above.  Even though Bible scholars believe they did not happen chronologically in that order, they relate to each other and the message of each is enhanced by their placement.

So why is the story of Mary and Martha placed right after the parable of the Good Samaritan?


As The Harper-Collins Study Bible points out, and as we may easily realize ourselves, "Interpreters find in the story of Martha and Mary conflicting messages on service and listening...Mary is depicted as a disciple. [A disciple sits at the feet of the teacher to learn.]  This was exceptional for women.  [Martha was giving "much service."]  Discipleship is later defined in terms of service" (p. 1980). 

Mary was listening to the Lord, which is the act of a disciple.  But Martha was serving the Lord, which is also the act of a disciple. Following directly on the heels of the stories of the service of the Seventy, and the service of the Good Samaritan, how can we imagine that Christ would be telling us that studying, as the priests and Levites did constantly, would be better than serving?  It is possible that Jesus is making sure we understand that there are times when we need to sit down and listen to the voice of the Lord, no matter what else seems to need doing.  It is also possible that he was telling us that being stressed out or going to excesses in our service is not consistent with being a disciple.

But there could be another message that isn't about discipleship at all, but about what the rest of the chapter was about:  how we treat others.

Martha was "[worried] and troubled about many things," and most notably at this moment she was worried and troubled about what Mary was doing.  "Mary," the Savior said, "hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her" (v. 41-42 including footnote).  He didn't necessarily say it was better than Martha's choice. 

We come closer to Christ through studying his words ("Thou shalt love the Lord thy God..."), and through serving others ("...and thy neighbor as thyself").  What we need to do is to listen to the Spirit and choose what "good part" we should be doing right now, do it wholeheartedly, and let others do the same.  If this story is placed here because it is about relationships, about "neighbors," about how to treat others, the message is simple:  Stop worrying about what other people are doing.


Michaela Stephens said...

Thank you. This has given me a lot to ponder.

GuateMama said...

Thank you so much...very helpful!

kelly miller said...

This was very interesting. The amount of 10,000 talents is huge!

Regarding- Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy" (Luke 10:17-19).

I wanted to share a random thought. I am a teacher. One day there was a scorpion in the room. I have no experience with them. I stepped on it and ground it into the floor- I thought. When I lifted my shoe, it was raised up to a scary height! I had not killed it. I guess they have a very hard body. We spayed it with lysol- the only thing in the room- and it seemed to make him curl up. and we double gloved our hands and captured him in a doubled up big ziplock bag. What I learned is you can't just step on them and crush them and expect them to die.

Russ and Suzanne Ballard said...

Love your articles - very helpful. But, any chance we can get them by the Sunday before? - I always prepare on Sunday afternoon for the following Sunday. This one came out on Friday the 1st (awesome) for the lesson on the 10th - but no sign of the next lesson for April 17th yet. Thanks so much!! Suzanne

Nancy Wyatt Jensen said...


Fascinating insight on the scorpions. Thanks!


Thanks for letting me know your schedule. Probably others have the same schedule.

It will take me another day or two to do the research and write this week's blog. (I was on vacation with the family for their spring break, so I'm behind.) After that I will try to get the next lesson up as soon as possible (Sunday or Monday, I hope), and at least by Lesson #17 I should have them posted on the Sunday before for you and anyone else on that schedule.

Esther Horsfall said...

Wow, what an amazing blog! I teach adult Sunday School in the UK, and one of my US friends just emailed me the link to your blog.
I love learning so much more that the scriptures have to offer, rather than just what is on the surface. It strengthens my testimony to see just how "genius" (or rather inspired) the scriptures are when all the messages contained are uncovered. I know I'm rambling, and probably not making much sense :) but just wanted to say thank you so much for your incredible insight & hard work in producing this blog.
Kind regards

Jan said...

Just wanted to let you know I am still using your blog as I prepare to teach Come Follow Me to adults on Sundays. Thanks in 2023!