Summary: The parable of the Good Samaritan is a parable about identity couched in the lawyer's question about inheritance. Both are ours in Christ, but one is more important than the other.
Inheritance or identity?
The parable of the Good Samaritan is one of those passages that we could probably all recite from memory if we had to. We know what happens - a man is traveling along the road, he is ambushed, left for dead, and then two religious guys are too busy or otherwise concerned to help him. That is, until a foreigner comes and helps the man, even puts him up in a place to stay while he recovers.
And because we know the story well, we probably feel like we understand everything that there is to understand about the message - love your neighbor as yourself. We are supposed to go out and treat other people as we would like to be treated. Or at least, be on the look out for people who have been mugged and left for dead.
But the way that the story begins is somewhat disconcerting. The story starts off with a religious lawyer - something like a Jewish seminary professor - who comes to Jesus and asks "what must I do to INHERIT eternal life?" Catch that? "Inherit". An inheritance is something that you already have coming because of who you are. The only way that someone doesn't get an inheritance is if they are disinherited, if they are removed from the family. So the lawyer is really asking, what can I do in order to NOT get kicked out of this family - the family of the faith of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
That is possibly the way that we approach Christianity sometimes as well. We know from our last series on the book of Galatians that we have an inheritance because of Jesus's death and resurrection. We know that we "are not slaves, but children, and if children, heirs through God." We are looking forward to an inheritance as well, the inheritance that Jesus gave us, the inheritance of everlasting life with God in the Resurrection.
And so, along with the lawyer, we are tempted to ask - "Ok, that's a pretty good deal, how to I make sure I don't lose this?" Do I have to keep my name on the roster of church members? What does that mean? Showing up at least every three Sundays? Something like that? Can I miss more if I slip one of the elders a $50 bill? Or is it more about volunteer hours? Is there a minimum amount of helping people out that I have to do? Do I have to memorize parts of the catechism? How do I make sure that I'm doing enough to stay in? What must I do to inherit eternal life?
Jesus' response to the question is to quiz the lawyer about what a Jewish religion professor/lawyer should know - what does the Law say? This was a softball question for the lawyer. He should have been able to answer this one in his sleep. "Love the Lord, your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind . . ." which comes from Deuteronomy 6. This would have been a part of Scripture that would have been prayed almost every day, or at least every week. It would have been like asking you to recite the Lord's Prayer.
But the lawyer goes on to add "and love your neighbor as yourself," which comes from our Old Testament reading, Leviticus 19. Now you may not be a Biblical scholar, but you probably recognize that Deuteronomy 6 and Leviticus 19 are not right next to each other. So what the lawyer is doing here is showing a little bit of panache. He's showing off his learning, probably linking the prayer in Deuteronomy 6 with the recitation of the 10 commandments which would have come after it in the Jewish prayer service. We can't tell if Jesus is impressed, but Jesus at least gives him a passing grade, "You are correct."
However, the lawyer isn't happy yet. There is still too much ambiguity in all of this. So he asks a follow up question. And who IS my neighbor, after all?
You can almost imagine the lawyer asking this question after Jesus has turned around to walk somewhere else. "And who is my neighbor?" You can imagine Jesus' pace slowing as He hears the question, pausing, then turning around, and walking back toward the lawyer while starting to tell the story. All of the sudden it has become clear that the lawyer maybe isn't that smart. He has missed out on a key component of what it means to be an inheritor. All of the sudden, Jesus isn't talking with the lawyer like two academic equals swapping Bible verses, but Jesus is telling a parable, the teaching style that He uses with common, unlearned men.