As Jesus traveled toward Jerusalem (Luke 9:51), he spent time in different towns and villages along the way to preach the Gospel of the Kingdom to people living there who might receive him (cf. Luke 9:51-53). At one of those villages a lawyer tested him, trying his understanding of the Scriptures. However, Jesus answer seems to have made the lawyer look foolish. Therefore, the embarrassed rabbi reacted to the Lord’s pointing to the obvious, namely the phylacteries which the lawyer strapped to himself to help him remember his duty to obey the Law. In order to save face, the lawyer tried to get Jesus to answer a question that seems to have been a controversy among the rabbis: “exactly who is my neighbor” (Luke 10:29)?
The argument is, if one was commanded to love his neighbor as he loves himself, the text could be read to imply there were others who were not one’s neighbor. For example, were Jews commanded to love the Romans who ruled them? If the Messiah were to come, wouldn’t he break the yoke Rome had placed upon the Jews? If so, how could the Romans be the Jews’ neighbor, whom they were commanded to love as themselves, if they would be commanded by the Messiah to wage war against them in order to be free of their yoke?
By placing the first question (Luke 10:25) in the context of the second (Luke 10:29), the lawyer seems to be trying to describe the requirements of inheriting eternal life by defining the word neighbor in such a way that it would be possible for him to obey the Law. In other words, the lawyer was able to see that not only was the Jew commanded to love his neighbor, but he was also commanded by God on many occasions to make war against his enemies. Just who is my neighbor?
The lawyer was seeking to have Jesus modify the requirements the Law places upon mankind to a point where it would be possible for men to obey God. In other words the rabbi, who typified the current teaching of the religious authorities of the first century AD, wanted to be able to obey God without the help of God. He wanted to have a relationship with God by removing God from his life—an oxymoron. This was the dilemma of Genesis 3 and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Adam (and so his descendants) desired to know good and evil, i.e. have authority / power over good and evil, without God’s input. Man has always wanted to be able to stand alone, without God, and have a relationship with him that would be equal and on his own terms. This is a relationship without trust, one in which loving with all our heart, soul, mind and strength would be impossible. One cannot love and not trust the beloved. The lawyer was able to see he couldn’t obey the strict interpretation of the Law, but was unable to trust God to help him to love in the manner in which the Law required.
The rabbi’s emphasis was upon the letter of the Law (Leviticus 19:18), namely, his duty to love his neighbor, while Jesus’ emphasis is upon why one should love one’s neighbor, namely because we should be like God who loves everyone and has mercy on everyone (cf. Leviticus 19:1-2), even those who show daily that they don’t love God or trust him.
The context of Jesus’ parable implies the traveler is a Jew, and Jesus tells us he was on the road traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho (Luke 10:30). Moreover, both the priest and the Levite were on the same road and traveling in the same direction, from Jerusalem to Jericho (Luke 10:31-32).
The first traveler fell among thieves who took everything he had and beat him, leaving him for dead (Luke 10:30). However, when the priest and the Levite came to the place where the man was and saw him lying alongside of the road, they passed him by (Luke 10:31-32). The implied reason for their lack of assistance was that, if they touched the man, and he died, they would be unclean for seven days (Numbers 19:11). Touching a dead body meant they would be unable to enter Jericho during the time of their uncleanness. So, for convenience and ceremonial purity’s sake, they showed no compassion for the dying man, who for them was less important than caring for their enemy’s ox or sheep (Deuteronomy 22:1-4).
An interesting point to which the parable alludes is that Scripture blesses those who live in Jerusalem (Nehemiah 11:2), because it is the city where the Lord has placed his name (cf. Psalm 135:21). Yet, the three in the parable are traveling away from Jerusalem, i.e. away from blessing and away from the Lord (cf. Nehemiah 11:2; Psalm 135:21). Moreover, according to Joshua 6:26, Jericho was a cursed city and represents death (cf. 1Kings 16:34). In other words the traveler, the priest and the Levite were traveling away from blessing and (eternal) life with the Lord, and journeying toward death (Luke 10:30-32), but no one felt compelled to express any kindness.