Perhaps one of the most riveting stories in the Bible is the tale of the Good Samaritan. For those who are unfamiliar with it, here it is from Luke 10:25-37 (CEB):
A legal expert stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he said, "what must I do to gain eternal life?" Jesus replied, "What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?" He responded, "You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself." Jesus said to him, "You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live." But the legal expert wanted to prove that he was right, so he said to Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"
Jesus replied, "A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He encountered thieves, who stripped him naked, beat him up, and left him near death. Now it just so happened that a priest was also going down the same road. When he saw the injured man, he crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. Likewise, a Levite came by that spot, saw the injured man, and crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. A Samaritan, who was on a journey, came to where the man was. But when he saw him, he was moved with compassion. The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, tending them with oil and wine. Then he placed the wounded man on his own donkey, took him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day, he took two full days' worth of wages and gave them to the innkeeper. He said, 'Take care of him, and when I return, I will pay you back for any additional costs.' What do you think? Which one of these three was a neighbor who encountered the thieves?"
Then the legal expert said, "The one who demonstrated mercy toward him." Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise."
There are several things happening here and some cultural aspects that I want to bring to light.
Many people have remarked before how the commandment quoted here is the most important commandment in the Bible. It encapsulates all other commandments. In fact, for me, it is the basis for how I live my life. It is can be summed up in these 4 words: "Love God. Love others."
This commandment is so important, that many observant Jews will state this command several times during the day. I can imagine in this scene where the two rabbis (this unnamed scholar and Jesus) are testing each other. This scholar wants to somehow discredit Jesus, but Jesus gives this man a scenario that he probably never would have dreamed of.
A man is injured after being robbed and mugged on the highway, left for dead. Two men walk past him: a priest and a Levite. Both the priest and the Levite (who was a person in the priestly caste system) had certain ceremonial responsibilities. If either of them were to stop and help the man, who most likely was bleeding, then they would be ceremonially unclean and would not be able to do their duties in the Temple. If the man were actually dead, they would definitely be ceremonially unclean.
I am not certain on this, but I could imagine that most listeners of this would have nodded their heads. They could possibly imagine that the priest or the Levite might tell other people about the man so that they could help him. However, it was the Samaritan who helped him out.
What is a Samaritan? Samaritans are a group of people, who still exist today, although in small communities, who worshiped the same God as the Jews did, but with noticeable differences. Samaritans were the product of interracial marriage between Jews and non-Jews that happened after the Assyrian conquest of Israel. Since they were of mixed race, they were despised by the Jews. The Samaritan Torah, which is nearly identical to the Jewish Torah, made notable exceptions in it to show that the Samaritans were properly worshiping God and not the Jews. This developed into animosity and racism between the two people. Neither groups of people liked each other. In fact, they despised each other.
So this Samaritan, this despised person, helped out his enemy. Normally the story ends there. Does it, though?
I once told this story to one of my translators in Albania when I served with The Salvation Army there. However, I substituted the Good Samaritan for the "Good Serbian," who helped the injured Albanian. The reaction I had from him was shocking. He acted outraged that a Serbian would be so merciful: the enemy of his people who had driven them out of their homeland. His hate was palpable. (Click here to read more of this story.)
However, let's take a look at the original question: What must I do to gain eternal life? With Jesus' parable, he implied something outrageous and . . . Dare I say it? . . . Heretical!
This Samaritan was the one who had gained eternal life. This Samaritan had the wrong theology. He believed the "wrong" things. In fact, some people might even dare to say that this Samaritan did not even worship the same God as the Jews did. (I recently had a fellow Christian accuse me of not worshiping the same God as he did.) However, it was the Samaritan who gained eternal life, not because of what he believed, but of his actions demonstrating his love for God and others.
This gives me pause. What about others who do good and show love for their fellow humans? The Muslim, the Hindu, the atheist? None of them accept Christ as their personal Savior. None of them follow Jesus. None of them say that Jesus is "the Way, the Truth, and the Life." However, it would seem that Jesus is saying that it is possible to gain eternal life, not by what we believe, but by how we act.
What is the definite answer? I don't know. The reason I don't know is because I am not the one who determines who has eternal life and who doesn't. So I will not be so quick to mete out judgment on anyone, including those of a different belief system. Perhaps none of us should.