Older manuals of moral theology are sometimes criticised for presenting the Christian moral life primarily in terms of obedience to a set of commandments or a code of prescriptions and prohibitions. A more traditional understanding of Christian morality, while not wanting to deny the value of laws or commandments for our moral development, sees this emphasis on obedience as only a preliminary, albeit necessary, stage on the Christian journey towards freedom. Love, rather than mere obedience to an external code, is at the heart of the Christian journey.
When Jesus is questioned by a lawyer about what must be done to inherit eternal life, he first directs the lawyer to what is written in the law while, at the same time, confirming that the whole of the law is contained in the double commandment to love God and to love neighbour. By approving this close connection of two separate biblical commands Jesus gives love of neighbour (Lev 19:18) the same significance as love of God (Deut 6:5). Without love of neighbour, made concrete in the keeping of the commandments, genuine love for God is not possible.
The story of the Good Samaritan, which Jesus recounts in response to a question about who counts as a neighbour, illustrates the contrast between two different conceptions of the moral life. The first is seen in the behaviour of the priest and the Levite. When they come across the man left beaten by robbers they both pass by on the other side of the road, fearing that he might already be dead. Both the priest and the Levite wanted to be obedient to the Jewish law, in this case the purity law which restricted contact with a corpse. But out of fear of violating an obligation imposed by the law, sticking rigidly to the letter of the law, they failed to put into practice the heart of the law.
Their conduct can be contrasted with the behaviour of the Samaritan traveller who, moved with pity at the sight of a fellow human being in need, acts with spontaneity and resourcefulness. Bandaging the wounds of the man left stripped and beaten at the side of the road and taking him to a nearby inn to see that he is cared for as long as necessary, this virtuous Samaritan shows a far greater level of maturity in the exercise of his moral freedom. At the same time he answers in his actions the question put to Jesus by the lawyer about who counts as a neighbour.
Jesus refuses to answer this question in terms of identifying boundaries which separate neighbour from non-neighbour, whether these boundaries are defined by faith, national identity or special election by God. Instead, the parable of the Good Samaritan, which only appears in the Gospel of Luke, is a concrete illustration of the universal dimension of God's plan of salvation and the extension of his grace to the whole world, a major theme for the evangelist Luke. Now my neighbour is the first person I encounter who constitutes a claim on my love. At the same time it is in the person in need that I encounter Jesus Christ who identifies himself, in particular, with the lowly and the suffering (Matthew 25:31-46).
In the act of loving our neighbour, we display the same love which God showed when in the person of Christ he came to the aid of a wounded and broken humanity. It is in our love for one another that we imitate and show our love for the God who is kind and full of compassion, slow to anger, abounding in love (Psalm 144).