“On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
‘What is written in the Law?’ he replied. ‘How do you read it?’
He answered, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’
‘You have answered correctly,’ Jesus replied. ‘Do this and you will live.’
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” (Luke 10:25-29)
Jesus is asked by a religious leader; how can I inherit eternal life? Another way to ask this is, what must I do to live a godly life? Jesus asks the man what the law says. Which is to say, what have you learned from the Old Testament. This guy is a religious teacher, so he has an extensive background on the entire Old Testament.
The guy responds with the two greatest commandments; love God and love your neighbor. Jesus says, “Bingo! Do that.” And the man’s response is extremely interesting. The Gospel writer notes that the man wants to be justified. He wants to get himself off the hook and asks back, “Who is my neighbor?”
Jesus then goes on to give the story of the Good Samaritan, which is a parable we all probably know to some degree or another. It’s a story where a man is traveling down a particularly rough road, known for danger and violence, and he is mugged and beaten within an inch of life. He is left bleeding and dying on the side of the road.
Then Jesus tells about how a priest and Levite, both, at different times, passed by this man. These were the religious leaders of that day. So, we could fill in pastor and priest in these roles for our context. We think, “yay! The good guys are here to save the day.” But rather than help this man, they crossed to the other side of the road.
Scholars have explained that were probably a litany of great reasons that these guys didn’t help, but the fact remains; they didn’t help when they saw the need.
At this point in the story, the listeners would have thought that all hope was lost. That this guy, bleeding on the side of the road, barely holding on, must be a goner now. But then Jesus says that a Samaritan was walking by. This would have stopped everyone dead in their tracks, because Jesus’ audience was Jewish. Not only that, Jesus was talking to the Jewish religious leaders as well. Now for your sake, I will spare you the full history lesson, but the relationship between Jews and Samaritans was tenuous at best, violently prejudicial at worst.
Then Jesus goes on to explain that this Samaritan was not only walking by, but that he stopped and helped the man. And Jesus didn’t stop there either. He kept adding, saying this Samaritan actually took the man to a local inn, paid for a place so that this man could rest and heal up, and then left extra money just in case.
Jesus ends the story with a simple question. Who is the neighbor in the story?
The religious leader, no matter how much it must have pained the him to say so, uttered “The one who had mercy on him.” He couldn’t even say “the Samaritan man.” And Jesus responds so simply and so beautifully.
“Go and do likewise.”
I think this message, to go and do likewise is still an active calling on our lives as well. In my life, I have seen people – myself included – ask this question “Who is my neighbor?” because we want to be abdicated from loving people who are hard to love. We want to be released from the divine command to love people who are different. We want to be excused from loving people who we may not understand, or that we find uncomfortable, but Jesus takes the idea of the neighbor and stretches the bounds of what that means for us.
For the religious leader in the story, it would have been easy for him to view the priest and Levite as his neighbor, for they were just like him. They shared a similar background, similar education, job, status, and even many of the same views. Yet, Jesus chose a Samaritan, someone who would have been perceived as quite different from the religious leader, and he uses the Samaritan as an example of a neighbor.
Jesus is extending what it means to love our neighbor, because he is extending the barriers of love. It wasn’t just about loving the people who look like us, vote like us, live like us, speak like us, or even share the same values or religious background as us. No longer were there stipulations or conditions associated with the love we are called to give. Love everyone. No exceptions. No explanations or justifications. Just love.
As I write this, I am drinking my coffee out a mug that says, “Love thy neighbor…” and then beneath it is a list of our neighbors who are often forgotten about. Love thy gay neighbor. Thy homeless neighbor. Thy black neighbor. Thy Muslim, immigrant, Jewish, atheist, addicted, and our Christians neighbors. The point it is making is that “neighbor” never meant just like us. The dictionary defines the biblical use of “neighbor” to mean “any person in need of help or kindness.”
“Who is my neighbor?”
The simple answer; everyone. Every single person you meet. Your friends and family. Strangers. People who live right next to you, and the people who live nearly half way across the planet. The people who are on the same page as you, and the people who aren’t even reading the same book.
Love thy neighbor. No matter who they are. No matter how they think. No matter how they live. No matter how they speak, act, or anything else for that matter. We choose to love them anyway.
In the Kingdom of God, everyone is your neighbor. And Jesus summarizes the greatest commandments as love God and love your neighbor. That is the way of Jesus. Love your neighbor. Put differently, love everyone. And honestly, that is the way of change.
Love is the key. Love is the way through we seek change and flourishing in this life.
Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13, “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing…
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3;13)
Paul, while talking to the church in Corinth, says that all of our actions, all of our words, and, truthfully, all of our lives are void without love. And that is the heartbeat and the ethos of the Christian life, to be people who love at all costs. To be followers of Jesus who say we will love our neighbor no matter who they are or where they are. To be the person who chooses to love anyways.
Because that’s what Jesus did.
It says in John 4:19-21, “We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.”
We love because Jesus loved us first. Now it’s our turn. All that’s left for us now is to go and do likewise.
Be safe. Be wise. Be Jesus this week.