READ : Luke 10:36-37
“Which of these three, do you think, proved neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed mercy on him.” And Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
Luke 10:36,37 RSV
Who is my neighbor? That’s what a lawyer asked Jesus one day when they were discussing the second great commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Apparently this lawyer had listened to Jesus’ teaching before because he knew what the Lord regarded as the highest calling for all of us, to love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and strength and mind, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. The lawyer was willing to go along with that but he had some questions about it. He was looking for a definition, “Who is my neighbor?”
IDENTIFYING A NEIGHBOR
It seemed a fair question. In the strictest sense, neighbors are people who live very close to us. Are they, the folks on our street, the only ones to whom this applies? Or maybe it means those who belong to the same community. All of our countrymen, our fellow Israelites – is that the circle of people we’re talking about?
Surely there are some boundaries to this “neighbor” idea. Could any Israelite of that time have looked upon occupying Romans or despised Gentile nations as neighbors? Obviously that term excluded also inveterate enemies like the Samaritans.
There must be moral qualifications too. In what sense could I call a murderer or an idol worshiper a neighbor? People who despise God’s law and disturb the peace hardly deserve that name.
And there have to be some common sense boundaries too. Lepers who live beyond the pale, who are banished from society, can hardly be called neighbors, can they? Or those ceremonially unclean ones who don’t observe the dietary restrictions, who eat with unwashen hands – it’s hard to imagine getting close enough to them to call them neighbors.
The lawyer is saying, “I need some clarification here. If loving my neighbor as myself is so vitally important, I need to understand exactly what’s involved, don’t I? Just who, Jesus, is this neighbor that I’m supposed to love?”
I’m tempted to say that that’s just the sort of question lawyers would ask. But I don’t want to be unfair to lawyers. It’s a human question. It’s the kind of thing all of us are inclined to ask. And it always implies that we think there have to be some “non-neighbors,” some people out there that we could hardly be expected to care about.
ACTING LIKE ONE
But Jesus doesn’t give this lawyer or any of the rest of us a definition. Instead, He tells a story. The setting is a familiar road that runs from Jerusalem to Jericho. It descends some 3300 feet in a course of 17 miles, through rough terrain. It passes through the kind of rocky country where brigands can easily lurk, to surprise some hapless traveler. Here’s how Jesus told it:
A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was; and when he saw him, he had compassion, and went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; then he set him on his own beast and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And the next day he took out two danarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, “Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.”
That’s the story: a man in desperate need and three travelers who came along and found him. We know who the three travelers were: the priest, the Levite, the Samaritan, but we aren’t told anything about the stricken man, except that he was so badly battered that you could call him “half-dead.” We don’t know about his nationality, his religion, his character, or his habits. He was just a victim lying by the road.
We don’t know either why the priest and the Levite passed him by. They both saw him lying there. They both got close enough to see how desperate his condition was. Maybe they looked just long enough to see that he wasn’t anyone they knew, so that they didn’t feel any responsibility toward him. Or maybe they discerned in a moment that he had been assaulted and that those attackers might still be in the area. It seemed prudent for them to get out of harm’s way. Maybe this was a ruse, a scheme to trap the unwary. Or maybe the man had brought it on himself in some kind of gang war. Perhaps they feared that he would soon die. In that case, for anyone to touch him would be to incur defilement.
They had plenty of questions, this priest and this Levite, as to whether the man lying by the roadside could qualify as a neighbor. They were religious men. They knew the commandments. They would surely have done anything they felt obliged to do. But there were too many uncertainties about this case. And each man had important business to attend to – God’s work, as a matter of fact.
Then along came this Samaritan, this heretic, to the Jews, this half breed. He saw what the priest and the Levite before him had seen. He too stopped and looked. But somehow, he couldn’t keep going. He knelt down beside the wounded man and dressed his wounds. Then he lifted him with great difficulty, draped him over his own beast and walked along beside him till they got to an inn. He stayed right there in the same room with him, trying to nurse him back to health. And in the morning, when he had to leave, he gave some money to the innkeeper so that this sufferer could be taken care of until he came back.
The Samaritan had what Jesus called “compassion.” Did you know that that word speaks literally about the visceral organs? It’s a kind of inner pain of caring. He cared so much he couldn’t let the man lie there. This compassion of his also had courage. He was willing to risk any dangers that were still lurking by. Apparently, he didn’t even think about them. He simply did what had to be done. And his concern had a persistence about it too. He stayed with the man. He made that stranger’s need his chief concern and stayed with him until the need was met.
Now after that story, Jesus had a question for the lawyer. “Which of these three, do you think, proved neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?”
There was something unsettling about the way Jesus dealt with questions. As we’ve seen, He would sometimes tell a story or ask a counter-question. He’d put the situation in such a new light so that the question about it seemed irrelevant. That’s what He did here. He showed this lawyer that what’s important is not defining a neighbor but being one. Which of these three, do you think, proved neighbor?” “Who acted like a neighbor?” Jesus asks. In a humbling flash, the lawyer must have seen it. He said, “the one who showed mercy on him.” What other answer could he give?
The lawyer had been asking, “How will we decide whom we ought to love?” Jesus said, “That’s the wrong question. You can go round and round indefinitely on that one. The thing to concentrate on is being neighborly to anyone you meet along the way.” So the commandment is not a conundrum to be figured out. It’s a life to be lived, a caring to be expressed.
The lawyer has identified now who proved to be a neighbor: this despised Samaritan. That was the answer he really needed, and it came from his own lips: “the one who showed mercy on him.” “All right then,” Jesus said, “You go and do the same.” The right path for you is not learned analysis of who may qualify, but loving attention to the needs of others. Don’t wait till you’ve identified every possible category of neighbor. Try instead being one to everybody – everybody God brings into your life.
I was reading this week about a historic meeting in Moscow between Mikail Gorbachev and a delegation of American churchmen. It was about building bridges between churches in the U.S.S.R. and the U.S., about filling the vacuum in Russian life with the good news of Jesus Christ. One thing that President Gorbachev was especially responsive to was the part in the report from the delegation that said, “Faith without works is dead.” He was all for a religion that bore evident fruit in life.
Just today I was reading a distinguished scholar who pointed out that, contrary to the belief of some, racism and nationalism have not vanished from the earth. Rather, the new freedoms in eastern Europe have fanned these feelings into fresh life. Those who have lived together in relative peacefulness under a totalitarian government seem to be at each other’s throats again when the pressures are eased. People all over the world are having trouble seeing those who live beside them as neighbors. Was there ever an hour in the history of the world when the words of the Lord, “Go and do likewise” were more needed?
THE REAL “GOOD SAMARITAN”
But if that’s all we have, the lofty command is really a counsel of despair. Being neighbors is precisely what we find ourselves unable to do.
Christians have always seen in the parable of the Good Samaritan not only counsel about how we ought to live, but a picture also of Christ’s ministry to us. He is the One who found us in our brokenness by the wayside, who asked no questions about our worthiness, who simply loved us, and spent Himself for us, so that we could have true life. It’s when we know that we are so wonderfully loved that we can be set free to love other people. It’s when we are forgiven that we learn to forgive. It’s when we find healing for our own hurts that we can be wounded healers for our world.
There was no “Good Samaritan” really. He was only the main character in a story Jesus once told. But there was Someone who lived that way, whose compassion was interruptable by any cry of human need. There was Someone courageous enough to undertake the task of helping us even when it cost Him everything. There was Someone – there is Someone – who stays with us, doesn’t give up on us, sees us through until we’re completely whole. His name is Jesus.
I ask you today: Do you know Him? Have you realized that He is God’s gift to the world and to you? Have you seen the way His heart went out to people in all kinds of need and pain and lostness? Have you recognized what the Cross was all about, His bearing our burden, His suffering in our place, because He loved us? This Jesus is alive today, risen from the dead, mighty to save. If you will trust in Him as your Savior, if you will commit your life to His lordship, if you will open the door of your life to His indwelling, He will come by His Spirit to live in your heart. And then you will discover a power to love such as you have never known before. That’s God’s strategy, you see, creating loving human beings not by simply telling them how they ought to live but by showing them the way and then breathing into them His own strength.
When you know Him, when you have Christ living in you, the call to go and do likewise, to be a kind of Good Samaritan, to live like a real neighbor, still won’t be easy. But you won’t be tackling it alone. You’ll go in the power of the Lord. And wherever you go, the love of Jesus Christ will somehow reach out to other people through you. What a way to live! May it be true for you and for me, as we keep our eyes on Christ. Amen.
Prayer: Father, we confess how hard we find it to be neighborly, to truly show compassion along the roadsides of life. We have all kinds of questions and qualifications and we don’t do a very good job of it. Lord, forgive. How we praise You today for Jesus Christ who has found us in our need and given Himself on our behalf. May we so trust in Him that something of His neighborly caring may begin to radiate from us. Let it be so for Jesus’ sake. Amen.