READ : Luke 10:25-37
Jesus said that the greatest and most important commandment is to love God with all our being. And there is a second part that’s just as important: to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.
What would it take for us to please God? Or to put it another way, what does God really require of us as his children? In one sense, of course, it’s impossible for us to please God by anything we do. I know as I look at my own life that even the best things I can do are flawed and imperfect. My “good works” are only ever relatively good. They’re often incomplete or marred by a streak of self-interest, or maybe done for the wrong motives. I know that I cannot really earn God’s favor by obeying his law because I always seem to do such a haphazard job of obedience.
If I’m going to be saved at all, it will only be through God’s grace and mercy. And I can’t tell you how thankful I am that the Lord Jesus Christ died for my sins. I trust in him. That gives me a whole new reason for wanting to try to please God: in a word, gratitude.
That God does forgive and save those who believe in Jesus is the heart of the gospel, the life-changing message on which Christian faith is based and by which the Christian church is built. But this message is only the beginning of the Christian life. Once God has saved us, the question is “What next?” Or as it might be put, “What for?” One answer that the Bible gives to that question is that God has saved us for good works – so that we might bring glory to him by living lives devoted to doing good in the world (see Ephesians 2:8-10). So once again we ask, “What must we do to please God? What does God most want us to be about?”
The simplest answer to that comes in the form of what Christians call the Great Commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind. And love your neighbor as yourself.” In a previous message I look at the first part of this command, loving God. Today I want to consider the second part – loving my neighbor – and to do so by studying a passage in the gospel of Luke where three important questions are raised in succession.
WHAT MUST I DO TO INHERIT ETERNAL LIFE?
The first of the three questions was put to Jesus by a man who approached him on the road one day.
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 asked. “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.”
(vv. 27, 28)
Luke says that the religious leader asked his question about eternal life “to test Jesus” (v. 25). In other words, this wasn’t a sincere request for understanding the way of salvation. The man was a scribe, or expert in the law – a member of the Jewish group that was most negative about Jesus: the scribes. He was really attempting to show Jesus up, to make him commit a mistake that would embarrass him. Or perhaps this scribe only wanted to make Jesus prove how much he knew about the Bible. Was this biblical expert hostile to the Lord? Did he want to discredit Jesus? Or was he merely skeptical and attempting to evaluate Jesus’ credentials?
Perhaps the religious teacher felt he already knew the correct answer, and he was hoping that Jesus’ reply would give him a chance to show off his own spiritual insight. If so, the response Jesus made to him might have seemed a welcome opportunity. “What does the Law say?” Jesus asked him. In other words, “You’re an expert in the Bible. What does it tell you about gaining eternal life?” The man answered with the familiar summary of God’s Law, the words that Jesus himself defined as the Greatest Commandment: “Love God with all your being and love your neighbor as much as you love yourself.” “That is exactly right,” Jesus said to the man. “Now go do it.”
What a stunning answer! No theological argument, no chance to display any superior knowledge or score debating points. Just “do it.” Simple to understand, however difficult it may be to practice. “Do you want to know how to inherit eternal life? The Bible says to love God and people. So go love them.” End of discussion.
WHO IS MY NEIGHBOR?
Not quite. Jesus’ straightforward answer made the scribe pause for a moment. What Jesus said was so plain, so down-to-earth, so practical. The religious expert may have wanted to debate with Jesus, perhaps wanting to raise the issue of the nature of eternal life or maybe to engage in an interesting discussion about the interpretation of some difficult Bible passages. But Jesus didn’t want to philosophize with this man; he gave him something to do.
When the scribe quoted the Great Commandment, Jesus said to him in effect, “You already know all that you need to know. You don’t require any more information. What you need to do now is to go out and put into practice your knowledge.”
But in order to get himself off the hook, the religious leader thought of a second question: “And who is my neighbor?” He asked this because “he wanted to justify himself” (v. 29). Do you ever try to do that? It seems that the response Jesus made to this man’s first question not only disappointed him but made him feel uncomfortable as well. There’s suddenly too much truth here to handle.
The man had entered this encounter with the intention of testing Jesus, but now he discovered that he was the one being tested as Jesus’ words hit home. So he tried to redirect the conversation by making it theoretical again – “Let’s talk about this concept of ‘my neighbor.’ To whom does this apply?”
Jesus must have loved this shifty theologian because he took him seriously enough to give him a straight answer to his second question. Jesus responded with a story so powerful that the point got through to this man, just as it has been getting through to people for two thousand years since.
In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
We title that story “The Good Samaritan.” A lonely traveler falls victim to a gang of thugs while journeying down a dangerous stretch of road. He lies there helpless while first a Jewish priest and then a Levite, a member of that special religious caste, pass by on the road. Neither does anything to help the wounded man. He is eventually saved by a Samaritan of all people – a member of the ethnic group most despised by the Jews!
The effectiveness of this parable lies in its shock effect. The very ones who should have been readiest to help refused to stop. Both the priest and Levite might be expected to set the example for everyone else, but they failed dismally. Their behavior wasn’t accidental or inadvertent, it was intentional – “when they saw the man,” Jesus said, “they passed by on the other side” (v. 31, cf. v. 32).
Both men sinned by omission; they passed by.” Their sin lay not in what they did, but in what they failed to do. They would not take the time or trouble to love. No doubt they had their excuses: they were in a hurry, probably on their way to the Temple for worship. The wounded man was in a dangerous spot. If they lingered, what happened to him could very well befall them; to stop and help would be costly in time and trouble as well as money.
So they both took the easy way out, as we so often do. Turning aside, they passed by as if they did not see the wounded traveler. You know, all it takes is looking the other way. Your hands will have no work of love to do if you do not let your eyes see the need.
WHICH OF THESE WAS A NEIGHBOR?
The third and most important question of all is the one Jesus asked the expert in the Law after he finished telling the story of the Good Samaritan. “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man?” (v. 36). “The one who had mercy on him,” admitted the scribe quietly.
It’s Jesus’ final question that provides us the key, not just to understanding his parable but to understanding what God really expects us to be doing. The story of the Good Samaritan is a dramatic response to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” The answer to that is not spelled out in so many words, but it is clear that Jesus means for us to see the wounded man in the road as our neighbor. Neighbors are not just the people closest to us – our immediate family, our relatives, our friends. Neighbors aren’t even just the folks who live down the block or across the street. If I am a Christian, then my neighbor – the person I am called to love just as I love God – is anyone I see who is in need; whatever the need, whoever the person.
But the actual question Jesus threw back to the religious expert is worded slightly differently: “Which one of the three was a neighbor to the man in the road?” And the answer was the Samaritan. Here’s the ultimate shock in this story of unexpected twists. That the Jewish religious leaders should fail to help a fellow Jew in distress would be disturbing enough, but that a despised, half-pagan outcast should be the one who responds in love? Well, that really got the scribe’s attention. “The man who had mercy on him.” He was the neighbor. And now comes the punch line: “Go and do likewise” (v. 37). You see, the really important issue with God isn’t, “Who is my neighbor?” It is, “Am I being a neighbor to those in need?” The Lord’s primary concern is not that we identify our neighbors. It is that we love them. God expects action from us, in the form of practical service to suffering or needy people everywhere.
Think back to the very first question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The answer is to love both God and our neighbor, which means serving those who need our help. This is truly revolutionary. It revolutionizes how we look at others: we now see them as neighbors whom we are called to love and serve even across all the differences that cause us naturally to hate and despise one another. And it revolutionizes the way we look at God, who tells us that if we are concerned about loving him we must show it by caring for our fellow human beings.
None of this contradicts the fundamental truth that we are saved by grace through faith, and not by works. But the Lord also reminds us that faith which is genuine will make us genuinely different, and that the real mark of those who believe in him is a life of love for others.