Intentional Love

| Luke 10:25-37

Week of September 23, 2018

The Point:  Go out of your way to love others.

The Good Samaritan:  Luke 10:25-37.

[25] And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” [26] He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” [27] And he answered, “You shall 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 your neighbor as yourself.” [28] And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” [29] But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” [30] Jesus replied, “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. [31] Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. [32] So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. [33] But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. [34] He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. [35] And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ [36] Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” [37] He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”   [ESV]

Whose Neighbor Am I?  Most people know this parable, but they do not always remember the context. Jesus had been rejoicing over the way His Father had hidden the secrets of salvation from people who thought they were wise and revealed them instead to people with childlike faith. And behold – as if to prove the point that Jesus was making – a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” In Israel, to be a lawyer was to be an expert in God’s law – a Bible scholar and a theologian. This man knew the laws of God from the Scriptures of the Old Testament, and he sought to apply them to daily life.  In this case, his question dealt with a matter of supreme importance: eternal life. What could be more important to know than the way of everlasting life? Yet as important as this question is, there were some problems with the way the lawyer asked it. One was his motivation. Luke tells us that he was putting Jesus to the test. How foolish it is to test God on His theology, and yet people do the same thing today. Rather than accepting Jesus on His own terms, believing that He is the Son of God and Savior of sinners, they evaluate Him according to the principles of their own theology. Yet the Bible explicitly warns us not to put God to the test [Deut. 6:16]. The real question is not what we think about Jesus, but what He thinks about us. There was also a problem with the way the lawyer phrased his question. On the one hand, the man referred to eternal life as an inheritance – something granted as a gift. On the other hand, he assumed there was something that he could do to gain eternal life, that his salvation would come by some good work. This was typical of Judaism in those days. Many people make the same mistake today. They assume that if there is a heaven at all, they will gain entrance only if the good that they do outweighs the bad. This is not an assumption that God happens to share. To help the lawyer see this, Jesus responded with a question of His own: What is written in the Law? How do you read it? By referring the Bible scholar back to his Bible, Jesus was reclaiming the agenda. The way to eternal life is written in God’s Word, and what does that Word say? As the lawyer well knew from his own careful study and daily worship, it said, You shall 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 your neighbor as yourself [27]. Jesus told the lawyer that he had given a good answer: You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live [28]. All that the lawyer had to do – all that anyone has to do – was to keep the two great commandments by loving God and loving his neighbor and he would gain eternal life. But keeping these commandments is easier said than done, and therein lies the problem. The love that God requires is perfect love. To love God truly with heart, soul, mind, and strength is to love Him with everything we are and have. To love our neighbors properly is to love them with the same intense interest and constant concern that we have for ourselves. But who has ever loved in such a wholehearted and supremely selfless way? This was the obvious implication of what Jesus said to the lawyer. He was laying down an impossible challenge designed to drive sinners to seek a Savior. At this point, the lawyer should have prayed for grace. If the lawyer had done that, Jesus undoubtedly would have explained the true way of salvation, which is not by anything that we can do, but only by what Jesus has done – His perfect fulfillment of the law in love for His Father and for us as His neighbors. But instead of asking God for justifying grace, the lawyer, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” [29]. The lawyer was trying to save face. He had asked a question to show his intellectual and spiritual superiority. But Jesus responded with an answer so basic that it made him look stupid for even asking. Love God and love your neighbor – these were simple answers that even the youngest scholar at the synagogue knew from learning his catechism. Jesus was getting the better of him. So he tried to show that things were really much more complicated than Jesus was making them. “Yes, yes, of course, we all need to love our neighbors,” the man was saying, “but exactly how do you define the word ‘neighbor’?” This question assumed that some people fell into the category of “nonneighbor.” In all likelihood, the lawyer also raised this question because he knew that he did not love his neighbor after all, at least not the way that Jesus demanded. He was looking for some sort of loophole (as sinners often do). His desire to justify himself related not merely to his initial question, but to his whole life before God. Obviously, he could not love everyone. That would be impossible. But if he could find a way to limit the size of his neighborhood, then maybe, just maybe, he really could love his neighbor, and then he would be able to justify himself before God. This is what always happens when we try to be saved by our own works. Rather than upholding the law in all its perfection, we undermine the law by reducing it to something we think we might be able to keep. Thus the lawyer tried to make God’s second great commandment more manageable. Rather than offering a theoretical definition of the concept of neighbor, Jesus answered the lawyer’s question by telling a story. This parable answered the lawyer’s question, at least indirectly, by redrawing the boundaries of his neighborhood. Jesus got the man to think outside of his usual categories by putting a Samaritan at the center of the story. More importantly, the parable showed that he was asking the wrong question altogether. The real question is not “Who is my neighbor?” but “Whose neighbor am I?” The story began with a dying man in desperate need. This situation was not uncommon. As it made its long and winding descent from Jerusalem, the Jericho road passed through treacherous country. With its narrow passages and dangerous precipices, it was an ideal place for thieves and bandits to ambush lonely travelers. So it proved to be for the victim in Jesus’ story. Stripped and beaten, his battered body was soaking the trail with his blood. The man was almost dead. As he lay dying, several people had a chance to save the man’s life. The first two people who passed by the crime scene were both religious leaders. They were fine, upstanding citizens – exactly the kind of people one would expect to stop and help. Sadly, they did nothing at all. Both men were guilty of a sin of omission: they failed to save a man’s life. They passed the victim by, pretending not to notice. The cruelty of their neglect was all the more wicked because they were coming from Jerusalem, where they had almost certainly been to worship. The people who heard this story would assume that these religious leaders had been in Jerusalem to serve at the temple, where they had recited the law and offered sacrifices on God’s altar. But however fervently they worshiped at God’s house, when these men went out on the road they failed to keep the law of God’s love or to offer themselves as living sacrifices for a neighbor in need. Jesus does not tell us why the priest and the Levite refused to help, yet it hardly matters. What excuse could possibly justify their refusal to save a man’s life? The poor example of these religious leaders shows us some of the characteristics of bad neighbors. When am I a bad neighbor? When I avoid people in obvious need. When I come up with flimsy excuses for refusing to get involved with someone who has a legitimate claim on my love. When I have little concern for those who are wounded and dying, whether their injuries are spiritual or physical. When I see someone who might be in trouble, but refuse to stop and find out what kind of help I might be able to offer. When I walk away from worship with a heart as hard as the one I came in with. When I am too selfish to interrupt what I am doing or to be inconvenienced by someone else’s problems. Whenever I make lame excuses for not doing what I know, deep down, that Jesus wants me to do for someone else. I am a bad neighbor whenever I refuse to be a good neighbor to someone in need. What kind of neighbor are you? Are you stopping to help needy people, or are you making all kinds of excuses for passing them by? At this point we might expect a good, honest Israelite to come along and help – not another proud clergyman, but a pious layman. Instead, Jesus adds a surprising twist to the story. The hero is not a Jew at all, but a Samaritan. A Samaritan was just about the last person that anyone in Israel would expect to stop and help. In centuries past the Samaritans had defied God’s law by intermarrying with the Assyrians. Over time they had developed their own version of the Torah and set up their own center for worship. Thus, as far as the Jews were concerned, the Samaritans were half-breed heretics. By the time of Christ, there was a settled animosity between the two people groups. Nevertheless, the Samaritan stopped to help, giving us the superlative example of what it means to be a good neighbor. What are the characteristics of a good neighbor, as exemplified by the good Samaritan? A good neighbor notices people in need, as the Samaritan did when he saw the victim lying in the road. The priest went down the road, and the Levite went to the place where the man lay, but the Samaritan went to the man himself. A good neighbor has compassion for people who suffer. The Greek word for compassion expresses strong feeling of pity and tenderness. Even without knowing who he was, the Samaritan had pity on the man’s condition. Yet being a good neighbor involves more than an emotional response: it also requires practical deeds of mercy. A good neighbor is willing to stop and help, even when it is inconvenient. A good neighbor refuses to draw artificial boundaries in order to avoid getting involved. A good neighbor helps strangers. Without prejudice, he loves people who do not belong to his own ethnic or religious group. The Samaritan was willing to help this man simply because he needed the help. A good neighbor also makes costly sacrifices of time and money to serve people in trouble. A good neighbor follows through by doing whatever it takes to ensure that full help is provided. In short, a good neighbor is someone who loves others as he loves himself. Jesus ended His story by making a point of practical application. To help his lawyer friend understand this point for himself, Jesus asked him the all-important question: which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers? [36]. Carefully avoiding any use of the hated word “Samaritan,” the man nevertheless answered correctly: The one who showed him mercy.  To which Jesus replied, You go, and do likewise [37]. This parable is partly about what it means to be a good neighbor. It is not simply about stopping to help people on the road, or course, although sometimes that’s part of it. Nor is the point that all good Samaritans will be saved. Apparently, this was one of those times when an unbeliever puts a believer to shame. Nor is it primarily about racial reconciliation, although this parable had important implications for cross-cultural relationships. The main point is that a neighbor is something we are, not something we have, and that for believers in Christ, neighborly love is a whole way of life. The lawyer wanted to know who was (and perhaps more importantly who wasn’t) his neighbor. If you ask the question that way, the answer is, “My neighbor is anyone in need – anyone at all – whom in the providence of God I may be able to help.” Jesus took the lawyer’s theoretical question and gave him a practical answer: “Whenever we come across somebody in our pathway in great need, we are to have compassion on them and help them as we would like them to help us if we were in need.” But Jesus also wanted the lawyer to consider a deeper question – not “Who is my neighbor?” but “Whose neighbor am I?” Hence the wording of His question: Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor? [36]. Rather than letting him get away with keeping the issue at arm’s length, Jesus brought it straight to his heart. The real question is not what someone else has to do to qualify for my assistance, but what kind of neighbor am I anyway? To say this another way, a person becomes my neighbor when I treat him in a neighborly way. So instead of wasting our time trying to come up with a more precise definition of neighbor, we need to get busy and help the people right in front of us. Whom are you able to help, but have been trying to ignore? How will you respond the next time you encounter someone in need? As believers in Christ, we are called to love our neighbors, and when we do this, our lives demonstrate the love of Christ. If all we ever do is talk about love, our talk is only talk, and people easily ignore us. But when we show them love by being good neighbors, our actions and affections confirm the story we tell about Jesus, the cross, and the resurrection.”  [Ryken, pp. 536-551].

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What is wrong with the lawyer’s question in verse 25? How can you do something in order to inherit? What does 10:26-28 show about Jesus’ attitude toward the Law? According to the Law, what should be a person’s two priorities in life [27-28]? Jesus said, do this, and you will live [28]. How is Jesus’ answer meant to show the lawyer the problem with his question in verse 25 and with his desire to justify himself [29]?
  2. How does Jesus understand the meaning of neighbor? Note, in verse 36, how Jesus reverses the lawyer’s original question of verse 29: not “Who is my neighbor” but “Whose neighbor am I.” What is Jesus teaching the lawyer (and us) here? How does this parable bring out the difference between knowledge and action?
  3. Whose neighbor are you? What characteristics of a bad neighbor does Ryken list in his commentary; of a good neighbor? How can you be a “good neighbor” today?

References:

Luke 9:51-24:53, vol. 2, Darrell Bock, ECNT, Baker.

The Gospel According to Luke, James Edwards, Eerdmans.

Luke, David Garland, Zondervan (ebook format).

Luke, vol. 1, Philip Ryken, REC, P & R Publishing.