Who is a Neighbor?
About 32 years ago we were in Winnipeg to attend my aunt’s wedding on a Saturday. After the wedding, we headed back home to The Pas, which was about an 8 hour drive, because I had to preach on Sunday morning. We had two children with us, one was a baby and was in the front seat (this was before all the seat belt and child restraint laws) and the other was 2 and was in the back seat. On two occasions as we were traveling late at night, we came across hitchhikers on lonely stretches of road. What were we to do? They needed help, but we felt vulnerable. On one occasion, I drove past the man, then stopped, got out and told Carla if there appeared to be any trouble she should drive away. Well, we were able to help both people we picked up without any problem.
Although we know that we need to help people in need, helping them can be complicated by all kinds of issues such as our urgency, safety, prejudices and other issues.
As people who have been Christians for a long time we all know the story of the Good Samaritan. We know that it calls for us to help those in need. The story invites us to transcend fears and prejudices in order to help. But have we really learned the lesson completely? Are there blind spots in our caring for others? I am learning that we all have blind spots. As we were preparing our house for sale, we were looking at it with different eyes. We realized that things that we had been comfortably living with all these years could be a problem for someone buying the house, so I fixed things that we never considered a problem. Do we also have blind spots in our response to people in need?
One of the reasons why Jesus used parables to convey truth is because they contain twists which force us to face blind spots. Certainly the story of the lawyer’s conversation with Jesus and the parable with which Jesus responded to some of his questions contains such twists and forces the listener to think about things in different ways. This morning, I would like to re-examine Luke 10:25-37 and I hope that we can have some of our blind spots removed so that we can respond in a godly way when we see people in need.
I. What Must I Do To Inherit Eternal Life?
The account begins with the question of a lawyer, or as NIV well puts it, an “expert in the law.” He was not necessarily an expert in civil law, but rather in the law found in the Word of God. In other words, he knew the Bible well. He asked a question which was discussed by these scholars, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
The fact that he “stood up” to test Jesus is interesting. He would certainly have viewed himself as superior to Jesus in regards to such questions. In those days, it was normal for a teacher to sit and for the students to stand in respect for the teacher. The fact that he stood up was, I believe, only posturing because although he puts himself in the place of a student before Jesus, yet he was testing Jesus. His posture conveyed that he was willing to learn but his question conveyed that he wanted to know if Jesus knew the right answer. Jesus allowed him to do this, but turned the question back on him.
He answered with a summary which we have come to know as the great commandment. The statement about loving God is found in Deuteronomy 6:5 from the most famous verse known to the Jews. The second part comes from Leviticus 19:18. Love for God and love for neighbor is a solid and faithful summary of the whole law. Jesus affirmed his answer and counseled him that if he would do that he would live.
The problem we have with this answer is that it goes contrary to what we understand of the answer which Jesus came to give the world. Through his death and resurrection the central message of His gospel is that the way to inherit eternal life is through faith in Jesus Christ. Why did Jesus not answer the question that way as he had so many other times, like when Nicodemus came to him? He probably gave the answer he did because the lawyer wasn’t ready to hear that Jesus was the way to eternal life.
Although the lawyer came to test Jesus, the first twist in this text is that Jesus is actually testing the lawyer. As the lawyer heard the answer of Jesus, he began to evaluate his own life. He asked himself, “Can I love God like that?” His answer was likely that he could. He was fully engaged in worship of God. Then he asked himself if he could love his neighbor. The answer to this question was not so clear to him because it depended on the definition of neighbor. So he asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” By asking this question, he implied that there could be a non-neighbor and in his mind there was because the Jews believed that some people were outside of God’s care. When he asked this question it becomes clear that the lawyer was not completely sure that he could actually obey this command completely. This was the first step towards coming to the place where he would be able to understand that in order to inherit eternal life he could not do it by obedience to the law but needed a Saviour.
II. Who Is My Neighbor?
In order to reinforce this impression, Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan which revealed that he was not obeying this commandment.
The road from Jerusalem to Jericho is about 17 miles long. On level ground, such a trip would take perhaps half a day, but the landscape was anything but normal. Jerusalem is about 700 meters above sea level and Jericho is about 250 meters below sea level. So in these 17 miles the road drops about 950 meters or about 3000 feet through very rugged territory. It was a rugged road and great for robbers to hide and ambush people.
A man travelled along this road and as he did, robbers accosted him, took all his belongings, stripped him of his clothes, beat him and left him half dead. The man was in a desperate situation and needed help.
Bailey points out that in those days you could discover where a person was from by two main sources, his clothes and his speech. In asking the question, “Who is my neighbor?” the lawyer assumed that it was possible to identify who should be helped and who should not be helped. This man was both naked and unconscious and so had none of the marks about him which would help identify whether a good Jew should help him or not and that presented the first problem in knowing how to answer the question, “who is my neighbor?”
In this setting, a priest came along but quickly passed by on the other side. Some have suggested that he had good reason not to stop. One reason was that he didn’t know who the man was. Another reason might have been that he was a priest who wouldn’t want to defile himself by contact with a dead body, just in case the man died on his hands. But every excuse can easily be answered. For example, he was going from Jerusalem to Jericho. Many priests lived in Jericho and so he was likely on his way home after a term of service in the temple. Therefore, he would not have had to be concerned about defilement of this kind.
The Levite, who was a temple servant in charge of worship and support services in the temple made the same decision.
The third person, who came along, responded in a completely different way. The story is set up as a rebuke to the failure of the priest, the Levite, the lawyer and particularly the system they stood for. The story shows that when we encounter a person in need, we are called to help them. The religious establishment missed the opportunity, the outsider got it. Ritualism and religion prevented compassion and Jesus’ parable is a rebuke to hard, uncaring religion.
III. Who Is A Neighbor?
But another twist in the story is what really makes the point clear. The lawyer asked, “Who is my neighbor?” When he asked this question, he wanted to know, “who don’t I have to care for?” After telling the story, Jesus asked the lawyer a question. Jesus mentioned all three characters in the story, but notice that he asked a different question and the change in the question causes us to think.
What is the difference in the questions? If the question is, “Who is my neighbor?” then what is being asked is, “Is there someone whom I can avoid loving?” “What are the categories which allow me to bypass a situation of need?” The question Jesus asked changes things. Instead of looking at who our neighbor is before we help them, the question, changes to ask, “Am I being a neighbor?” When the question is asked like that, it makes no difference who the other person is. If a person is in need, we are called to offer the assistance that we are able to offer. The question becomes not who do I help, but am I helping? The lawyer answered correctly. The one showing mercy was the neighbor. As he answered this question it becomes clear that the test has been turned on its head. He had been testing Jesus, but with this question, once again, Jesus was testing him. Would he learn and from then on be a neighbor? Will we go from here and be a neighbor and stop asking the question, “who is my neighbor?”
If we will, we will need to answer the question, “What does it take to be a neighbor?” and the answer to that question is easily given as we examine the actions of the Samaritan.
A. He Stopped to See
The first step in showing love was that he stopped to see what was going on. All three of those mentioned saw the man. But there was something different in the seeing of the Samaritan.
I have sometimes observed a vehicle stopped on the side of the road and as I have driven by I have made a quick assessment of the situation. If I have observed that the people were calmly sitting in the car, or if someone else had already stopped, or if they looked like they knew what they were doing, I have driven on by. Is that perhaps what the priest and Levite did? It was certainly not the kind of seeing that the Samaritan had. He slowed down enough and took a careful look and did not quickly dismiss the situation and walk on by.
B. He Had Compassion
The root of his correct seeing was in the compassion that he had in his heart. The text says, “He took pity on him.” New American Standard Bible has a much better translation when it says that “he felt compassion.” The Greek word is a word that has to do with our insides, our guts. It is the word that is used to describe deep, caring feeling that comes from within. The bottom line is that he cared.
It is possible for us to help people out of a sense of responsibility or of fulfilling the expectations of others or out of some other motivation. The motivation which is taught by the example of the Samaritan, however, is that caring must come out of a heart of love. Those who do so care because their heart is stirred because they have perceived the situation of the person in need, have a sense of what it feels like and desire to help. When we are stirred like that, then we will not walk by, but will be moved to stop and show love.
C. He Did What He Could
Of course, showing love is never just a matter of feeling. In the parable Jesus extensively described the actions of the Samaritan. He did what was needed immediately. He cleansed the wounds with wine, soothed them with oil and bandaged them. But he didn’t stop at only doing what was needed immediately. He made sure that he also helped with a longer term solution. He took the man to an inn and provided for the first nights care and also for care beyond that. He had his own agenda and there came a time when he could no longer help the man himself because of that agenda, but he made sure that he was cared for even after he left.
D. He Paid the Price
The other way in which he showed love was that he was willing to pay the price which it was necessary to pay in order that the man was cared for. He didn’t ask the man if he had insurance. He had to assume that he would not be repaid for caring, but he was willing to do so. When I was growing up we lived on a busy street in Winnipeg. Occasionally there were accidents and we tried to help. On one occasion there was a motorcycle accident and the man was bleeding badly. My mom went out with towels and used them, probably ruining them, in order to stop the bleeding. I don’t think she looked around the house for rags and remnants, but took what was at hand to help, which I remember were her good towels. In the same way, the Samaritan was willing to pay the immediate price and even the long term price to care for the man.
The cost to the Samaritan may have been even greater. In the old west, if an Indian would have brought a cowboy with two arrows in his back into town for help, he would have been at risk because of suspicion. In a similar way, the Samaritan who would have been hated by the Jews just because he was a Samaritan would have faced suspicion and mistrust. But he didn’t let any potential cost stop him from offering what he had in order to help.
Sometimes helping costs and the example of the Samaritan encourages us to be willing to pay that price. That is what it means to love our neighbor.
IV. Who Is My Neighbor?
But the lesson is not done yet. As I indicated earlier, Jesus told parables to catch people off guard and introduced twists in the story so that even though they would not learn from a direct statement, the twist in the story would cause those listening to see things in a new way. The other twist in the story which must make the lawyer wake up and listen is that the person who acts like a neighbor is a Samaritan. It is interesting that the lawyer got the lesson on the first level. He learned that he could not ask who is my neighbor, but that instead he should ask, “Am I a neighbor?” But this twist in the story was much harder for him to grasp and interestingly, it actually answers the question which he first asked, “who is my neighbor?”
The twist is that Jesus made the enemy of the audience the hero. You don’t do this. It would be like making someone from al-Qaeda the hero. You see Samaritan’s were hated by the Jews. When the Jews were sent into exile to Babylon, the very poorest of the people were left in the land. To fill the land, the king of Babylon had sent other people from other nations to live there. By the time Jews returned, the area was filled with a mixed race population – part Jewish and part from other lands. Their religion was also mixed. They had elements of Judaism inherited from the unfaithful northern tribes but mixed with other religions. So there were two problems with Samaritans as far as the Jews were concerned. They were not Jews even though they claimed a similar heritage and they were very far from faithful to true religion.
So why in the world would Jesus use a Samaritan as the hero of the story? The lawyer certainly could not accept that. When Jesus asked, “who was a neighbor” he did not say, “…the Samaritan” but instead said, “the one who showed mercy.” When Jesus used a Samaritan as the hero of the story, I think he was challenging the lawyer and all the listeners to really think about the lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbor?” If the question of the lawyer was part of the answer to the earlier question, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” it forces the lawyer to grapple with that question as well, “Is it really possible that a Samaritan is my neighbor?” “Is it really possible that a Samaritan was doing that which would lead to eternal life?” “Can a Samaritan be in the circle of those whom God counts as His children?”
As we read this story, we also need to get that. It forces us to also think about who our neighbor is. Have we got all the categories right or do we have blind spots? Is it possible that some people, whom we think are not included, are actually included? Can we count as a neighbor one whom we normally don’t think of as a neighbor?
I have been a part of ministerial associations in every community where I have been a pastor. Often that involved associating with people who came from churches whose theology made me really uncomfortable. I have had to ask the question, “Is this a neighbor?” Or even “Is this a brother/sister?” We need to be careful how we answer that question. The lawyer had the answer all figured out until Jesus forced him to reconsider by making a Samaritan the hero of the story.
V. What Must I Do To Inherit Eternal Life?
There is still one more lesson in this Scripture that we need to learn. The parable calls us not only to think about these things, but to act. At the end of each conversation Jesus had with the lawyer, he says something very similar. In verse 28, Jesus said, “Do this and you will live.” In verse 37, Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
Because this is attached to inheriting eternal life, it is important. If we don’t do these things, we have reason to doubt our salvation because salvation is not only about saying the right things, but about a change of heart that allows us to respond with our actions.
The question is not do we do the right things, but rather has our heart been changed by God so that we naturally respond with love. In Matthew 25 the parable Jesus told about who would be rewarded in the kingdom tells about those who fed, clothed and cared for Jesus. After being rewarded, they wondered about what they had done and asked Jesus, “When did we see you hungry and feed you…” Their hearts had been changed by Jesus and they did these things not because it was a duty or a way of earning favor, but because their hearts were filled with his love. So when Jesus says “do it,” answering the question of who will inherit eternal life, we need to understand that he is not saying, if you do all these things you will earn a place in heaven. Rather, I believe, when we consider this and all of Scripture we learn that it is those who have known Jesus and have had their hearts changed by Him who will do these things and it will be the evidence of the work of God in their lives and therefore when they do these things they will live.
Ellis says, “…this parable stands pre-eminent as the Lord’s answer to all attempts at self-justification, to all efforts to enter the kingdom through formula obedience, to all legalisms – Jewish or Churchly.”
So the questions of the lawyer and the questions which Jesus asked come to us. Am I a neighbor? Do I recognize my neighbor? Has my heart been changed by Jesus?
May we not miss it, but may we open our eyes and see; open our hearts and care and open our hands and help!