“And who is my neighbor?” This is a good question. As we hear of protests, riots, and murders on the news the question arises in our minds of just who is my neighbor, who am I connected to? What does it mean to be a neighbor?
Now, in Luke 10:25-37, this question was asked of Jesus by a lawyer who came to test him. But, the lawyer first asks Jesus a different question. And keep in mind that good lawyers only ask questions which they believe they already know the answer to; that’s why the question is not meant by the lawyer as a way for him to learn something, rather, it is meant as a test of Jesus.
So, the lawyer asks, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” That’s an odd way to ask it, I think. Think about the verbs in that sentence: “do” and “inherit.” Normally, you don’t “do” anything to “inherit” something; an inheritance comes to you at the death of another as a gift.
But, anyway, Jesus responds to the lawyer by asking him a couple of questions. He says, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” The lawyer answered Jesus with what he had learned in the Law. God’s Law amounted to, “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.” This is correct. God himself says this in Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18; it is the sum of God’s Law.
And, in fact, the first three of the Ten Commandments deal with our relationship with the Lord and tell us how to treat Him as our God. And the last seven of the Ten Commandments deal with our relationship with our neighbor.
So, the lawyer answers Jesus with a correct summary of our obligations to God and to our neighbor. Jesus says, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” All that the lawyer, indeed all that we have to do is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind, and our neighbor as ourself. Do this, and we will live. That’s all we have to do. It’s easy, right?
We just have to treat the Lord, Yahweh, as our only God. We just have to look to Him only for all good things. So, we don’t place our trust in wealth, or power, or pleasure, or in anything else. We just rely on the graciousness and care of our Triune God. We also just have to use His name rightly. So, we don’t swear by it or use it as a varnish for our actions in an effort to use the Lord’s name as an excuse or cover for our misdeeds. We also make time to come gather with the Lord’s people and receive the Lord’s blessings.
We also just have to treat our neighbor as we would like to be treated; love them as we love ourselves. We honor and obey our parents and, by extension, civil authority. We do not hate or harm or murder other people; we don’t shout at them in traffic or curse them when they take too long in line or get irritated when maybe they are actually being a little irritating. We do not dishonor our spouse by looking lustfully or longingly at another person. We don’t gossip or speak ill of other people, even when the gossip is pretty juicy. We don’t steal through outright theft or by slacking off at work. We don’t covet the things of other people, wishing that they were ours.
All we have to do is simply to just love the Lord with our whole being and our neighbor as ourself. You heard Jesus tell the lawyer that this is the correct answer; “do this, and you will live.” What’s the problem, then? We know what to do, so let’s go do it – perfectly, all the time, since birth.
Maybe it’s not as easy as I made it out to be. Perhaps there’s a gap between what we know we need to do and our capacity to do it?
Is this not perhaps, for example, a similar thing as telling you to go score a perfect game in bowling. You know what to do there also. All you have to do is bowl perfectly. Likewise, you know what you need to “do” to earn eternal life. All you have to do is live perfectly. But, if you’ve ever bowled, you’ve seen how hard it is to bowl a perfect game; nearly impossible, certainly very difficult. Likewise, if you’re living, then you’ve seen how hard it is to live perfectly; it is, in fact, impossible to be perfect. We’ve all broken God’s Commandments, we were born tainted by sin and continue to live lives that are tainted and anything but perfect. We never had a chance; it’s like trying to bowl with a ball that’s warped.
So, maybe we could try to make the Commandments a little easier to obey? That’s like changing the rules of the game to make “perfection” a little more achievable. For bowling, what if we settled for 50% of the pins knocked down in a frame and called that a strike? Likewise, what if we redefine what God means by our “neighbor” in order to accomplish the task?
So, that’s where the lawyer’s follow-up question comes from. He, “desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” He’s trying to redefine things. He wants to narrow the scope of God’s Law to try to make it more achievable for him. He wants to lower the bar of perfection. He wants to justify himself, rather than rely on the justification which comes from outside of himself, from – in fact, the very person he is talking to.
So, Jesus tells him a story. A man was going from Jerusalem to Jericho where robbers assaulted him and beat him and left him for dead. The man is lying on the side of the road, helpless and needing medical attention.
A priest comes by, but he passes by on the other side. He doesn’t want to get involved. He doesn’t want to ruin his ceremonial purity, since he’s got to serve in the temple. After all, he’s all clean and this man is all bloody; it’ll just dirty up his clothes, so he leaves the man to die. Then, a Levite comes by, but he likewise passes by on the other side. For similar reasons as the priest, he also doesn’t want to get involved. He’s too good.
Now, in the lawyer’s world, the priest and the Levite would have been logical neighbors to this man. The man was from Jerusalem, he was a Jew, just as were the priest and the Levite. They were all descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and therefore related, probably looked similar. And yet they both leave the man to die.
Then, a Samaritan comes by. He’s not a Jew, he’s an outsider, he’s different, and – in fact – the Jews looked down on the Samaritans and rejected them.
And yet, when this Samaritan sees the man dying on the side of the road he has compassion. He isn’t afraid to get dirty, so he binds him up, pouring on oil and wine to clean and disinfect the wounds. Then, he puts the man on his own animal and takes him to an inn. When he has to leave, he gives the innkeeper money for the boarding of this man and promises to repay him whatever extra it costs when he returns. The Samaritan pays all the bills for the dying man in order to save him, even though – in life – this man would likely have rejected the Samaritan and may have treated him as an enemy.
So, Jesus asks, “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” The lawyer answers, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus then says, “You go, and do likewise.”
Now, God’s Law is pretty tough. The lawyer tried to narrow the scope of “neighbor” in an effort to make the Law a little easier to follow. And yet, God’s Law allows no room for equivocation. It does not allow us to redefine perfection. God’s Law demands that we go and do likewise. Yet, this is impossible. It’s like bowling a perfect game; we can’t be perfect. How often have we passed by on the other side of those whom we should have helped? How often have we pretended not to notice those in pain and suffering? How often have we failed to even pray for our enemies? How often have we failed to “go, and do likewise.” It’s pretty hard to get a perfect game, isn’t it?
And that’s the point, really, of this whole exchange in Luke’s Gospel between Jesus and the lawyer. We can’t be perfect. We are called to go and do likewise, but we can’t do it perfectly, the same as we would like to bowl a perfect game, but we can’t.
But, there is one who is perfect for us. Jesus Christ is the perfect one. The lawyer begins by asking Jesus what he must “do” to “inherit” eternal life. The truth is there’s nothing he or any of us can “do,” because we can’t be perfect. And yet, we have received an inheritance of eternal life through the one who was perfect for us, because he showed us mercy.
Jesus was despised and rejected by men, as the prophet Isaiah said he would be. And yet he died for those who rejected him. He died for all of sinful humanity, all of us. We were enemies of God, dying helplessly in our sins, and yet Jesus died so that we may live. Jesus wasn’t afraid to get dirty.
Jesus is the true Good Samaritan. Of all people, we might expect God to be too holy for us, too clean to come save us, like the priest and the Levite in the story. And yet, the one who was rejected by men came to save men, because he had compassion. He is our Great High Priest, the Holy Lord God in the flesh – he is more holy and higher than the priest and the Levite – and yet he wasn’t afraid to get dirty and sweaty and bloody in order to save us from eternal death.
He showed us mercy. He has bound up our wounds and anointed us with salvation. He spent what it took in order to save us; he gave up his body and poured out his blood for our salvation; he paid our entire debt to heal us. He is the best, the perfect neighbor to us, because he showed us mercy even though we did not deserve it and could do nothing to repay him, lying as we were in death. He has shown us a love that we did not earn or deserve, but yet received by the grace of God.
And so as his people, we are called to show mercy to those around us. Who is our neighbor? All those around us are, and we are called to show mercy. The world needs mercy, not hate. It needs mercy, not self-righteousness. It needs mercy, not retribution.
As we look out at the news and see the protests, riots, and murders, the thing we don’t see enough of is mercy. But, we can do something about that. Show mercy to those hurting and to those who are afraid. Show mercy to those who don’t think they will receive it. Show mercy to those who are doing their best to protect our neighborhoods.
And realize in all this that we are all one human race. The Bible talks about nations – or ethne. It talks about tribes and languages. But, it never talks about “race.” That word came into being as a way to divide us from each other, and there are people who most certainly use it to divide us in order to gain power for themselves. But, there is only one race in the Bible – humans. Every variation of color and language and culture comes from God’s wondrous workings in the world. And the point of the Church is that God calls us out of our separate ethne into His ethnos – the Church. It is through Christ, and in the Church, that God unites us. He removes the walls of self-righteousness and hate and anger which separate us in this world and instead bestows on us His mercy so that we may show mercy to others.
So, let the mercy we have been shown by God be shown to others. And let us all rejoice as Paul does:
“Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting! … for He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. … Amen and Amen” (cf. Colossians 1:1-14).
(Image “Le Bon Samaritain” by Aimé Nicolas Morot [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAime-Morot-Le-bon-Samaritain.JPG)