Note: I was set to publish this nearly a month ago. But the ending was not right. I trust that it is, now.
“Who is my neighbor?” Luke 10:29 —Question put to Jesus by a young law expert
Love … It is the big idea … bigger than any good feelings which may come with it.
Genuine love affects how we act toward others in every area of life. Simply put, love compels. Love forgets self. When love is real, it will at times act contrary to feelings, contrary to self. Love does the right thing. I am an inconsistent practitioner of this kind of love.
God’s idea of love is seen in the life—and supremely the death—of Jesus: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:3). It was this kind of love that St. Paul described in the passage often read at weddings, 1 Corinthians 13: “Love is patient, love is kind…
One of the radical ideas that Jesus taught his disciples—and anyone who would listen—is that “love your neighbor” includes “love your enemies.” It must have seemed new and radical to those who heard him say this in his first major public teaching, “The Sermon on the Mount.” Yet it was only as new and as radical as God himself. Little did they suspect that “love your enemy” is a central premise of how God operates and how he desires that we operate in our relationships. “Impossible,” you say? Precisely.
There was once a young man who was confronted with this reality about love—and its impossibility. Jesus met the young man, an expert in the law of God who seemed confident that he knew what God expected of him. But he came away from his encounter with Jesus having had a truth adjustment. It’s a pity that we don’t know what the young man finally did with this truth….
For us, the parable Jesus told him, “The Good Samaritan,” has become a cultural moniker for laws that protect us when we try to do the right thing, such as helping an injured person out of a damaged car at the risk of further injury. It’s nice to have those laws. They enable us to do something seriously good for another without regard to negative consequences for ourselves.
For Jesus, the parable he told has to do with doing good (love) for others without regard to self.
The story is simple and well known, as is its basic lesson. Most people are at least familiar with it: A man is beat up and robbed on an isolated road and left for dead. A priest and another guy come upon the man but avoid him and keep going. They were religious types whom you’d expect would have stopped to help. Another man, a foreigner from Samaria, sees him, stops, cleans his wounds, lifts him onto his donkey, and takes him to an inn where the victim can rest and recover. The Samaritan pays the inn-keeper to provide whatever the man might need and promises to reimburse any extra expense.
The lesson here is actually much larger than helping a stranger in trouble. That can easily be missed in a casual read. We know we’re supposed to “love thy neighbor.” But the young man took it further, asking, “who is my neighbor?” Why would he do that? Wasn’t he the expert?
If you haven’t done so yet, please read the account in Luke 10:25-37. As you do so, take note of the young man’s two questions. These provide the context for the parable. And, they raise an important question that Jesus leaves hanging….
We’ll begin with the people in the parable. Then we’ll consider the young law expert himself and what he was after with his questions.
The priest who passes by serves at the temple in Jerusalem. The second man is a Levite whose job it is to help at the temple. They probably rationalized their non-action (we humans have a built-in propensity for this), which might have run thus: “If I touch him (he might even be dead), I would be ‘unclean’ and would not be able to serve at the temple.” So they let themselves off the hook with their own importance. They didn’t just ignore the man: they passed by on the other side of the road so they wouldn’t be defiled. That way, they likely told themselves, they would remain “clean” to serve God….
Enter the Samaritan. He was, well, a Samaritan. He wasn’t just a foreigner, but a very special kind of foreigner. There could not have been a greater contrast: essential temple workers/despised Samaritan.
Despised? How do we know that? Because all Samaritans were … by the Jews back then.
A little background: Samaria stood between Galilee in the north and Judea in the south of Israel during the time of Jesus. Long before, Samaria had been the capital of northern Israel. It had been finally conquered by Assyria in 712 B.C. The king deported many Israelites (to weaken their state) and brought in Assyrians (Gentiles, non-Jews) to replace them.
Eventually, of course, there was intermarriage, and their seed was considered half-breed and thoroughly unclean. Samaritans took on many pagan practices. While they considered themselves worshippers of Yahweh, the God of Israel, they would not go to the Jerusalem temple, but built their own.
Jews assiduously avoided Samaritans. They despised them so much that they wouldn’t even walk through their land to get to Galilee. (Jesus made a point of walking right through Samaria, on one occasion stopping to speak with “the [Samaritan] woman at the well,” recorded in John 4.)
Jesus emphasized that all of God’s law was summed up in the word “love.” While the people were told by their religious leaders to “love your neighbor and hate your enemies,” Jesus pointed out the hypocrisy in this: they would not be any different from pagans, who did the same. “Be perfect as your Father is perfect,” he told them—like their Father who showers the blessings of his creation upon all.
By using a Samaritan as the one who showed mercy and kindness, Jesus struck a nerve: This was no theoretical enemy, this was a Samaritan!! His people had turned their backs on the true worship of Yahweh. (Jesus had this habit of tossing in unexpected zingers to make his points unmistakable.)
So what about this young law expert? Jesus certainly put him in his place, right? Not exactly. There was something else in play for this young man, though our account doesn’t make it clear just what.
Law experts often appeared as enemies of Jesus, along with their pals, the Pharisees. Many were, but there is no proof that such was the case here. The text said that he stood up to “test” Jesus: the word doesn’t indicate whether he was trying to trip up Jesus or simply trying to find out if he might actually be Messiah. Jesus never rebukes him. And while it says that he wanted to “justify himself” (which sounds terribly self-serving) by asking who his neighbor is, Jesus gives him a very straightforward answer—in story form—then sends the young man on his way with a pointed instruction: “Go and do likewise.”
“Likewise”?? This was insult added to injury: Jesus wasn’t just saying to help people in trouble—which the law expert undoubtedly agreed with—but, in effect, “be perfect, like this Samaritan was perfect,” i.e., it was the despised Samaritan who did what God wanted, not his fellow Jews!
Reading the parable, most, including Christians, focus on the command to love your neighbor. It feels right, and it is. But don’t overlook the context. I did for years, reading past the man’s original question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus, in recognition of the man’s great learning, asks him what the law says, “How do you read it?” His answer (love the Lord with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and your neighbor as yourself) elicits this: “You’ve answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”
Here the young man, “wanting to justify himself,” asks who his neighbor is. We don’t know his true motive, but Jesus did: no one understood the human heart better than he. Maybe the man had heard Jesus talking before about loving your enemy; maybe he had self-doubts. We’re curious. So was Peter once when he got curious about John: “What about him?” “If I want him to remain … what is that to you? You, follow me” (John 21:21,22). Oops…. Anyway, the point is: what is the lesson for us?
You may be wondering why Jesus didn’t tell the young man, “Believe in me and you will be saved”? His answers, instead, kept coming down to keeping the law more perfectly. The law expert got the point about the Samaritan … perhaps he even went off determined to love his enemy….
The question that Jesus leaves hanging here is this: If doing good (i.e., doing God’s moral law, doing his will) is required to “gain eternal life,” what, then, is the role of faith?
Jesus knew that the young man, intent on keeping the law, would eventually run flat up against a wall, frustrated, disillusioned by the law he loved and counted on to make him righteous before God. No matter how hard he tried. Just when he thought he was making progress … Did God move the goalpost?
Another story can help us understand the role of faith. It’s about another young man who came to Jesus and asked the very same thing—and got the same answer—about eternal life.
This second man is known as the “rich young ruler” (e.g., Luke 18: 18-30). He told Jesus he had kept the commandments since he was a boy. Jesus said he still lacked one thing: sell all he had, give to the poor; then he would have treasure in heaven. Then come and follow him. Jesus loved this man, Mark says.
The rich man became sad; he had so much. He’d seemed so close: did God just move the goalpost for him, too? Jesus remarked that it was harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. Those around him were astonished: they assumed the rich had God’s favor. So who can be saved? Jesus: “What is impossible for people is not impossible for God.”
Both young men missed the point: no matter how much they loved, or how much they gave up, they could never put God in their debt. Of course God wants people to do his will, but when the question becomes “What must I do to enter the kingdom of God?” the wrong question is being asked.
The disciples were still missing the point here, too. Right before the rich ruler, some children were brought and the disciples had tried to turn them away. Jesus was indignant. “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these … anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” (Luke 18:15-17). How’s that?
We agree: “let the children come.” But we also say, as Dorothy did after the Wizard gave tokens of their brains, heart, and courage to her friends: “I don’t think there’s anything in that black bag for me….”
Have you ever considered what is meant by “the faith of a child”? They are sweet and innocent, right? “Jesus loves the little children….” But children are not giants of faith. They are dependent, helpless little people, innocent because their trust has not yet been violated. Yet we are wired to trust (have faith). It’s essential for daily life, for every bite of food, every chair in which we sit. By the time we’re adults, most of us have had our trust violated enough that we no longer give it easily, and we didn’t notice….
We need help to trust. The question isn’t always, “whom do I trust?” but “how can I trust?” and “is it safe?” That requires honesty. In a moment I’ll never forget—on a hospital bed in Vietnam in June, 1969—I faced the question: Did I really believe? Was Jesus real? I didn’t know—how can I? Questions—and honesty— flooded my mind when I realized that I really almost died the day before….
I suspect that the young law expert had a moment after he left Jesus when he knew he was up against a wall and could never meet such a high standard as Jesus had laid out for him. And the young rich man? Jesus “loved him.” Surprised? He doesn’t only love the little children. Irony: the disciples likely deferred to him, since he was rich. The disciples didn’t hinder him. He had his own hindrance.
After my own moment of honesty, I slowly began to understand that God wasn’t asking me to take some blind leap of faith. Nor was he telling me to sit around and wait on the Spirit to zap faith into me. I was an historian: I knew I needed to follow the evidence, and especially to investigate the resurrection.
Bit by bit, I began to realize I could trust God’s word. Jesus’ life and death was the fulfillment of promises made long before. One day, two years after my moment on that hospital bed, I knew that I believed. I knew I could trust him. I didn’t know how little faith I had at that time, but it was a start….
The big thing that keeps us from God is not sin per se, but our lack of trust in someone else’s love. God’s invitation is out there for all to hear if they will. “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13). “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).
The first public words out of Jesus’ mouth were: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God” (Matthew 5:3). There’s no special virtue in being poor: they’re stuck in a place where they have no one to trust but God to provide for their daily needs. Having that spirit means you have no one to trust but God. You’d be surprised how he shows up, dresses our wounds, and pays the expense.
I hope those two young men eventually made that discovery. I’d like to ask them how that happened.