Just prior to telling one of the most famous parables in all of history, the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus was having a conversation with the Jewish leaders who were masters of the old law.
Many times within these conversations, Jesus would be questioned and tested by the leaders who wished to bring him down by his words. More often than not, the leaders were trying to find a way to justify their self-righteousness. In this case from Ch. 10 of the gospel account of Luke, a lawyer stood up and asked Jesus, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
What a beautiful question! It's not everyday a gospel-sharing opportunity like that is presented. Yet, the lawyer's intentions were evil. Jesus said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” Essentially, Jesus throws the ball back into the lawyer's court to test not just his knowledge of the Word, but rather the attitude of his heart.
The lawyer answered wisely saying, “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.” He accurately quoted part of Deuteronomy 6:5. In other gospel accounts, these words are actually attributed to Jesus as his response to the lawyer. In either case, the lawyer meant wrong.
In Luke's account, Jesus then said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” Do this. He does not say, "loosely follow this," or "do this sometimes," or "you can still live without necessarily doing these things." He just says "do this, and you will live." These are very powerful words.
But the lawyer, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” The lawyer didn't want to disobey Jesus deliberately, but he definitely didn't want to commit to obeying him fully either. Perhaps, the lawyer didn't want to feel that guilty feeling in his stomach when he knows he is wrong.
Is this not the very same way our hearts work on a daily basis? There are so, so many different people with different struggles and different sins throughout the world. We interact with these different individuals every time we walk out of our front door. And let's not forget, each of us are one of these people. Many of them are extremely hard to love. Some of them may even be downright opposed to our point of view. Do we have to love them, too? (What if right now, they are asking God the same question about you? "Do I have to love him/her, Lord?")
Yes indeed, we will try anything to justify ourselves before God. We will especially try anything to justify loving only those who are just like us. We will weasel our way out of having to love anyone who disagrees with us or lives life differently than us or comes from a different culture than us.
Let's be honest, though. Is this kind of exclusive, self-serving love the kind that Jesus wants us to exemplify on his behalf in the world? No! No it is not.
After the lawyer tried to justify himself, Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan. To this day, it stands as one of the most challenging and convicting parables of all time. Read it briefly for yourself as a refresher:
"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. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. 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. 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.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.” - Luke 10:30-36
As you may remember from Sunday school, the Jews and the Samaritans were cultural enemies. They absolutely despised each other for a number of reasons. Here's a challenge to make this parable even more applicable for us in modern times. Assuming you play the role of the Samaritan in the story, what if you replaced the Jewish man who was beaten with a Muslim man? What about a member of the LGBTQ community? What about that relative that you have effectively excommunicated from your life? What about that atheist coworker who constantly hassles you about your faith and belittles your beliefs? If you saw him or her lying in the ditch, would you be the loving, healing hands and feet of Christ?
I am not trying to be intentionally shocking. I just believe that Jesus would have us treat those around us, even those we may label as "sinners", with a lot more love than we currently do. I especially believe that the way the Church has tried to rationalize and justify the ways it has treated "outsiders" throughout history would be particularly offensive to Jesus.
So, who is your neighbor? The correct answer is everyone. Every human being is your neighbor, and Jesus challenges us to love in spite of our differences. We have all fallen short of the glory of God, and we are all in desperate need of His grace.
I will leave you with the words of our Savior. Let them sink in and saturate your soul today.
"A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." - John 13:34-35
-written by Chase Cotten, Media Director @ IDES