Who Is My Neighbor?

Luke 10:25-37 

Oh, to have the heart of a child. When our first son was just a little guy, one of his favorite Bible stories was the parable of the Good Samaritan. He would have us read it every night. And every time, when the Priest and the Levite passed by the injured man, he would always ask, “Why wouldn’t they stop?”

As a child, he felt something that you and I as adults have trained ourselves to block out. It’s a feeling that the writers of the Bible called compassion. It was the most dynamic emotional word available. It was the Greek word, “Splangchna” – from the bowels (we use the same kind of phrases: gut-wrenching, heart-rending). There are other words – pity, sympathy, mercy. We say it today – “I was moved.”

It is that word which characterizes this parable. The other two men – good men, religious men, honorable men – but unmoved by the needs of another. Even the lawyer who was taking Jesus to task was not interested in individual needs – he was interested in being right. The Samaritan man – though an outsider, hated by the very man he was helping, was moved, and by his compassion showed what love is at its very core.

This is perhaps the most familiar parable in religious literature – if you don’t know the story, ask your children or grandchildren to tell it to you.

When the Lawyer comes (NIV – “expert in the law”), he is not asking for information – he is there to make a point (or rather to make points with all his peers who are listening to this philosophical discussion.) As with so many who came to Jesus, he wasn’t seeking righteousness, but appearance – the rich young ruler, Simon the Pharisee, the scribes who came trying to trap him. Their questions were insincere; their hearts were hard.

This lawyer is sparring, jousting with this Rabbi – “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
He gets no satisfaction – Jesus sends him back to his schoolboy lessons: “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” He answered: “‘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, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’’” Of course he knew the law.

And so Jesus schools him: “You have answered correctly, do this and you will live.”

Luke says he sought to justify himself. He has been summarily dismissed, embarrassed by the brevity of Jesus’ answer. He wants to recoup his pride and get himself off the hook. So he asks, “Well then, after all, who is my neighbor?” His argument is “If we can’t define who my neighbor is I can’t very well love him can I?”

Jesus never lets these discussions stay philosophical very long. He always brings them back to center, back to focus on what is truly at the heart of a man. In this case he does it in the most startling manner.

This parable that Jesus tells takes his listeners down a path that bristles with thorns and stickers waiting to skewer anyone of us who has a view of love and caring and compassion doesn’t rise to this standard.

And so Jesus tells the parable: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’” (Luke 10:30-35)

The highway from Jerusalem to Jericho was called “the bloody way.” It drops 1700 feet in 17 miles, and it winds through steep rugged terrain where robbers and gangs hid out waiting for victims. It was a dangerous and often perilous journey for those who made the mistake of traveling alone.

This Jewish merchant, for some unknown reason, does just that, and somewhere in those deep ravines the man is attacked and robbed and beaten and left for dead. And he nearly did die.

But not all hope is gone, because a little later on during the day, a Jewish priest is traveling along that same road. Surely he will stop and help the man. He’s in the business of caring for people. But instead of stopping, he moves to the other side of the road and hurries on past.

And a little later still, a Levite – a servant in the Temple – comes along and surely he will stop. But no, he also passes the dying man to get to his destination.

Near the end of the day, a Samaritan is going down this same road, but knowing how Jews and Samaritans hate each other, we know he isn’t going to stop. But can you believe it? He does. And not only does he stop and check on the man, he bandages his wounds, loads him on his donkey and takes him to Jericho where he pays for a room and takes care of him. And then he does one better – he gives money to the innkeeper to take care of the man until he returns.

And you’ll notice, at the end of the parable, Jesus rephrases the lawyer’s question: It is not, “who is my neighbor?” but “who was a neighbor to this man?”
And though the lawyer can’t bring himself to say “the Samaritan” he does admit it was the man who stopped and had mercy on him.
Jesus finally gives him the answer to his question, “What must I do?” – “Go and do likewise.”

And perhaps there are some questions that come from this parable that you and I ought to be asking ourselves.

Is your religion getting in the way of following Jesus?
The priest and the Levite – their business was religion. Thy knew their responsibilities, they loved their fellowmen, but they couldn’t let people get in the way of their duty.

Suddenly they are faced with a dilemma. Their greatest fears were being late to serve at the Temple, and becoming ceremonially unclean by touching a dead man, and perhaps the more pragmatic matter of their own safety – if the robbers got him they might get me. The truth of it all is that they didn’t want to get involved.

If you are substituting your religious routine, for getting down and helping people – the book of James says, your religion is worthless.

Don’t misunderstand. Your spiritual life – your relationship with God – is inclusive of your worship and Bible study and giving and all those other things. But if what you do on Sunday morning is not lived out in your life every other day of the week, it is worthless. Away from the ritual and formality and tradition – do you live what you say you believe? He is not denigrating our worship assemblies, but putting them within the context of life.

Paul writes: I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. (Romans 12:1)

A second question: What do you do with your enemies?
I don’t know that I’ve ever felt the kind of hatred toward me that a Jew felt for a Samaritan. Even the lawyer’s response at the end of the parable displays that open contempt. The very idea that a Samaritan would be the hero of the story must have choked them with indignation.

I feel certain the Jew on the road was unconscious. If he wasn’t, he most certainly would have rather died than have a Samaritan help him (like the grand dragon of the KKK accepting assistance from a black man).

The Samaritan knows that. He stops anyway. He not only inconveniences himself, but he puts himself in danger from robbers. He goes the second mile in caring for this stranger who would have spit in his face if he knew who he was.

What do you do with people who dislike you and talk about you behind your back and try to hurt you if they can? Let’s not get some idealized view of Samaritans – the feelings of mistrust and hatred were mutual. If it had been a different Samaritan who came along he might have finished him off and bragged about it. Sometimes that’s how I feel.

How many people have hurt you this last week? How many have become your enemies? What do you do with people who don’t like you? The Samaritan got down off his donkey and knelt by the side of the man and cleansed and bound his wounds and then he kept caring for this man who was his enemy.

That’s not how we’re wired. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” In fact, Jesus startled his listeners by saying, “But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’”

And they did just what you’re doing right now. They were thinking, “You don’t know my enemies. There are folks who don’t deserve my love.”

And that’s true – there are people who don’t deserve your love. They have hurt you, betrayed you, abandoned you. There are people you have had harsh words with and broken relationships. There are people who live in a way you just can’t agree with. They don’t deserve your love. And I’m sure you can justify the way you feel.

But Jesus doesn’t allow us to hate anyone. Our culture has accepted two lies: The first is that if you disagree with someone’s lifestyle you have to fear them or hate them. The second is that to love someone means you agree with everything they believe or do. Both are nonsense. You don’t have to compromise your convictions to be compassionate. (Rick Warren)

But the very next thing Jesus said was “…that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.” You don’t love people because it feels natural; you don’t love them because they deserve it. You love them because God loves them and you want to be like him.

In fact, God loves you even though you don’t deserve it. You remember what Paul said in Romans 5? You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! (Romans 5:6-10)

There are some folks I don’t like. There are doubtless even more who don’t like me. But I know without a doubt that if I were to find them in need I would do whatever it took to help them because God reached out to me when I was his enemy and I was helpless and he loved me in spite of myself.

So, what do you do with people who are your enemies?
You start by admitting the person is your enemy. It would be easier (especially in the church) to ignore a person, avoid them, just not have any contact with them. That seems the more spiritual thing to do – after all we aren’t supposed to have enemies, are we?

A Jew would travel fifty miles out of his way to avoid traveling through Samaria. How far out of your way do you travel to avoid someone you don’t like?

What happens when you admit that someone is your enemy? Suddenly you have a responsibility – it forces you to do something. If I just dislike someone, if I feel indifferently toward them, then I can avoid them and ignore them and feel pretty good. But an enemy demands my attention. I am now forced to treat them with love – to go out of my way to respond to them the way Christ would treat them.

How many times have I heard people try to explain their way around it and sanctify their ungodly behavior and excuse themselves by reinterpreting what is an unmistakable demand of scripture? If I have an enemy, I must respond to him or her in love – no less.

Jesus asked the lawyer, “How do you read it?” He’s asking, “How do you see it?” You must see, not with your eyes, but with your heart.

As Jesus told the parable he said, “The priest saw and passed by on the other side …the Levite saw and passed by on the other side.” But of the Samaritan he said, “he saw and had compassion and went to the man.” It’s easy to get calloused to the needs that surround us, that often inundate us. It’s the paradox that says, “I love mankind, it’s people I can’t stand!” And if you spend enough time around hurting people you become dulled to those feelings of compassion.

But if your love remains theoretical – if your love is never expressed to real individuals who are hurting, who are in need, whom only you can reach out to, you aren’t seeing with your heart. If you want to be a son or a daughter of your Father in heaven, you will never quit listening with your heart and reaching out in love.