Who is my neighbor?

Who is my neighbor?

“Who is my neighbor?” The question is a simple one that Jesus was asked as he travelled from Galilee through Samaria to Jerusalem. His answer to that question would have likely infuriated his Jewish audience. Luke chapter 9 through 19 cover this travel period in Jesus’ life and includes many conversations along the way. In these chapters Luke presents many unique parables that give us a window into the heart of Jesus.

The Jewish lawyer who posed the question was an expert in the Law of God, that is the Old Testament. Lawyers were guardian of doctrinal orthodoxy and so it would have been the norm to question a teacher such as Jesus. He begins in Luke 10:25 asking

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

The question was one that was frequently discussed in Jewish religious circles of the day. Jesus responded in typical rabbinic fashion with a question found in Luke 10:26:

“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

The lawyer responded in orthodox fashion, quoting from Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18:

“‘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.’

Jesus affirmed the lawyer’s response, in reference to Leviticus 18:5 and Deuteronomy 27:26, saying:

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

To this point it appears that Jesus and the lawyer are standing on equal footing. They both appear to be orthodox in their teaching on the Law. The lawyer is not content though to stand on equal footing with Jesus. Luke recounts it this way:

“But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

The lawyer sneaks in a question that would have been a matter of debate. The Israelites of the day had a very limited understanding of who fit the category of neighbor. In fact, they only considered other Israelites to be their neighbor. Sensing this narrow understanding, Jesus introduces a parable.

“In reply Jesus said: “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.”

Jesus locates this parable in the heart of Jewish country, the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, a downhill journey of 17 miles that was rocky and dangerous. Though the text does not indicate it, I believe we are to assume that the man who was robbed and beaten was a Jewish man. In this parable Jesus draws a radical contrast between two groups of people; the only two groups of people who exist to this today: the unmerciful and the neighbor. There are three points of contrast that I would like to consider.

The first point of contrast is how we deal with the inconvenience of showing mercy. The unmerciful person calculates the cost of showing mercy. Luke recounts in 10:31:

A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side.

A priest, part of the elite class in Israel, a descendant of Aaron, the brother of Moses. Priests were a privileged class that performed priestly duties in the Temple. The town of Jericho was said to be a colony of approximately 12,000 priests and Levites. Levites were from the same tribe as the priests, the tribe of Levi, but were not descendants of Aaron. Levites assisted the priest in the Temple service. Luke recounts in 10:32:

So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.

Eugene Peterson’s The Message translates the passage saying “Luckily a priest was on his way down the same road.” Obviously, not so lucky for the half-dead man. Why did both the priest and the Levite avoid the man? Certainly Jesus’ audience would have expected better, right? Luke never tells us why they avoided the man. Perhaps they were both eager to get home to some quality family time and knew this guy would be a hassle. Maybe they had seen this scenario before and been involved and it cost too much time and money. Could it be that if he was dead they would have become ceremonially unclean. That would only have mattered if they were serving in the Temple.

Luke doesn’t tell us the reason, but one thing is clear: they calculated the cost of the inconvenience and decided it wasn’t worth it. That’s what unmerciful people always do. They calculate the cost of showing mercy and never think it is worth it.

The neighbor on the other hand welcomes the inconvenience even if it means spending lavishly. Luke records:

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.’

This is where Jesus’ audience would have become infuriated! Having been told of a priest and a Levite, there was only one logical next person: a Jewish layman. Instead, Jesus inserts someone the Jews hated, a Samaritan! The modern parallel for an American would be something extreme like a member of Al-Qaeda. Jews and Samaritans had long hated each other. Samaritans intermarried with foreign people following the Assyrian exile in 722 B.C. The Gospels give us an indication of how Jews and Samaritans related in John 4:9 and Luke 9:51-56. In John 4, as Jesus and the Samaritan woman interact, she reminds Jesus that Jews have nothing to do with Samaritans. In Luke 9, the sons of Zebedee are rebuked by Jesus for wanting to call down fire on a Samaritan village. Clearly, Jews and Samaritans despised each other.

This fact makes the parable so counter-intuitive. The Samaritan instead of passing by or gloating goes to the presumably Jewish man and becomes greatly inconvenienced for mercy’s sake. He saw him and had pity on him. He bandaged his wounds, which probably meant tearing his own clothes. He wasted his own oil and wine to bring him relief. He put the man on his own donkey, which probably meant a long uncomfortable walk for him. He was forced to stay overnight and pay for both of their expenses at the inn. The initial cost was two day’s wages! Yet the Samaritan’s mercy did not stop there. He promised to return and reimburse the innkeeper whatever was necessary. In the day of modern travel, we take for granted what a return trip would have meant-a great inconvenience.

The unmerciful always calculate the cost of inconvenience, but the neighbor always welcomes it and spends lavishly. How do we respond when we see someone in need? For one second, don’t think about the homeless guy at the corner with the cardboard sign (and I don’t say this because I think we should neglect him, we shouldn’t). Think about the everyday opportunities we have to show mercy, that is acquaintances with deep personal problems, people who are very different from us ethnically, socioeconomically, and politically. Think of people you know who have made foolish and even sinful choices that have wreaked havoc in their lives. Do you only look at their situation, maybe feel bad for them but ultimately walk on the other side of the road? Do you hesitate to get involved because you know the personal cost? God calls us to see the need, have pity, welcome the inconvenience and spend lavishly as needed.

The second area of contrast pertains to the right thing to do. The unmerciful spend their time in debates about what is right. The lawyer was more interested in justifying himself and so pursued Jesus in a debate. As Eugene Peterson puts it, he was looking for a loophole. He was not comfortable being on the same ground with Jesus and so he pursued the moral high ground. The lawyer was more interested in defending himself and his narrow view of mercy, says Alex Spiro.

The neighbor spends his time doing what is right. A neighbor understands that right theology always leads to right practice, never inaction! He is less concerned with talk and more concerned with action. He never needs to defend himself because he is too busy doing something. A neighbor never looks for a loophole, he looks for a neighbor. He doesn’t pursue the moral high ground because he constantly lives on common ground.

One simple way to determine whether you are unmerciful or a neighbor is to examine whether you spend more time debating what is right than doing what is right. Do you talk theology or live out your theology? Is your time consumed with deliberating which groups of people should get mercy and which should not? Do you find your lips moving more than your hands and feet? Are you constantly creating loopholes to justify your inaction? God calls us to do what is right, not debate it.

The last point of contrast has to do with the area of categories. The unmerciful create multiple categories. They have two basic categories: in and out. Those who deserve mercy and those who don’t. In many respects it is easy to see how the priest and Levite justified their inaction. “Why was this guy traveling this dangerous road by himself? He should have known better!” Do we not find ourselves doing the same thing when we think that certain ethnic groups, political groups, or economic groups do or don’t deserve mercy? We constantly maintain in and out categories, cliques if you will of people who look a lot like us.

The neighbor though knows only one category. To the neighbor, everyone in the world is a neighbor. Our common humanity is the only criteria of mercy. The neighbor lives as though the world is his neighborhood and everyone is therefore his neighbor.

Do you have more than one category? Are there ins and outs in your world? Are there people to whom you more readily and easily show mercy? Do they look, act and think just like you? Does that not reveal that we believe the people who deserve mercy are people like us? God calls us to know only one category: neighbor.

There is a great sense that all of us have been failures to love our neighbor as ourselves. We all desperately need the truth of the Gospel, the reality that Jesus Christ became a man to fully obey the law of God, to fulfill the command to love our neighbor as ourselves. This was the constant pattern of Jesus’ life: always giving, sharing, healing, feeding, never consumed with self. To the end, including His last drop of blood, Jesus gave and gave and gave. For those of us who recognize how deeply we have failed to fulfill the neighbor command, Jesus offers His perfect life of obedience to the God the Father for us. On the cross, He takes the punishment we deserve for our total self-consumption. He is our forgiveness and righteousness!

Now the Gospel may grant us acceptance and forgiveness before God, but does it change my relation to my neighbor. I would propose that only a right understanding of the Gospel can lead anyone to become the neighbor God intends us to be. Returning to the lawyer’s original question, “What must I ‘do’ to inherit eternal life?”, consider his basic premise. The lawyer assumes that eternal life can be earned by his doing. Can mercy be earned? If eternal life with God is possible only by the forgiveness of sins, can that be earned? Is it possible that good deeds can erase the debt created by our sins? Do you understand that if mercy can be earned then it is not free? Mercy cannot be earned through the right amount of doing. Therefore no one ‘deserves’ or earns it.

When you one believes that mercy is earned, is it not understandable that they would therefore avoid the inconveniences that mercy requires? It makes perfect sense that people would debate who should get mercy and who should not because some are doing what they should to deserve it. It only makes sense that we would create categories of the ins and outs.

But mercy in not earned. It never is and never will be. God’s mercy is rich, free and inexhaustible. Mercy comes to the undeserving, to sinners who are rebels and do everything but deserve mercy. The Gospel helps me become a neighbor by reminding me that I did not and do not deserve God’s mercy. It is a free gift. How dare I then become inconvenienced by another person’s need! God in Christ became ultimately ‘inconvenienced’ when He became a man to die for my sins. How dare I devote my time to debating who deserves mercy. The Gospel drives me to end the debates and simply do the right thing. The Gospel erases the multitudes of categories we constantly create by reminding us that no one deserves mercy. If no one deserves it and I become its recipient, the only logical answer is that mercy must have been rich and free. I am then forced to reckon with this reality: Jesus became a neighbor to me though I never deserved it. The world is my neighborhood and all of humanity are my neighbors. The love of Christ compels and enables me to love them as I love myself even if it is inconvenient and costly.

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