Who Is My Neighbor: Luke 10:25-37by Ed de la Cour on December 7, 2015
Luke 10: 25 – 37
December 6, 2015
“WHO IS MY NEIGHBOR?”
“Who is my neighbor?” That’s the question of the day. It is the question that’s been at the center of a swirling controversy around the world in recent months as hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees make their way across Europe. More than 12 million have been displaced and are struggling to survive in the countries of the Middle East. In many ways, this question of who is my neighbor is a very similar question to the question Cain asked God in Genesis 4: 9, after he had murdered his own brother. Cain asked, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain wanted to distance himself from his brother emotionally and to bear no responsibility for the death of his brother.
The question of identifying who is our neighbor arose out of a conversation between Jesus and a lawyer. It was another one of those pitting of wits conversations, as the attorney “stood up to test Jesus.” It was another attempt to turn the tables on the Lord, where the lawyer was the one asking Jesus the spiritual question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” It’s funny how often we will mask our real concerns by asking a spiritual question and using that as a diversion. According to your way of looking at things, Jesus, what do I need to do to get into heaven?
Let me share a truth with you that we spend years of our lives avoiding: God knows exactly how we think. God knows that we act as though we are crafty, shyster lawyers. We plot our moves several moves in advance. What a crowd of manipulators we are! We look for loopholes in every rule. We parse our terms because we think we can get away with what we’ve done. We seek just the right angle in order to avoid responsibility.
So, Jesus asked the man how he read the Law, and the man replied in verse 27 with an abbreviated version of the Shema Yisrael, but he went further and ended with words that are not part of the Shema, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If only the lawyer had stopped when he was ahead! Jesus accepted the man’s answer, and simply replied: You do that and you’ll be fine.
But the lawyer just could not leave it alone. Something must have nagged at him and he felt he had to justify himself before Jesus. Somehow he needed to redefine the word in order to absolve himself of responsibility toward his unruly neighbors, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” You see, that was the man’s real question. The lawyer may have gotten an A on the written exam, but he was in grave danger of failing the application portion of his own test.
Are you telling me I cannot simply believe and be saved? No, I’m not saying that, but I do believe Jesus is. I do believe Jesus is saying that belief, unaccompanied by a change in the way I live my life, is simply not a valid belief nor is it saving faith. A belief that fails to impact my life is just an assertion, and it is not a faith that will save my soul.
So, who is my neighbor? Nowadays we live in very small and tightly controlled circles of relationship. It’s hard to break into those circles but it’s very easy to offend somebody and to be cut out of a circle. For most of us, being a neighbor these days means that we know the person. Consequently, there are not many strangers we will allow to be our neighbors. Strangers are not welcome here. For most of us, a neighbor is whoever doesn’t bother me, whoever doesn’t ask me for very much, whoever leaves me alone. This definition of what a neighbor is does not allow for much stretching in our lives, or for any growing or maturing. It certainly does not allow for pain. There is no allowance for the Gospel in this way of thinking.
The kind of social isolation we see around us today was not always the case. When many of us were children, communities were much more cohesive and were far less mobile than they are today. In those days, the neighborhood raised the children. Today, people are on the move. Every community is a community in transition and no one really knows anyone else. There are very few places in life where we are able to experience true community, real and honest sharing in depth, and the kind of love that transcends Facebook.
In a true community, the definition of who is my neighbor is broad enough to allow for acts of mercy to be shared personally with folks in need. True community doesn’t require a webpage to organize assistance.
Who is my neighbor? Honestly, it’s not really an opinion question. Opinions range according to your personal views. If you’re a racist or a Marxist, your view will be very different than if you’re a Christian. If we really want to know who is our neighbor, we would do well to ask God and receive His answer as authoritative. If we allow God’s answer to become our rule of life, that will mean we are allowing Him to be the Lord of our lives. We might not like His answer, but liking His answer is not our call. Our calling as Christians is to adjust our response and our obedience to the direction that God is giving us. The Word of God is to inform our behavior, not the Republicans, not the Democrats, and not the Tea Party.
Let’s see how this well-known story is told. The man in the story is not described at all. He could have been a nice man, or a troubled person with a checkered past, or even an exploiter, or a bully who hurt people. All we know is that he was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho when he was severely beaten by robbers and left for dead. This is important because in the Gospel, our neighbor is not defined by any moral goodness or badness. The man is simply a person in need, a neighbor. He has had a beating at the hands of truly bad people, the robbers who took all he had and left him by the side of the road.
Fortunately, a priest was walking home to Jericho after completing his priestly duties at the temple in Jerusalem. Unfortunately, he took one look at the bloody body and made a point of not coming close enough to see if the man was still alive. Fortunately, a Levite happened by next, but unfortunately he had the same reaction as the priest. The beaten man continued to lie there bruised and bleeding.
Neither the priest nor the Levite could plead busyness as the reason for their lack of compassion. Like the beaten man, they were headed “down from Jerusalem to Jericho,” and so they were leisurely walking home after work.
By mentioning the moral failure of these two men, Jesus was pointing out that simple belief without a corresponding change in life does not constitute a saving faith. They were religious, not because God had called them to minister in His name, but because it was their job to work for God. Jesus didn’t even say if they fired off a quick prayer for God to heal the battered man, if it was God’s will for him to receive healing, of course. We see their heartlessness in plain sight, but they don’t see it. They are blind to their lack of compassion and they are senseless to the hardness of their own hearts.
I can’t tell you how often that has been true of me. “Ministering” because it was my job, being motivated by fear – those have been my responses to many life situations. Lots of times, it has been me who was crippled with fear, looking the other way, and walking by on the far side of the road.
Fear drives all of us a lot more than we realize. What if the bandits left the man as a decoy to attract attention? What if the robbers were to come back to the scene of their crime so they could finish him off and they find me by his side? Wouldn’t it be better simply to walk by? Surely a policeman will be along soon. I mean, it’s not as though I actually know this man!
Who is my neighbor? On the one hand, my neighbor is everyone. But everyone is a concept that is too large, too cumbersome, and too impersonal for me to handle. I cannot wrap my mind around millions of “everyone.” That’s far too large and it is far too easy for me to spiritualize my response so that all I have to do is pray for God, or for someone else, to come to the rescue. Even though I cannot deal with the needs of millions, I am still responsible because God says I am still a neighbor.
In such a way so as to make a point, Jesus made the good guy in the story a Samaritan. Faithful Jews always saw the Samaritans in a negative light. The Samaritans were descended from those who remained in the land while the rest of the Jewish nation went into captivity. Over time, their belief system became corrupted and skewed toward idolatry. To make matters even worse, from a Jewish perspective they were racially impure, the result of the mixing of ethnic groups. And so it was that in this story, a Samaritan was walking on that same dangerous road. Jesus said it was this man who stopped to give roadside assistance.
The man who was truly the neighbor was a Samaritan. Talk about ethnic hatred! These people were despised and rejected, just as are the Moslems who are displaced in Syria. No thinking Jew would allow himself to be seen with a Samaritan. Imagine welcoming a Moslem family into our church! Jews would never eat with a Samaritan or have one over for coffee or allow their son or daughter to marry one. And yet, here is a dreaded Samaritan saving the life of a man who would never give him the time of day.
Who is my neighbor? As frightening and as difficult as this truth may be, my neighbor is the one who presents a need I can meet, whoever that is. Being a neighbor will always mean going out of my way. It will mean being inconvenienced. It will mean being stretched beyond what is reasonable. What the broken man on the road needed was an emergency department full of doctors and nurses, but all the Samaritan had to offer was some cloth, some oil, and some wine. He used what he had and he cleaned and bandaged the wounds. He was not a doctor, but he did what he could do. The Samaritan even took the wounded man to an inn. He promised the innkeeper he would pay for the man’s care and protection. He extended himself. He inconvenienced himself. He went out on a limb on behalf of a man he didn’t know. It appears he did this simply because there was a serious need right before his eyes that he could not, in good conscience, ignore.
Who is my neighbor? When we try to answer that question, we become a lot like this “expert in the law” who spoke to Jesus. We are trying to justify ourselves. We are seeking to justify our prejudices and our lack of willingness to do something – anything – to help. Instead, we will say what we heard on talk radio or what we heard people say at work. That’s what the lawyer was trying to do. He was trying to show himself to be already righteous and all ready for heaven.
It occurs to me that, were we to allow Him to, Jesus would show us who is our neighbor. Were we open our hearts to God, God will show us the way He would have us live. Were we willing to allow God access, He would prick our consciences. He will cause us to become uneasy with the political attitudes of the crowd, of the majority opinion in this nation. God will make us very aware of what He is doing, and in whom He is working. We would choose to be used by Him. We would choose to be God’s remnant, that otherwise small and useless piece of cloth that God would use to His glory and for the saving of many souls! The Christian is the person who is growing in his relationship with God and in his dependence on God. A Christian is the person who is developing an awareness of the Holy Spirit in his life and who is leaning on God for direction. A Christian is one who is learning how to discern the voice God from all the voices and shouts in the world. He is becoming sensitive to God’s moving. A Christian will not run away from his neighbor.
It seemed obvious, even to “the expert in the law.” When Jesus asked him to identify who exemplified the neighbor in the story, the expert wasted no time responding. Even he understood. So, we also understand that God is at work in our world in some pretty terrible places. God is working alongside and within Christians who not much different from you and me. These people have surrendered their own safety in order feed the hungry, to shelter the homeless, and to save lives. They are working to redeem lost people away from an eternity of hopelessness and despair and to point them to Jesus Christ. The Christian here in America will also waste no time, because there’s no time to waste. We will choose to be a neighbor to millions of displaced people who today, right now, desperately need us to be a neighbor to them.
Who is our neighbor?
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