Be a Good Neighbor
Sometimes it’s difficult to teach a familiar parable; we have pre-conceived notions, or perhaps previous bible studies left in our heads. The Prodigal Son, the Lost Sheep, the Faithful Servant, the Ten Virgins, and so on. Even non-Christians have heard the phrase “good Samaritan.” Let’s see if we can look at this parable with fresh eyes today, and see if perhaps we’ve become complacent, and really look to see if there is an application for us today.
Through a powerful parable, Jesus lets us know that the good Samaritan exemplifies an important facet of the Christian character: How to be a good neighbor. So what makes a good neighbor? Someone who sells State Farm insurance? You know, “And like a good neighbor….”
Who has a neighbor that they consider to be a good neighbor? What makes that neighbor special to you?
I have a neighbor, sometimes I think we’re competing with, and losing to. On the day we moved into our new house in Sugar Land, it took longer than we thought it would. The truck wasn’t quite big enough, so it was like after 9pm when we started the second run back to the old townhome. Our next door neighbor Fai stopped by to meet us, found out we hadn’t had any dinner, and immediately brought over dinner for the both of us. And she hasn’t stopped, she brings vegetables from her garden, she weeds our garden, she sweeps our sidewalks, and so on. And if we should every try to do something kind for her, she redoubles her effort to bring us groceries. Everybody should have a neighbor like Fai.
Who is a neighbor? Or for that matter, who is a Samaritan?
The Jews considered the Samaritans to be a corrupted religion that in many ways mirrored Judaism. Well, “corrupted” might a kind way of putting it. One text I read said the Jews considered the Samaritans as ignorant, superstitious mongrels. Way back in 2 Kings 17, the Assyrians conquered Northern Israel, killing most of the people living there. Anybody who survived we taken away to foreign lands, and eventually became known as “the lost tribes of Israel.” Only a few stragglers, mostly poor, sick or unskilled people, were left behind with Israeli identity or culture. To finish them off, the Assyrians sent five eastern pagan tribes to settle in Northern Israel and intermingle. They became a sort of hybrid people, part Israeli, part pagan. They developed their own customs; they still worshipped Yahweh, but their holy books were in Aramaic, not Hebrew, and didn’t contain many books the Jews had, especially the poetic and prophetic books of the Hebrew scriptures. They eventually became known as the Samaritans. They built their temple to the Lord on Mount Gerizim instead of Jerusalem, which irritated the Jews, so the Jews destroyed Mount Gerizim in 128 b.c. In both the books of Ezra 4:1-3 and Nehamiah 4:1-2, Jews and Samaritans were at odds with each other.
So you see, “good Samaritan” was an unlikely phrase. Jews expected animosity from Samaritans. To the Jews, there was no such thing as a good Samaritan. But funny thing about people, they’re all made in God’s image, and Jesus didn’t feel the same way about the Samaritans. Or the Gentiles, fortunately. Later, in Acts 1:8, Jesus will tell his disciples, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” God still had a great deal of affection for the Samaritans.
So we begin our study, starting at Luke 9:51 –
As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.
I love that part – Jesus is on a mission, determined to go to Jerusalem, and teach all along the way.
And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” But Jesus turned and rebuked them. Then he and his disciples went to another village.
There’s a lot of new perspective here – the disciples wanted to rain down fire and destroy the Samaritans, the Samaritans not especially happy with Jesus going to Jerusalem to the temple there. And Jesus seems concerned about the Samaritans, even when His disciples don’t.
II. Follow the Scripture, Luke 10:25-28
So Jesus resolutely continues to Jerusalem, teaching along the way, until one day a lawyer stands up to question Jesus. It’s a trick question from a lawyer, but I repeat myself. It’s designed to trip Jesus. Turn to Luke 10:25-28 -
On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“What is written in the Law?” Jesus replied. “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.’”
“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
The lawyer didn’t just ask a question, this isn’t idle curiousity. The lawyer “stood up to test him.” The lawyer has a serious question, knows the law, but he wants to see if Jesus is authentic. He’s challenging Jesus. What does Jesus know?
And it’s one of the great questions of all religions. What must I do to live an eternal life? What happens when I die? What must I do, what must I say, how should I act, what do I believe? It’s an expert question, coming from an expert lawyer. What must I do?
Jesus responded like a rabbi, and answered the question with a question of his own. Now Jesus is testing the tester. Jesus challenged the lawyer back, but to answer his own question from scripture.
The first part of the lawyer’s answer comes from Deuteronomy 6:4-9, what the Jews would understand as the Shema Yisrael, or just Shema. Shema Yisrael means, “Hear oh Israel,” and observant Jews would say this prayer as part of their morning and evening prayers. The Shema encouraged Jews to love God, and it was a twice daily affirmation of God’s place in their lives.
Notice that it doesn’t just say to Love the Lord God. It says to love the Lord *your* God. It’s personal, the relationship between you and your Creator. Love Him with everything you have, with your whole person. Heart, soul, strength, and mind. Love God with your emotions (heart), your consciousness (soul), your motivation (strength), and your mental capacity (mind).
Some have misinterpreted the scripture here. What must I *do* to inherit eternal life? Do this and live. Is this a philosophy of works? Is there a way we can earn our way into heaven by a life of good works and good deeds? No, there is not – our works, our deeds, even our very selves are like worthless rags compared to the almighty glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. But because we love Him with all our heart, soul, strength and mind, we *do* these things to show this love to others. Our feisty lawyer answered correctly, but he did not affirm a theology of works.
Jesus said, “Do this and live.” This is abundant life. Practice what you know out of love for Lord, expressed as love for others. The real test is a right heart with God, not knowledge or works, but putting into practice, love in action, a grateful response to God’s love.
III. Listen to Jesus, Luke 10:29-35
Was our feisty expert embarrassed by Jesus’ response? And if so, did he feel the need to repair his reputation? Or was he trying to find out whether there were any limits? In other word, how much is enough to get into Heaven? The lawyer asked a follow-up question, “who is my neighbor?”
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by 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, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii 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.’
The question from the lawyer implied some people could be excluded. Gentiles, Samaritans, tax collectors. In this case, especially those backward, disgusting Samaritans. I mean, certainly we can exclude those people, right?
Who do we exclude today, that we do not consider a neighbor? Are we putting a limit on God’s love?
Jesus didn’t answer directly, told a parable that illustrated what it meant to demonstrate the love of God. Who was the traveler? We don’t know, he’s never identified. Might be a Jew, maybe a Gentile, might even be a Samaritan? The only thing we know for sure is that the traveler is human and therefore made in God’s image.
This man was beaten by robbers on the road from Jerusalem. This would have been a well-know road for the Jews, from Jerusalem 2500’ ASL to Jericho which is actually below sea level, winding through mountains and rocky terrain with many hiding places for robbers. The man was not just robbed, but stripped of his clothing and beaten and left for dead. The attitude expressed by the robbers is, “What’s yours is mine, and I’ll take it.”
What were the motivations of the priest and Levite? Jesus doesn’t say. Priest may have refused because the man was dead, didn’t want to defile himself. Touching a corpse would have entailed a lengthy cleanliness process to become pure again. We don’t really know their motivation. Bottom line, though, is it doesn’t really matter. Whatever the motivation was, it was a convenient excuse to absolve them from being a good neighbor. Both the priest and the Levite considered themselves religious people, knew the love your neighbor statement. And both refused to help.
In fact, they went out of their way to avoid helping. They passed by on other side. The priest and the Levite expressed an attitude of, “What’s mine is mine, and I’ll keep it.” This attitude is hardly better than, and in many ways worse, than the robbers who beat the man up.
But the Samaritan helped. This startled the listeners. This *Samaritan*, they would have spit out, isn’t Jewish, isn’t to be trusted, doesn’t know the law… but he was helpful. The Jews expected animosity, but received compassion instead. In fact, this Samaritan gave up his own ride for the injured man, and in so doing expressed an attitude more pleasing to God, “What’s mine is yours, and I’ll give it.”
The second half of our lawyer’s question is much like the first. Love your neighbor as yourself. This comes from Leviticus 19:18. Not a selfish love, or a love of oneself, but how much you love others based on how much God loves you. A “neighbor” means someone of our own kind, not an outsider. Sometimes it’s hard to grasp that this outside we pass by on the other side of the road is not an outsider to God. God loves everyone, not just believers. God gave His life to us while we were still unbelievers, still sinners.
We can’t help everyone, of course. Our resources are limited, we have to pick and choose. But on what basis do we pick and choose? Do we withhold our help from outsiders just because they’re outsiders? They are not outsiders to God. Who we are neighborly to should not depend on this. Jesus admonishes us to do this and live, practice what we know, put love in action. Our salvation involves faith expressing love to God and neighbor. James 2:17 says that faith that does not show itself to our neighbor is dead.
IV. Show Compassion, Luke 10:36-37
Jesus turned the question around perfectly, of course. The lawyer had asked, “who is my neighbor?” Jesus answered by describing who *is* a neighbor. In other words, the lawyer asked about others, who qualifies to be his neighbor. Jesus answered by examining the heart of person asking the question.
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
So Jesus challenged the lawyer. Now who is your neighbor? While the lawyer tried to enact boundaries, Jesus used this parable to remove boundaries. A merciful God we should imitate by showing mercy. Go and do likewise. Any person in need gives you a chance to show you are a good neighbor and being the hands and feet of Jesus.
Emergencies aren’t always convenient. They don’t happen at planned times. I suppose if we could plan them, they wouldn’t be emergencies. I think about another example from Jesus about showing compassion even at inconvenient times. In Mathew 14 is the story of Herod and John the Baptist. John apparently had been hanging around outside Herod’s place, telling Herod that there was something wrong with Herod for taking his brother’s wife. I can’t help but think of how awkward that would be at family get-togethers, Herod and Philip and Philip’s wife Herodias. So one night after dinner and dancing by Herod’s daughter, Herod decides to behead John the Baptist. John’s disciples buried the body and then came to tell Jesus.
Look what it says in Matthew 14:13-14 –
When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.
John is the second cousin of Jesus, and John was the one that paved the way for him, a voice crying out in the wilderness. You know Jesus is grieving the loss of John. And yet, He found the time and energy for compassion at that moment, to heal the sick people that had come to see Him.
Our role model for compassion is God. We were sinners, opposed to God, but He showed compassion for us, even while we opposed him.
Compassion isn’t obligation; compassioning isn’t doing something out of duty. Compassioning isn’t even caring for somebody or taking care of them when they’re hurt.
I went looking for the root word of “compassion,” and found enough to rethink my idea of what compassion is. The root words in Latin are “cum”, which means “with” or “along side”. “Passion” originally didn’t mean anything like the ardent love we associate it with today, it comes from the Latin “pati” which means “to suffer.” It’s the same root word that gives us a hospital “patient,” somebody suffering. So how did we associate this with passionate love? Perhaps from the “Passion of the Christ,” the suffering Christ went through on our behalf. Christ’s love and suffering, His passion.
So “compassion” means to suffer together. It’s not just caring for somebody. It’s suffering with them, making their pain also your pain. How difficult is that to love a neighbor that much that we would suffer as though their pain is ours.
One of the clearest examples of compassion was Mother Teresa. Nobel prize winner, she eventually opened 517 missions in more than 100 countries. One of her early ministries confounded people in Calcutta, to help people nobody else would help. Poor people dying of Hansen’s disease, commonly known as leprosy. These people, even if they lived, would still be a burden on society. Mother Teresa converted an abandoned Hindu temple into a free hospice, the first Home for the Dying. People brought here received medical care and given an opportunity to die with dignity. Hindus received water from the Ganges, Catholics received Last Rites, Muslims were read to from the Quran. “A beautiful death,” she said, “is for people who lived like animals to die like angels — loved and wanted.”
In a book about her life, “Mother Teresa, In My Own Words,” are hundreds of inspiring stories and quotes from this amazing woman. She said, “Someone once told me that not even for a million dollars would they touch a leper. I responded: ‘Neither would I. If it were a case of money, I would not even do it for two million. On the other hand, I do it gladly for love of God.’” She was truly a person of compassion, demonstrating God’s love daily and seeing God in those suffering.
So who is your neighbor? How can you love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind? Do they have a need, and can you go beyond the “bring them a casserole” and truly show compassion, to suffer along with them, to bear their pain? The story of the Good Samaritan tells us that we are challenged to be the good neighbor, regardless of their culture or how we feel about them. To show compassion for those around us, in glorious imitation of the compassion Jesus showed for us. As He loved us, let us love others.