Summary: Jesus teaching on love is totally radical. He pushes us to practice love, rather than giving excuses, and he points out that to love is to be a neighbour to anyone we might come across who needs our care.
You may remember the Beatles, back in the 60’s singing "All you need is Love." There’s no doubt that there was a great truth carried in those simple lyrics. If we were to look around the world today, it’s clear that a good dose of love would cure many of the world’s ills. But it’s easier said than done isn’t it? I mean we have no problem loving those who are close to us, our family and friends, but what about those who are different from us? What about those who are our enemies? That gets a bit harder, doesn’t it? In fact it goes against normal human nature. When someone does something to us, the natural human response is to want to get even. This was shown very clearly in the response to Sept 11. Even though people in Australia were hardly affected in any direct way by the attack on the World Trade Centre, we saw an incredible response of animosity, not to the perpetrators, but to those they supposedly claimed to represent, the followers of Islam. According to one newspaper report I read, Muslims in Australia had been spat at, assaulted, harassed and threatened. Petrol bombs had been thrown at Mosques and community centres. Even here in multicultural Melbourne there was an incident where two girls were thrown off a tram because they were wearing the traditional Muslim head gear. It seems that hatred is much easier to generate than is love.
So in this parable that we’re looking at today, Jesus teaches something that’s totally radical. He says, for God’s people, love is something that reverses the natural response of human nature and that extends even to your worst enemy.
You see, things weren’t that much different in Jesus day to the way they are today. The only difference was that instead of the major divide being Christian/Muslim or Protestant/Catholic, it was Jew/Gentile or Jew/Samaritan. For the Jew of Jesus’ day, the Samaritans were a despised people. That’s because their religion was an amalgam of Judaism and the pagan religions of a variety of countries from which the inhabitants had been brought by the Assyrians 6 or 700 years before. And even though they claimed to worship according to the traditions of the Patriarchs, they didn’t do it in Jerusalem. They’d set up an alternative temple in Samaria. Whereas Judaism had sought to purify their religion of all pagan practices, Samaritan worship was tainted. So the Jews would have nothing at all to do with Samaritans, and it would seem the feeling was mutual. So that’s the context in which Jesus speaks. A feeling of hostility and animosity equal to or even greater than that shown by certain parts of our population to Muslims in recent days.
But of course that’s just background information. What this parable is really about is the nature of love. The account, though, begins with an expert in the law posing the question, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" It sounds like a genuine question on the surface, if we didn’t know how often such experts had tried to trap Jesus with innocent sounding questions on other occasions. In fact Luke tells us he was just asking it to test Jesus.
But Jesus wasn’t going to be caught out quite as easily as that. Instead, in the manner of a good teacher, he turns the question back on the questioner. He asks, "What does the Bible say? What does your reading of the law tell you?"
Well, the lawyer knows his stuff, and he quickly replies with the orthodox response, "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." Maybe he hopes that Jesus, being this radical teacher from Galilee, might question this orthodox response. Perhaps he’s a little surprised when Jesus applauds his answer. In fact Jesus says that he’s found the secret to eternal life. "Do this and you will live." That doesn’t sound very radical does it? But that’s because we haven’t heard the whole story yet.
The Practice of Love
But before we go on, it’s worth meditating for a moment on the fact that this lawyer knew the answer before he asked the question. How often do we ask this sort of question, not because we want to know the answer, but because if we keep asking it, it puts off the day when we have to do something about it. This was one of the problems with the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. They’d debate the meaning of the law till the cows came home. They’d narrow down the interpretations of various laws until they had it all neatly defined to the nth degree. Jesus regularly criticised them for their concentration on fine detail but ignoring of the more important requirement of obedience to God. And that’s what this man seems to be doing here. What he wants is a nice safe intellectual debate with Jesus about the meaning of life, so he can score a few points before he goes home to his mates. But what he gets is nothing like it.