Summary: It's easy to get along with people who get along with us, but what about when we see someone very different from us in need? Jesus challenges us to be a good neighbor to everyone we encounter.
Who is My Neighbor?
Have you ever struggled to be nice to someone, especially someone different from you? Maybe they’re talkative and you’re quiet, or they are a gossip and you detest gossip, or maybe their skin is darker and yours is lighter, or yours is darker and theirs is lighter, or maybe they were Air Force and you were Navy. Sometimes it’s difficult to get along with people different from us.
Back in Jesus’ day, the religious elite—the Pharisees and Scribes and Teachers of the Law—they came up with a loophole to make life easier. Basically, you could be nice to people you liked and you could be mean to people you didn’t like, and best of all, you could justify it with scripture! They borrowed from something David wrote in one of his psalms, Psalm 139:21-22, where he says to God, “Do I not hate those who hate you, Lord, and abhor those who are in rebellion against you? I have nothing but hatred for them; I count them my enemies.”
Down through the ages people have decided who they like and who they hate based on who they believe God likes and God hates. Does God love only church-going people? Does he love white people and hate everyone else? Does he hate people with nose rings and tattoos? Does God hate gays? Does God hate infidels, as our enemies believe? Does God hate radical Islamists?
David, in his psalm, says, “God, I just hate those who rebel against you. Your enemy is my enemy.” The problem is, God hates in a different way than we hate. God somehow manages to hate the sin while loving the sinner. That is a very good thing for you and me, because the Bible says we all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). So when we come across a difficult scripture such as when God said, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” (Malachi 1:2-3 and Romans 9:13), we can read the rest of the Bible and see that God calls us to “love our enemies” (Matthew 5:44-48) and that God’s will is for no one to perish but everyone to have eternal life (2 Peter 3:9). Somehow God hates the sin while he loves the one involved in the sinful behavior. Kind of like how we still love our children even when they willfully disobey us. So, if you want to hate like God, you need to hate the sin and love the sinner. That’s what God does.
So that’s the background for today’s story. And the story begins with a seemingly innocent question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” It’s like a student asking a teacher, “What do I have to do to get an A in this class?” It’s a fair question, unless it comes from a bad attitude, just wanting to do the minimum.
This time there is a false motive. How do I know? Well, the question comes from a lawyer. Need I say more? (I’ll apologize in advance to all the good lawyers of the world.) Do you know what the Lawyer's Creed is? “A man is innocent until proven broke.” Although there are good lawyers, verse 29 tells us this fellow was trying to justify himself. He wanted Jesus to answer in a way that made him, the lawyer, look good.
So Jesus answered the question with a question. He asked, “What does scripture say?” That’s always a good place to start! The lawyer responds with the two great commandments, “Love God” (Deuteronomy 6:5) and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). It’s a perfect answer, an A+. In fact, it’s the same answer Jesus had given the question on a different day (Matthew 22:37-40). “Love God” and “love your neighbor as yourself:” that sums up everything. It gives us three great priorities: God, neighbor, and self. Or if you like acronyms: J-O-Y, joy, which stands for Jesus, others, and yourself, in that order.
Jesus replied, “Do this and live!” He quotes here from a couple of Old Testament scriptures (Leviticus 18:5 and Ezekiel 20:11) a promise that, if you keep God’s law perfectly, you will live perfectly. The problem is, none of us keeps God’s law perfectly. And that is why we need a Savior, someone to save us from our sins.
The lawyer should have admitted his guilt, that he—like each of us—fails at loving God and neighbor at times. Instead, he tried to justify himself. He tried to make himself look better by saying, “Well, exactly who is my neighbor then?” He was looking for a loophole. He was looking for a way out. Certainly it’s a good thing to love those who love you, to care for those close to you, but don’t worry about those tax collectors, or those prostitutes. Don’t worry about those Gentiles. And especially don’t worry about those ... Samaritans.