READ : Luke 10:25-37
In the Gospels, Jesus summarizes God’s law in two parts, loving God and loving our neighbor. David Bast highlights this pivotal teaching. His message today: The Great Commandment: Loving My Neighbor, based on Luke 10:25-37. Jesus said that part of the Great Commandments is to love God wholeheartedly and there’s a second part just as important, to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.
What would it take for us to please God? Or to put it another way, what does God really require of us? In one sense, of course, it’s impossible for us to please God, at least to please him perfectly by anything that we do. I know as I look at my own life that even the best things I can offer God are still flawed and imperfect.
If I’m going to be saved at all, it will only be through God’s grace and mercy. And thankfully God does forgive and save all those who believe and put their trust in Jesus Christ. But that’s really only the beginning of the Christian life.
Once God has saved us, the question is “What comes next?” Or as you could ask, “What does he save us for?” One answer that the Bible gives to that question is that God has saved us for good works – so that we might bring glory to him by living lives devoted to doing good in the world (see Ephesians 2:8-10). So once again we ask, “What must we do to please God?
The simplest answer to that question comes in the form of what Christians call the Great Commandment: “Love the Lord your God,” Jesus said, “with all your heart, soul and mind. And love your neighbor as yourself.” In a previous message I looked at the first part of this command: What does it mean to love God? Today I want to consider the second part – loving my neighbor. What that means is best seen in a story from the Gospel of Luke where three important questions are asked and answered.
What must I Do to Inherit Eternal Life?
The first of the three questions was put to Jesus by a man who approached him on the road one day, as we learn in Luke 10:
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] asked. “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.”
(vv. 27, 28)
Luke says that this religious teacher asked his question about eternal life in order “to test Jesus” (v. 25). Perhaps the man was attempting to show Jesus up, to make him commit a mistake that would embarrass him. Or maybe this expert in the law felt that he already knew the correct answer to his question, and he was hoping that Jesus would give him a chance to show off his own spiritual insight. If so, the response Jesus made to him must have seemed a welcome opportunity. “What does the Law say?” Jesus asked him. In other words, “You’re an expert in the Bible. What does the Bible tell you about how to gain eternal life?” The man answered with the familiar summary of God’s Law, the words that Jesus himself had defined as the Greatest Commandment: “Love God with all your being and love your neighbor as much as you love yourself.” “That is exactly right,” Jesus said to the man. “Now go do it.”
What a stunning answer! No theological argument, no chance to show off or score debating points. Just “do it.” Do you want to know how to inherit eternal life? The Bible says to love God and love people. So go love them.” End of discussion.
Who Is My Neighbor?
Not quite the end of the discussion. Jesus’ straightforward answer made this religious teacher pause for a moment. It’s as though Jesus said to him, “You have all the knowledge you need. Now go put it into practice.”
But in order to get himself off the hook, the man thought of a second question: “And who is my neighbor?” he asked. Luke says that the man asked this because “he wanted to justify himself” (v. 29). Do you ever try to do that? It seems that the response Jesus made to the man’s first question not only disappointed him but made him feel just a bit uncomfortable as well. There’s suddenly too much truth here for him to handle.
The man had entered this encounter with the intention of testing Jesus, you remember. But now he discovers that he is the one being tested as Jesus’ words hit home. So he tries to redirect the conversation by making it theoretical again – “Let’s talk, Jesus, about this concept of ‘my neighbor.’ To whom might this category apply?”
I think Jesus must have loved this shifty theologian because he took him seriously enough to give him a straight answer to this second question. And Jesus did that with a story so powerful that the point got through to the man, just as it has been getting through to people for two thousand years since.
We title his answer “The Story of the Good Samaritan.” You know it, I’m sure. A lonely traveler falls victim to a gang of thugs while journeying down a dangerous stretch of road. He lies there helpless while first a Jewish priest and then a Levite pass by on the road. Neither does anything to help the wounded man. But he is eventually saved – by a Samaritan of all people – a member of the ethnic group most despised by the Jews!
The impact of Jesus’ story lies in its shock effect. The very people who should have been readiest to help this poor traveler refused to stop. Both the priest and the Levite, a religious professional, might have been expected to set the example for everyone else, but they failed dismally. And it wasn’t simply by accidental, an inadvertent failure. It was intentional – “when they saw the man,” Jesus says, “they passed by on the other side” (v. 31, cf. v. 32).
Both these men sinned by omission; they passed by the one in need. Their sin lay not in what they did, but in what they failed to do. They would not take the time or the trouble to love a needy person. No doubt they had their excuses: they were in a hurry, probably on their way to the Temple for worship. The wounded man was in a dangerous spot. If either of these others lingered, what happened to him could very well befall them; to stop and help would be costly in time and trouble as well as money, and even dangerous perhaps.
So they both took the easy way out, as we so often do. Turning aside, they passed by as if they simply didn’t see the wounded traveler. You know, all it takes is just to look the other way. Your hands will have no work of love to do if you do not let your eyes linger on the need.
Which of These Was a Neighbor?
The third and most important question of all is the one that Jesus asked the expert in the Law after he finished telling him the story of the Good Samaritan. “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man?” (v. 36). “The one who had mercy on him,” admitted the religious teacher quietly.
It’s Jesus’ final question that provides us the key, not just to understanding his parable but to understanding what God really expects us to be doing. The story of the Good Samaritan is a dramatic answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” The answer isn’t spelled out in so many words, but it’s clear that Jesus means for us to see the wounded man in the road as our neighbor. Neighbors are not just the people closest to us – our immediate family, our relatives, our good friends. Neighbors aren’t even just the folks who live down the block or across the street. If I am a Christian, then my neighbor – the person I am called to love just as I love God himself – is anyone I see who is in need; whatever the need, whoever the person.
But listen again to the actual question that Jesus threw back to the religious expert. It’s not “Who is my neighbor? The actual question Jesus threw back to the man was: “Which one of the three was a neighbor to the man in the road?” And the answer was: It was the Samaritan. Here is the ultimate shock in this story of unexpected twists. That the Jewish leaders should fail to help a fellow Jew in distress would be disturbing enough, but that a despised, half-pagan Samaritan outcast should be the one who responds in love? Well, that really gets our attention. “The man who had mercy on him.” He was the neighbor. And now comes Jesus’ punch line: “Go and do likewise” (v. 37). You see, the really important issue with God isn’t, “Who is my neighbor?” The really important issue is, “Am I being a neighbor to those in need?” The Lord’s primary concern is not that we identify our neighbors. It is that we love them. God expects action from us, in the form of practical service to suffering and needy people, wherever they are.
Think back now to the very first question, the one that we started with, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The answer is to love both God and our neighbor, which means to serve those who need our help. This is truly revolutionary. It revolutionizes how we look at others because now we see them as neighbors whom we are called to love and serve even across all the differences that might cause us by nature to hate or to despise others. And it revolutionizes the way we look at God, who tells us that if we are concerned about loving him we need to show it by caring for our fellow human beings.
Now none of this contradicts the fundamental gospel truth that we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, and not by our good works. But the Lord also wants to remind us that if our faith is genuine, it will make us genuinely different, and that the real mark of those who believe in him is a life of loving service for others.