Back in the sixties, Burt Bacharach sang: “What the world needs now is love sweet love …” The problem is, as the 60s generation discovered, it’s one thing to sing about love but quite another to live it. Yet love and its true practice lie at the very heart of genuine Christianity.
On one occasion a lawyer asked Jesus: ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:25) It was a great question, but Luke tells us that the lawyer’s intention was to test Jesus. It was a ‘Gotcha’ question. Jesus knew this, but didn’t miss a beat and responded with his own question: “You know the law. How do you read it?”
In reply, the lawyer quoted: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart mind soul and strength (Deuteronomy 6:4) and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).
The rabbis of Jesus’ day rightly understood that these two commands distill the law of love. And indeed Jesus’ responded with: ‘Correct. Do this and you will live.’ There the conversation could have concluded.
Which brings me to a third coffee conversation with your friend(s).
Having touched on questions of ‘authenticity’ and ‘greatness’ over two coffee sessions, it’s worth focusing on this fascinating conversation between a lawyer and Jesus (Luke 10:25-37). But first, don’t forget to ask your friend(s) if they have any questions about Luke chapters 5-9.
Hearing Jesus’ commendation: “Do this and you will live,” the lawyer wasn’t happy. His plan to upstage Jesus hadn’t worked. So, lawyer-like he asked him to define ‘neighbor’.
The story that unfolded that day and the flow of the questions around it are important today; for most people, if they believe there is an afterlife, think they can achieve it by their own efforts.
Knowing that he needed to puncture the mask of the lawyer’s self-satisfaction, Jesus told a story: “A certain man was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead…”
These opening lines would have drawn Jesus’ hearers into a scene they understood – a hapless traveler on a road notorious for bandits. And the unfolding story would have resonated – a priest and a Levite seeing the unconscious man and asking themselves whether the man was a ‘neighbor’, requiring their attention.
But the priest and the Levite didn’t feel the need to stop and help. They may have thought, ‘I didn’t beat up this man and leave him for dead. It’s nothing to do with me.’
Many react the same way today, turning God’s positive command to love our neighbor into a passive form: ‘I haven’t done anyone any harm; I haven’t killed or defrauded anyone; I haven’t cheated on my spouse. I must have kept the law of love’.
“Who is my neighbor?” the lawyer had asked. Jesus’ hearers would have expected him to introduce a godly Jewish layman. Instead, a Samaritan is brought in – not only an unexpected figure but a hated one (10:33-35).
Yet it was the Samaritan who showed compassion, applying first aid and sacrificing a month’s wages to cover the cost of the man’s recovery. He did everything in his power to aid this unknown, unidentifiable, possibly Jewish man. “Which of these three,” Jesus asked, “proved to be a neighbor to the man in need?” (10:36)
By turning the lawyer’s question around, Jesus invited him to put himself in the place of the victim. It was brilliant. Jesus was challenging the lawyer to reconsider his definition and his practice of love.
“The one who showed mercy,” he responded. He couldn’t bring himself to say, ‘the Samaritan’. Yet by focusing on mercy Jesus may have achieved the aim of altering the lawyer’s understanding. He should look at ‘need’ from the perspective of the victim.
“You go and you do likewise” – ‘if you can’, Jesus commanded (10:37b). The you is singular making his words personal and challenging. God’s law of neighbor love means we need to care for anyone in need when it is in our power and wise to do so.
Over the centuries the model of the Good Samaritan has set a pattern for compassion and care. God’s people especially have become involved, positively, sacrificially, even joyfully, assisting people in pain – the hungry, the lonely and the elderly, the victims of abuse and of injustice, unemployment, and poverty.
But this was not the primary reason Jesus told this story. “Who is my neighbor?” was the lawyer’s second question, refining his first: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
‘Do?’ Jesus is saying, ‘you can’t do anything about your eternal state because you don’t keep God’s law. Your life is not good enough.’ The parable of the Good Samaritan reveals how morally bankrupt we all are. If we truly kept God’s law the gates into eternal life would be open to us. But we all fall short.
Consider the lawyer’s first question, “What must I do to inherit… ?” We inherit something, not usually because of what we have done, but because of a relationship we had with someone who has subsequently died.
As Luke’s Gospel unfolds we see that Jesus is not only great: he is also wonderfully good. For he is the ‘Good Samaritan’ who through his neighbor love has stepped out of his story and done everything necessary to rescue and restore us. When we form a loving relationship with him, we become his beneficiaries.
© John G. Mason – www.anglicanconnection.com