Who is My Neighbor?

Love God, love your neighbor. It sounds simple, right? In fact you can summarize the entire Law of God in one little four-letter word: Love. What could be more simple than that? Or is it that simple? Not when the lawyers get a hold of it.

A lawyer, an expert in the Torah, came up to Jesus in order to test Him. That was his first mistake. Test Jesus, and you yourself will be tested. He will shatter your presuppositions and topple your notions. This lawyer was an expert in biblical principles, in making the law doable, practical, relevant to today’s living. He believed that with the right combination of knowledge and discipline, one could keep the law of God. And so testing Jesus he asks him the key question: What shall I do to inherit eternal life? That’s the question on the table this morning with the parable of the man who fell among the thieves and the kind Samaritan who rescued him.

It’s an important question, perhaps the most important question one could ask. What must I do to inherit salvation? What must I do to be saved? You might notice that there is already something wrong with the question. What does one do to inherit? Nothing. To inherit, you must be in the good graces of someone who dies and they will you the inheritance. It is by grace, gratis, a gift.

This was the fundamental error of the synagogue at the time of Jesus. The Pharisees, who controlled the synagogue saw the Torah as a Torah of works, works that need to be done to accomplish the righteousness of God. In other words, do these 613 or so things and you’re in. You have eternal life with God. But then, it’s not an inheritance but wages earned. Something you do to deserve it, not something God does.

That’s the way it is, I’m afraid. The gospel, good news, gift of God always deteriorates and degenerates into a religion of works. This is what prompted the Reformation in the first place. The good news of sins forgiven for Christ’s sake through faith and degenerated into a religion of good works aimed at meriting God’s grace.

Jesus never answers the question, but instead poses one in return. What does the Torah say? You’re an expert in it, how do you read it? Now the tables are turned, as they always are with Jesus. Now the lawyer is the one on the stand, and Jesus is running the questions. So what does the Torah say: Love God, love your neighbor. Love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.

Jesus doesn’t argue with him. “Bravo. Go to the head of the class. You have answered correctly. Bang on. Now, go and do this, and you will live.” Try it for a few days and see how it works out for you. Love God with everything that you are, everything that you have, and love your neighbor as you love yourself. You’ve heard of “taking care of number one,” meaning taking care of myself. Fine. Now treat your neighbor as number one and take care of him or her, whomever he or she may be. Try it and see how it goes for you the rest of today. Then Monday. Then Tuesday and on through the week. How long do you think you could go? Could you even make it out of here in church in this morning?

The lawyer realizes that he’s been nailed and so tries to wriggle out of it by justifying himself. “Who then is my neighbor?” The self-justifying question, the question that seeks to get the questioner off the hook. We ask it too. What’s the least I have to do to make the grade? How often do I have to go to church? To communion? Who is this neighbor whom I am to love as myself? Is he like me? Will I like him?

To the self-justifying question, Jesus tells a parable of a man who fell among thieves on the well traveled road from Jerusalem to Jericho. The pilgrim road was a popular hangout for bands of thieves, who had robbed and beaten this poor man to near death and left him to die in the ditch. Three men came by him that day. Three men had opportunity to be neighbor to the man in the ditch.

The first was a priest returning home from his priestly duties in the temple in Jerusalem. He sees the crumpled shadow of the man lying in the ditch but quickly moves to the other ditch to avoid even a hint of contact. He had to remain pure to do his priestly work. If the man were dead, the priest would have to undergo a lengthy and costly process of purification.

The second was a Levite, a priest’s assistant, going in the same direction. He comes a bit closer and takes a look, but like the priest walks around at a safe distance. The law is the same for him as well. The same law that said love your neighbor also demanded ritual purity of priest and Levite. So what were they to do? What would you have done?

What do you do when the Law of God paints you into a corner and then demands that you act? What do you do when you must break a commandment to fulfill the law? There are two answers here: Legalism and Liberty. Legalism says you must keep the law. The priest and Levite were not bad people. They were legalists. They knew what the purity law required. And that’s what the law will do in this fallen world. The law can say “love God and love your neighbor,” but it can’t produce even the slightest love. You can legislate morality but you can’t legislate love. Almost by definition. Love is an act of freedom, not the law. Which brings us to the kind Samaritan.

I call him “kind” rather “good,” since he was no more good than the priest and Levite were bad. He was simply free, and that makes all the difference. The Samaritan is, for all intents and purposes, free. There is no law restricting him. He is free to stop, act on his compassion, to go to the man, treat his wounds, put him up at a local inn, and even pay for his expenses in advance.

Samaritans were despised by the Jews for being half-breed Jews and heretical worshippers. They were a separate sect of Judaism that worshipped on a different mountain. For Jesus to make the hero of the story a Samaritan was to rub salt into the wounded pride of the synagogue lawyer. He would have to identify with a Samaritan instead of his heroes, the priest and the Levite.

Which of the three proved to be neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers? The answer, of course, is obvious. The one who showed him mercy. The Samaritan who stopped, bent down, and helped the man in the ditch. And Jesus said, “Now you go, and do likewise.” If you want to do the works necessary to inherit eternal life, you go and stop asking questions and be neighbor to the man in the ditch. Whomever God places in your path. Whenever, wherever, no matter how inconvenient it might be. That’s what it means to love God and love your neighbor.

Are you satisfied with that? I hope not. And if you are, I challenge you to go and do likewise with the understanding that if you fail, you will not inherit the kingdom. Is Jesus serious? Of course He is. He is also a teacher, the greatest teacher that ever walked this earth, who perfectly knew the hearts of those who came to Him with their questions. The only way to pierce through the hardened heart of legalism is to take the Law and amplify it, to paint the legalist into a corner so that he must choose which law he will break and then try to make up the difference.

Only one who is free from the Law can do the Law. Remember that. Only one who is free from the Law can do the Law, even remotely. Until we hear and believe that “there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” until we recognize and trust that “Christ is the end of the Law to all who believe,” we will never have the Samaritan freedom to love our neighbor. Quite the contrary – without the freedom that comes in Christ, we will hate God and hate our neighbor.

God became our neighbor in Jesus. He joined us in the ditch of our sin and death. The Word became flesh to dwell among us, to be God with us, to do the Law for us, to free us from the burden of the Law. Christ became our neighbor, embracing us in our death, healing our wounds with His wounds, applying the healing wine and oil of Word and Body and Blood to us. He forgives and frees us from the Law that we might actually do the Law – love God and love our neighbor, that broken, bleeding dying man in the ditch.

Look at him, look closely. Does he resemble someone you know? That’s right. “For as often as you have done it to the least of these, my brothers, you have done it to me.” That broken man in the ditch is Christ in cognito to serve. Do you have to help the man in the ditch? Yes, if you wish to earn eternal life. You must, and you must do it perfectly. But for you, baptized believer, living in Samaritan freedom thanks to Jesus, you get to help him. He is gift and opportunity to serve as you have been served, to love as you have been loved by Jesus.

What must I do to inherit eternal life? Nothing. It is given you. What may I do now that I have eternal life? Do you really need to ask?

In the name of Jesus,

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