Loving Our Neighbour
Who is our neighbour? What does it mean to love our neighbour? What does God expect from us in a world of need? These are questions Jesus wrestles with in Luke 10:25-37.
Jesus is a master story-teller; he uses parables – short stories comprised of relatable people and objects from his 1st century Jewish context to help his hearers understand the gospel and its implications. In our text we encounter one of Jesus’ most well-known – and challenging – stories. Known as the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus challenges us to push beyond our comfort zone in obeying God’s call to love.
The First Question
This story is an answer to a question; a lawyer – that is, a Jewish expert in Old Testament law – wanted to test Jesus’ understanding of that law. Jesus was often provocative in his teaching, and this lawyer wanted to confirm whether or not Jesus was orthodox. So he asked him, ‘What shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ (Luke 10:25).
Jesus answers the question with a question, ‘What is written in the law? How do you read it?’ (Luke 10:26). It seems that, before engaging in detail, Jesus wanted to locate what the lawyer actually thought.
The lawyer gives a good answer drawn from scripture (Deuteronomy 6:4-5; Leviticus 19:18): ‘“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 neighbour as yourself’. Jesus seems like to this answer, affirming its correctness, and adding, ‘do this, and you will live’ (Luke 10:28).
But that’s just the point: it’s extremely hard to love your neighbour as yourself. While it’s true that loving God with all of our hearts is also difficulty, sometimes it seems easier to love a God we can’t see than to love the people we can see. And this prompts a second question from the lawyer.
The Second Question
On the surface, the lawyer asks a reasonable question; Jesus had just affirmed that eternal life is linked to ‘loving our neighbour’; if loving our neighbour is that important, it would be smart to get it right. And so the lawyer asks, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ (Luke 10:29).
Luke notes that the purpose of the second question is the lawyer’s desire to ‘justify himself’. That is, he was trying to limit the implication of what Jesus just taught; he was trying to soften the demand of ‘loving your neighbour’ to affirm that he was doing OK. Is it possible to draw a circle, inside of which we find ‘neighbours’, and outside of which are ‘non-neighbours’?
The short answer is ‘No’: Jesus tells as a story that expands, rather than contracts, the understanding of neighbour.
Scene 1: In Luke 10:30, Jesus tells about a man travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho; this is a downhill journey and – still today – takes one through desolate ravines with the road surrounded by high rocky cliffs on either side. The man was jumped by a group of thieves, robbed, beaten, stripped, and left for dead.
Scene 2: Two people we might expect to help out the man – a priest and a Levite – pass by. But rather than helping, they keep on walking. These two people represent official Judaism: on paper, they were lovers of God’s law; in practice, they only obeyed when it was convenient. Regardless of why they didn’t respond to the dying man, they ignored him, thus leaving unfulfilled the law to ‘love your neighbour’.
Scene 3: Just as we give up hope that anyone will respond to the dying man’s deeds, an unexpected hero shows up. The hero in this case was a Samaritan, a member of a group despised by the Jews as lawbreakers and half-breeds; to eat with a Samaritan was equated with eating pork. This is the last person the lawyer – or anyone listening to Jesus – would have expected to enter the story.
The Samaritan – a despised schismatic – shows compassion to the half-dead man. Jesus mentions six key compassionate actions he takes: (1) he approaches; (2) he binds the man’s wounds; (3) he anoints the cuts with oil and wine; (4) he places the man on his mule (which probably means he had to walk); (5) he takes him to an inn; (6) he provides resources for this man’s care and comfort. So not only does he offer minimal help, he offers extravagant, over the top blessing.
This is not a complicated story to understand: the essence of being a neighbour is the sensitivity to see a need and act on it. To be a neighbour means to expand our circle to anyone in need that we encounter, not limiting it to our comfort zone.
Whereas we might use this parable allegorically for the gospel (sin beat us and left us on the road dead; Jesus rescues and delivers us to a place of healing), this is not Jesus’ point. But it's true: sin did rob us, strip us, and leave us dead; Jesus did come to us to heal, restore and comfort; Jesus did pay for our care - by his death on the cross. Jesus is the best Good Samaritan: as the despised messiah, he does redeem in a way that the priests and Levites could never do.
But don't let pointing to Jesus blunt the ethical challenge of this parable: we cannot draw a circle around 'acceptable neighbours' - those we are called to love. This is a straight-up call to obey: followers of Jesus are called to love their neighbours. And neighbourliness is not found in ethnic, gender, or national proximity; rather, we love well by responding sensitively to the needs of others.
It's also true that the first deception of the lawyer - that there is 'something we can do to inherit eternal life' pertains to us. If we could love others like Jesus in our strength - we'd already be doing it. Rather, it is as we open our lives to receive God's love - remembering that it was while we were sinners that Christ died for us - that we are empowered to love others.
Rather than drawing a circle around who our neighbour might be, Jesus expands it: our obligation is not to see what can be avoided, but to render aid when it can be readily supplied. So go be better than a good Samaritan.