The Art of Neighboring

To say we live in interesting times is probably the biggest understatement. Life as we have known it up until a few weeks ago, has changed quite drastically. I am sure you have been inundated with information overload – whether it is on social media, the news, the various email and WhatsApp groups you may be in, at work, at school, at the grocery store. Events are being cancelled; our way of life is being curtailed. From the stock market to the line at the bakery – every aspect of our lives has been impacted.

Primal behavior that had previously been reserved to the Black Friday crowd, now has become the norm of day. The government’s appeal to show unity and solidarity as well as care and respect for vulnerable people groups among us has been drowned out by a selfish desire to protect and preserve oneself. People fight over toilet paper and any type of soap product. Price gauging, online-usury, and in-store fights become more and more prevalent. Vocabulary, such as social distancing, isolation and quarantine, are now part of our daily conversations.

There are more church services streamed today than ever before. Separation of church and state has found the common ground of “doing our part” to reduce the risk of infection. Masses and church gatherings are being cancelled, communion is withheld, groups of any kind are avoided or postponed. Most everybody has become an expert virologist, politician, and infectious disease enforcement officer. Travel restrictions are being executed, borders are closed down, and hospitals are faced with making unthinkably tough decisions. Parents have become homeschool teachers and students have switched to online and long-distance learning from home. Life as we have known it does no longer exist – at least for the time being. And the future of each of the affected countries is, at best, uncertain. In some cases, things will never be the same again. No matter where you go, you’ll generally find three types of reactions of people: fear (and hysteria), distrust (of people, government, health system, economy, etc.), or a laissez faire mindset.

In these trying times, you will hear many sermons preached – sermons that encourage, that give hope, and aim at pointing people to God. Your Bible app will send you verses that encourage you. Churches and para-church ministries will post Bible verses and well-meaning quotes all over the internet. In fact, what you may have already seen this past week is that churches – particularly in the West – are grabbling with the question of “what is our response as Christians to this crisis”? Intrinsically, we know that there is something we should do; historically, we have seen believers step up to the plate; however, practically we are often not sure what that should look like today. Should I stockpile and take care of my family? Should I go to the store at all? Do I take care of the elderly – and if so, how do I do that when I am denied access to the very facilities they are housed in? What about the person at the corner of my street? What about the single mom that is struggling to balance work and family life? These are real and good questions. And there are more that go much deeper than that.

At our church, we are currently in what now seems to be a very timely, four-week series that establishes a baseline and common vocabulary of what it means – biblically – to be a disciple of Jesus. The series is aptly called “The Pursuit” because the working definition of being a disciple of Christ is simply this: a disciple is someone in whom the Holy Spirit dwells and who then pursues Christ in relationship by loving God, by uniting with believers, by serving the world, and entrusting the Gospel. Over the past two weeks, we have already unpacked the first two parts – loving God and uniting with believers – and this week, we want to look at the third part: serving the world. Each week, as we introduce one of these parts, we ask each person to go through the accompanying devotional guide for that particular theme.

Against the backdrop of what I have stated so far, I want us to look at a passage of Scripture, which I believe will provide for us the proper filter through which we are to process information and the proper lens through which we are to actively engage in serving the world as believers today. My hope is that at the end of this sermon, you will be able to

  • ask the right questions,
  • serve with the right motivation,
  • and live out practically what it means and looks like to be a disciple of Jesus – whether there is a crisis or not.

Without further ado, I want to invite you to find your place in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 10, and we will focus on verses 25 through 37:

25 And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” 27 And he answered, “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 neighbor as yourself.” 28 And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” 29 But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. 34 He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”

If you have had any brushes with the Christian faith at all, then this portion of Scripture is quite familiar. If you are of the older church-going generation, you know that this parable is part of the standard flannel board repertoire (If you’re wondering what a flannel board is, keep in mind that we once had rotary phones and memorize phone numbers as well).

The challenge of taking something that is a very  familiar and, in many ways, a predictable portion of Scripture is to communicate it in such a way that the reader is not tuning out at this point. Therefore, let me give the road map for the next few moments:

  1. I want to give you one key truth as the take-away from this sermon.
  2. Then I want to take you into the text and show you the players, the plot and the plot twist.
  3. Finally, I want to draw several thoughts of application for you and me today.

Let’s begin with the key truth: My love relationship with God demands that I love my neighbor – unconditionally, proactively, and without restraints.

With that in place, let’s look at the players. Luke records for us a conversation between Jesus and a lawyer – an expert of Mosaic Law and its interpretation. The author of this Gospel has carefully researched his material in an effort “to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:1-4).

Luke is very careful to choose material on the life, ministry, and teachings of Jesus that will encourage, strengthen and embolden a believer who was in need of certainty. In this instance, he includes this dialogue and gives some commentary as well. If you have been part of this series at our church, you’ll probably think that this is the same conversation we looked at in the first sermon on loving God out of Mark 12. And while the players are similar and some of the subject matter overlaps, these are two different incidents at different intervals of Jesus’ ministry. In fact, today’s material will further highlight and provide further information to what we have already covered before, namely that there was no question about what the most important command in the Law is.

The lawyer knew it. Jesus knew it. Now the question is: “what relevance does knowing what the Law demands have to living it out practically?”[i]

Let’s look at the plotline. The entire passage of verses 25-37 can be divided into two questions:

  • The first question, “what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” is addressed in verses 25-28.
  • The second question, “who is my neighbor?” is addressed in verses 29-37.

Both sections are finished off with a clear, unmistakable call to action by Jesus.

Let’s look at the first question: Luke tells us that the lawyer asks the question about inheriting eternal life in order to “test” Jesus (v.25). We are not sure exactly what the exact intention was. Maybe he wanted to see if Jesus as “the Teacher” had the proper knowledge and insight into the Law and was able to interpret it correctly. Maybe not. There was only one way to find out: you need to figure out where He stands on the issue of the Law. Maybe he wanted to trap Jesus in some theological webbing in order to discredit him. We are not told. What we are told is that he asks probably the most important question to which we too must find an answer: “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

What’s really important to note at this point is that there are several things that both, the lawyer and Jesus, agree on:

  1. They both agree that there is more to life than this life: the lawyer speaks of “eternal life.”
  2. They both agree that there are things that can only take place in the here and now that will permanently affect “eternal” life.
  3. From the lawyer’s perspective, there is a recognition and acknowledgement (maybe even a resignation) that the religious system and its practices of the day were insufficient to answer with certainty that these yield security for the afterlife. Jesus doesn’t refute that sentiment.
  4. They both agree that the answer to this question must be found in Scripture, in one’s proper interpretation of Scripture, and, ultimately in one’s personal application.

Where the lawyer and Jesus differ is in the following:

  • The lawyer asks “what must I do” … “to inherit” eternal life. Jesus’ reply hints at the impossibility of inheriting it but rather points to the relationship that precipitates it to make it even possible to enter into it.

Look again at the text in verses 26ff: 26 He <Jesus> said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?”” Jesus turns the question around and asks him the question of how the Law is to be interpreted. Now note the man’s response: 27 And he answered, “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 neighbor as yourself.”

Now look at Jesus’ reply. This would be the moment, where one would expect Jesus correcting him. But Jesus doesn’t (plot twist): “28 And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live. You want to know what you must do to “inherit eternal life?” then here is your answer. This you must do. Nothing short of that will suffice. Since we have already dealt with this insight two weeks ago, let me summarize it in a nutshell: you can’t. You can’t love that way – even though you should. Not in your strength. Not with your own willpower. The crucial element is the phrase “your God.” He must be your God. Not a national God. Not the God of a religious system. Not the distant God whom you can petition in times of need. He must be your God – there must be a relationship with Him. Because He first loved us, we love – Him, others, self (1 John 4:19-21). Both commands, to love God and to love my neighbor have been tied together twice in the NT. In both instances, the second command is to be understood and lived out in the light of the first. And the first can only be done sufficiently, if I am in a proper relationship with the God I am to love.

One would expect an argument about the minutia of the Law or its wording to take place next. But the lawyer doesn’t even try to argue Jesus on the first commandment, so he opts for the -in his view – more manageable second commandment. The thought behind this strategy is this: If I can “define” who my neighbor is, then I may have a shot at the first. I may have a legal leg to stand on and claim that I have the right to “inherit” some of it. Notice that Luke tells us that the lawyer wanted to “justify himself.” One commentator noted, “not only would he justify himself before God by doing something to gain eternal life; he wants to present himself before others as a righteous man.”[ii] He asks, “who is my neighbor”? in verse 29.

Jesus’ answer to that question at the heels of the parable is yet another question: “which of these three proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” Jesus flips it. It’s another plot twist. The question is not, “who is my neighbor?” – which is really an attempt at limiting my response – but rather “how am I proving to be a neighbor?” – without restrictions?

Which brings us to the parable – the actual plot twist.

Jesus shares a parable that will force the lawyer to take what he knows the Law says – and how he would read it, interpret it, and apply it – and strike at the heart of this man’s attempt justify himself.

Since this parable is very familiar to most everyone of us, I don’t want to get into all the gory details of it. In summary, you have a traveler who falls among robbers on a specific road that leads from Jerusalem, the epicenter of Jewish religious life and practice, to Jericho, a border town that was home to many of those who would serve in the temple at Jerusalem and its sacrificial system practiced there. This would include priests and Levites. Billy Graham, in one of his sermons on this passage[iii], described Jericho as “a border city of the nation of Israel, a center of black marketing and crime” and “the road from Jericho to Jerusalem as the bloody way.”

So here you have a traveler who travels from Jerusalem toward Jericho; by implication he was probably engaged in the sacrificial system and religious observance at Jerusalem. He falls among robbers, who strip him of his clothes, beat him to the point of death, inflict many wounds, and steal all of his possessions.

The first person that travels by also comes from Jerusalem and is on his way to Jericho as well: a priest. According to the Law (spelled out particularly in the book of Leviticus), if the priest wanted to engage in helping this poor man and this man was to die in his arms, he would defile himself, be ceremonially unclean,  and not be able to attend to his priestly duties for seven days. However, since he was already on his way back from Jerusalem to Jericho, he had already fulfilled his priestly duties – therefore, that was not a good enough reason for him not to engage. Our text says that he sees the man and he passed by on the other side. That is a deliberate choice.

The next person that travels by also on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho is a Levite. He also sees the man and likewise passed by the other side. To the lawyer this would make sense. After all, current interpretation of the Law stated, that if a person is not an Israelite but a Gentile, a Jew would legally not be obligated to offer any help. Also, the possibility of defiling oneself is what would keep someone from engaging in his religious duties. What is being missed by the priest the Levite and, by inference the lawyer, is the very fact that this is not at all what God had in mind.

This is why Jesus chooses the one person that would upset anyone hearing this parable. He chooses to illustrate the heart of God being expressed fully by a Samaritan. Samaritans were regarded as half-breeds; they were despised by the Jews; and the worst thing you could call someone was a Samaritan next to calling someone a Gentile. This Samaritan would fall into the category of people that you would not want to help much less receive help from. This was a racial issue. It was a preferential issue. It was even a cultural issue. A Jew does not interact in any way, shape, or form with a Samaritan. You avoid them and their territory. You don’t speak to them. You treat them as a persona non grata.

And yet here you have this Samaritan, for whom, if we were to look deeper into the matter, the same Mosaic Law that the priest, the Levite, and our lawyer would apply just as much. The difference is that of interpretation and then application: he interprets the Law more universally (the man in need was a fellow human being created in the image of God) rather than case-specifically (race, culture, and preference keep me from helping).

At this point, I want to offer a few observation about this Samaritan:

  • He serves as the opportunity presented itself (he had the heart of a servant)
  • He serves indiscriminately (he does not ask if the victim is a fellow Samaritan)
  • He serves bountifully (he dresses his wounds out of his own supplies with wine, with oil, and with strips of cloth)
  • He sullies himself with the blood of the victim
  • He places him on his own donkey while he walks next to him
  • He lets go of his own comfort
  • He sacrifices his time
  • He sacrifices his resources
  • He sacrifices his own safety while attending to him on the road
  • He sacrifices his own financial resources by paying what would be more than enough at the inn as well as pledges to pay beyond what is needed if necessary.

By the end of the parable, Jesus had everybody’s attention. He upset the norm. He took customary interpretation of the law and removed every one of our human limitations that we like to place on our level of engagement.

One commentator puts it this way: “as long as the neighbor remains an object, the issue remains a legal one: what are the limits of my responsibility? Who must I help?” How much must I help him? Where is the line? In this line of thinking, we will constantly justify our actions and our inactions. We will justify ourselves before God and before man. We will be able to say – I did it. I did something to gain eternal life.

Jesus, however, shifts the perspective to that of the person in need of help: If you are the victim, you are not going to be choosy whose help you actually want to accept or turn down.

By turning the lawyer’s question on its head, Jesus turns the object of the neighbor to me, the listener or reader, as the subject of being a neighbor to anyone. He removes the lid. He removes the excuses. He gets to the heart of the link between the first commandment and the second: to love God and to love my neighbor. Therefore, the question is no longer “who is my neighbor?” but rather, “what kind of a neighbor do I prove myself to be?” The answer to the latter question will reveal whether not I truly love God and shows whether I am truly in relationship with him. This also will then answer the question of whether or not I have eternal life; it is a question of appropriately defining my need for the Gospel and then living it out – daily, moment by moment, situation by situation, person by person, interaction by interaction.

Here is our key truth one more time: My love relationship with God demands that I love my neighbor – unconditionally, proactively, and without restraints.

As I conclude, I want to draw several points of application based on our text from today:

The first question I want to leave you with is this: is my love for God the premise for loving my neighbor? In other words, do you know for sure that you have a relationship with God that is defined in the terms of our passage today. Do you love him with all your heart with all your soul with all your mind and with all your strength? Is he your God? If you do not have a relationship with God in this way then maybe your greatest need today is entering into that relationship. This is your greatest need at the moment. You need to respond to the gospel. What is the gospel?

  1. You and I were created for relationship with God (Genesis 2–3;Leviticus 26:121 John 3:1-2).
  2. Sin, my sin your sin, separated that relationship (Romans 3:23;Romans 6:23Isaiah 59:2).
  3. There is nothing we can do on our own to reconcile that relationship (Ephesians 2;2 Corinthians 4:3–4).
  4. Jesus died on the cross to pay the penalty of our sin (Romans 5:10;1 John 4:10).
  5. Jesus rose from the dead that we might have life.(1 Peter 1:3)
  6. Jesus offers eternal life (or a reconciled relationship) to those who will repent of their sin by placing faith in Him (John 3:16;John 17:3Acts 2:38)

The second question I want to leave you with is this: are you operating from religious obligation or from the security and overflow of your relationship with God? Religion will always try to define boundaries and limitations; however, relationship both sees and acts in accordance with God’s heart and love for humanity (not just for a distinct group of people of my choosing).

As you have seen from the text, it is not enough to know Scripture and be able to interpret it. How one applies it shows whether or not you have truly understood it. Therefore, are you spending time in God’s Word regularly in order to be transformed by it or do you refer to it only as the need for information arises?

In the context of this moment in time, are you operating out of selfishness and self-preservation, do you fear circumstances you cannot control, or do you fear the God who is in control?

Finally, how do you practically prove to be a neighbor today? This week? Alone? As a family? What kind of a neighbor are you to those in need?

Remember, our love relationship with God demands that we love our neighbor – unconditionally, proactively, and without restraints.

__________

[i] Garland, David E. Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), p.439.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Who is my neighbor? (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c460szEw7ck)