People ask questions for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes they want information. And sometimes they already know the answer, but they’re trying to catch somebody in a mistake.
I’ve noticed it recently in news conferences. Questions are asked by people who already know the answers, but they want to catch the official in an inconsistency. The question is not so much to gain information as it is to catch someone out – to embarrass them and to make the questioner look good. It’s the same reason this expert in the law asks Jesus the question in verse 25 -- to test him, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
It’s the big question, isn’t it? A real beauty. People today ask the same question – they just put it differently. “How do you get to heaven? What happens when you die? How can I find God? What’s the meaning of life?”
All basically asking the same question. “Is there more to life than meets the eye and how can I know?”
If you have anything at all to do with non-Christians, it’s a question you’ve probably been asked more than once. Maybe even spent hours discussing over a cup of coffee, or round a campfire.
And often, because talking is easy, talking is as far as people want to go!
1. TALKING about the truth (vv. 25-27)
And that’s probably exactly what this guy wants to do. Just talk about the truth. He’s put the ball in Jesus’ court. He wants a game of verbal tennis. When Jesus gives his opinion, he’ll whack the ball back with some curly questions – “But what about this verse, or that verse?” Knock him down a few pegs.
Today people play verbal tennis with questions like: Who made God? Why do bad things happen to good people? Doesn’t evolution disprove God? Where did Cain get his wife? Questions that try to trap Christians and confuse them. Because talking about the truth is easier than doing something about it. Most people who ask the questions aren’t really interested in the answers. They just use them as excuses. Reasons to keep their distance. To avoid deciding about Jesus. Because that might cost them something.
But Jesus isn’t interested in games. He knocks the ball back with another question, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?”
By the way, it’s probably not a bad technique when our friends ask us questions. Ask them what they think. What do you believe about God? What’s he like? And that gives you an opportunity; you’ve earned the right to say what you think, as long as you’re not judgmental or dismissive.
This man – I am going to call him a lawyer, because “an expert in the law” is too long to say over and over – was one of those who were responsible for knowing and interpreting the Mosaic Law. He was you “go to guy” if you wanted to know what the law said or what it meant. So, by asking him this question Jesus has moved the discussion right into the area where this man would feel most comfortable. Maybe he’s thinking, “Aha! Jesus has walked right into my trap.”
He quotes Deuteronomy 6:5 – Part of the Shema, the Jewish confession of faith recited by good Jews every day.
Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength (Deut. 6:5 NIV).
And then he adds Leviticus 19:8, “Love your neighbor as yourself”.
Pretty impressive! This guy knows his Bible. Love God. Love your neighbor. A good summary of the Ten Commandments. The first four are summarized by loving God. The last six, by loving your neighbor.
2. Not just talk, but KNOW (v. 28a)
And so, Jesus congratulates him. Well done! 100% “You’ve answered correctly!”
It’s important not to just talk about the truth, but to know the truth. To know what you’re talking about. And this guy certainly knows it. Loving God with everything you are, and everything you have. In 100% of your life, you’re to love God above anything else. Nothing else should sway your affections from adoring, and honoring, and lifting up God. Nothing is more important.
Does that describe you?
When you understand God rightly, and understand where you fit in in relation to God. Then you’ll love your neighbor as yourself because you understand how much God values humans. And so, you value them too.
3. Not just know, but DO (v. 28b-29)
But Jesus says, it’s not enough just to know it, you must do it, too. “Do this and you will live” (v. 28b).
What must you do to inherit eternal life?
Do this and you’ll live!
The words themselves were simple enough. Even the commands they described are simple enough. But as Jesus said the words, “Do this and you will live,” I can imagine that the lawyer’s heart sank. Because, his thoughts turned from the joys of intellectual banter – the to and fro of philosophical debate and religious discussion – all clean and precise and logical – to his own actions. He started thinking about the servant he’d yelled at this morning because his breakfast was cold; the leper he’d passed by in disgust; the failed business associate he’d refused to lend money to; the cousin he judged, and looked down on because his marriage had failed. All neighbors he probably should be loving like himself.
And so, he had to ask another question. To justify himself – to validate his own behavior; to move the boundary fence just far enough to make sure he was standing on the right side: “Here’s what I’m doing. Now how can I define things so that what I’m doing is acceptable?”
The common view of the time was to define a neighbor as a fellow Jew, one of your own people. Certainly, not a Gentile – a Roman, or a Syrian, or Egyptian . . . or Samaritan.
“And who is my neighbor?” (v. 29). Who am I expected to love? Show me the boundary. How far does my love need to stretch?
4. Not just do, but DO COMPLETELY (vv. 30-37)
But once more, Jesus refuses to play the game. Instead of a straight answer, instead of an easy out, he tells a story. And the point of the story is that we’re not just to do, but do completely.
Look at the story. Most of us know it well. “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho. . .” (v. 30). But on the way he’s attacked by robbers. He’s beaten up, stripped, and left for dead in a ditch by the side of the road.
Soon, a priest passes by. Probably on his way home from the temple. And his thoughts are filled with his work. The smells of the incense and sacrifices. The sounds of the music and singing. He’s thinking about the reading from the law he’d heard. About how good it is to be one of God’s children.
When he notices the man, lying by the roadside covered in blood.
The lawyer hears this, and thinks to himself, “Surely he’ll stop and help. He’ll be a neighbor.” But, the priest sees him and immediately thinks of half a dozen reasons why this guy’s not his neighbor:
And so, he moves to the other side of the road, pretends he doesn’t see and quickly walks by.
And the lawyer hangs his head a little lower.
Isn’t that just what we do every day? We choose not to see. Because once you notice someone – really see them. See them as made in God’s image. See them as victims of sin. That’s when compassion might take over and you’d have to do something. So, we change the channel. Or keep our eyes on the road ahead. Or toss someone a handful of coins to ease our consciences. Or offer to pray for them.
The German theologian Helmut Thielicke preached a sermon on this parable in the 1950’s in West Germany. He put his congregation into the shoes of the priest and talked of the importance of seeing.
It is so easy to make the detour and see nothing. So, easy to slide over the statistics of misery in the press. And turn off the radio when appeals are made for help. Why is it that back there (WW2) so few of us heard or knew anything about the concentration camps and the Jewish pogroms? Perhaps because we did not want to listen, because we were afraid of what would happen to our world view and our peace of mind.
You and I will be judged by our eyes. There are certain things and certain people I do not want to see. But it may be my Savior whom I have failed to see.
What things are we overlooking as Christians – things like the German Christians overlooked during the war? Things we need to hang our heads in shame at?
Jesus continues. Then a Levite passed by. Not quite a priest, but still an important part of the temple community. Surely, he’ll help.
He too, notices the man. He sees him, but he chooses not to see him. Puts his fingers in his ears, and closes his eyes. Whistles his favorite hymn, and quickly crosses to the other side of the road. And goes on his way.
But then a third man comes along. And everyone expects that he’ll stop and help. Because, that’s the pattern. The way they told stories in those days there were often three characters. Kind of like the jokes that begin “A priest, a minister and a rabbi . . .” In the stories, it’s always the third person who does the right thing. The lawyer knows it. Maybe he even thinks the third person will be a lawyer. But here’s the sting in the tail: “But a Samaritan . . .” (v. 33). I can imagine a gasp going up from the audience.
There had been bad blood between the Jews and the Samaritans for centuries. Not just like a sports rivalry, the dynamic was more like the enmity between Sunni and Shiites today. The Jews considered Samaritans to be half-breeds both physically and religiously. And the Samaritans, for their part, returned the hatred with interest. That this despised foreigner should be cast as the hero of the story would be deeply offensive to the Jews in Jesus’ audience.
Let me put it in modern terms. It’s Sunday morning in America. The pastor is headed to church. He sees a person lying on the side of the road, but if he stops he’ll be late for the service. So, he drives right on by. Next, along comes the youth pastor. He also sees the person lying by the side of the road, but he has a Bible study to lead, so he passes by also. Then, another person comes along. She’s wearing a hijab. She sees the person and her heart is moved with pity and compassion and she goes over to help. Two Christians pass by, but a Muslim stops to help. Get it?
So, this despised Samaritan stops. He sees the man, and has compassion toward him. He doesn’t see a Jew or a Samaritan. Or blood. Or wounds. Or bruises. Or broken bones. He sees another human being, made in the image of God, who could just as easily have been him.
His compassion makes him stop and bandage the guy’s wounds. And dress them with oil and wine. And put him on his donkey. And take him to an inn. And keep caring for him. And then paying the innkeeper extra. And then agreeing to meet any additional expenses.
How much further could he go?
The lawyer wants to know how far his love is expected to go. How much should he do? Jesus’ answer is to do completely. Love completely. There is no fence, no limit to who your neighbor is, to how far love stretches. Your neighbor is anyone that God places in your path that you can help.
And so, Jesus asks another question. The third one to the lawyer. “Which of these three was a neighbor to the man?” (v. 36). The answer’s obvious. “The one who had mercy on him” (v. 37). Notice: he can’t even bear to call him a Samaritan. The one who had mercy. Love. Endless compassion. That defines a neighbor.
And Jesus concludes, “Go and do likewise” Don’t just do, but do completely.
5. Not just do completely, but BE (vv. 38-42)
But if that was the end of the lesson. We’d all be depressed. We’d either shrug our shoulders, and give up – because no-one can measure up to that standard. I can never love my neighbor completely. Or we’d be tempted to try to impress God by what we do – to try that little bit harder, because that’s what to do to inherit eternal life – do completely.
But the problem is we’ve forgotten something. I don’t believe the lesson for us is more guilt-tripped legalism. That’s the very thing Jesus was arguing against. Because this whole story is only about the second greatest commandment. We’ve forgotten the greatest. What is it? Love the Lord your God. That comes first. Priority One.
Doing the second is worth nothing unless you’re doing the first.
Loving God gives us the perspective, and the motivation, and the goal so that we can love our neighbor. In fact, you can only truly love your neighbor when you love God first. That’s what the lawyer forgot.
And it’s what the next few verses remind us.
Jesus is invited to dinner at Mary and Martha’s house. And the two sisters show us two different responses to Jesus. They both know him. As far as we can tell, they both love him, but they show it differently.
Martha showed how important Jesus was to her by doing. Everything had to be perfect. The house, the food, the decorations, the fresh flowers. That’s not wrong. But she was so busy getting things right that she forgot all about Jesus. That’s where she went wrong.
Get the picture: In one room is Martha. In the other is Jesus and Mary. When Martha looks into the other room, who does she see? Not Jesus. She sees Mary. Mary, not helping. Mary, just sitting there listening. Look at what she says in v. 40, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
But, who does Mary see? Jesus. She sat at his feet, listening to him. Just what the Father said from the mountain at the Transfiguration, “This is my Son. Listen to him” (Luke 9:35).
The highest call of all is not to do, even to do completely, but to be. To be with Jesus. To love him. Be like him. To love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your strength and all your mind. Not to trick him, or test him, or try to impress him – that’s the lawyer’s mistake – but love him. Spend time with him. Learn from him. Talk to him. Listen to him.
And even though the second command is to love our neighbor as ourselves. And to do that completely. It’s not the goal. It’s simply the path we tread when we follow Jesus. When we sit at his feet and listen to him then we love and serve our neighbor because that’s what Jesus did, and we’re just following him.
What was Martha’s mistake? She was distracted by doing; so distracted that she forgot about Jesus and became focused on the wrong things – the things she was doing and Mary was not.
And Jesus says, ““Martha, Martha, (when the Lord says your name twice, you’d better pay attention) you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (vs. 41-42). Mary has gotten it right. I’m the focus. Follow me, listen to me, and the deeds will take care of themselves. You are who you are only in relation to me. You are important only because you are in me.
The first commandment is “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” is the second.
Know it. But don’t just know it, do it. But don’t just do it, do it completely. But don’t just do it completely, be it. Be a follower of Jesus. Be a listener of Jesus. Make him your highest desire and greatest joy. And then, and only then, you will love your neighbor as you ought to.