With a plain red sweater, white canvass sneakers, a warm smile, and a simple song Fred Rogers became a PBS legend. He recently passed away, but his work still lives on because he did his best to be the kind of person that every child would want for their neighbor. Does anyone know the name of TV show I’m referring to?
As a boy growing up, I watched Mr. Rogers on TV every day and as a parent I watched it with my son. Over the years not much has changed with the show; it is still the same house, the same trolley to take you to a world of make believe, the same puppets, and the same opening song. In every episode Mr. Rogers always asked the same question at the end of his song: “Would you like to be my neighbor?”
This morning I want to look at a familiar story in the Bible, which asks a similar question about being a neighbor. It is perhaps the most well-known parable in the Bible. It’s definitely one of my favorites! It’s found in Luke 10:29-37.
25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
27 He answered, “‘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.”
28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
In verse 25, there is a lawyer who “stood up to test Jesus.” He was not a lawyer as in an attorney at law; rather he was an expert in the Law of Moses. He knew what the Ten Commandments said; he knew what the Old Testament taught. The lawyer asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” In other words, he is asking: “What must I do to be saved?”
His question, however, is not sincere. Remember, he is only trying to test Jesus. In his mind, he already knows the answer. He is a Jew, and Jews thought that they could inherit eternal life by simply being a Jew (God’s chosen people). That’s like saying you’re a Christian because you were born in America or born into a Christian home.
But Jesus does not answer his question. Instead, He asks the lawyer what the law said about the great commandment: “What is written in the law?” Jesus asks. Jesus was giving the lawyer the opportunity to answer his own question about inheriting eternal life.
In verse 27, the lawyer tells Jesus what is written in the law. He says “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.” It is a combination of Deuteronomy 6:5, which says to “love God with all your heart” and Leviticus 19:18, which says to “love your neighbor as yourself.” It is known as the “Greatest Commandment.”
From this passage, we learn that both God and humans are to receive love. Such love is not marked by the presence of great feeling, but is objectively manifested in compassion and other outward signs of loving acts and considerate responses. In other words, to love and be devoted to God is expressed by love and devotion to others. There is no distinction between love for God and treatment of people. They go together. Jesus wants total love for both God and humankind. This is a summary of the Law of Moses.
In verse 28, Jesus affirms the lawyer for knowing he is to love God and his fellow man. But just having knowledge of what God requires him to do is not enough. Such knowledge needs to be put into practice. The lawyer had no problem with God; he had studied God in the Old Testament. He thought he knew all about God, but he hadn’t applied this knowledge to his life.
In verse 29, the lawyer wants to clarify who a neighbor is and how extensive the demand is that he loves his neighbor. He has trouble with the idea of being a “neighbor.” He is trying to separate his relationship with God from his relationship with his fellow man. He is so heavenly minded that he is of no earthly good. He wants to know who he has to love and who he does not have to love.
But the important question is not “who is my neighbor,” but “To whom can I be a neighbor?” This is what Jesus is focusing on. Loving both God and people is a summary description of what believers are to do (1 Corinthians 2:9; James 1:12, 2:5). Anyone who truly loves God will respond to His message and, as a result, to his fellow humans.
But the lawyer fails to see this! It is clear that he is not anxious to correct his past neglect; all he wants to do is to justify himself. He is seeking a clarification from Jesus that will allow him to feel confident and comfortable about not loving certain people. The implication is clear that he wishs to soften Jesus’ command to love his neighbor as himself. He does not want to feel a sense of obligation to respond to the needs of others.
It is here that Jesus turns the discussion with the lawyer into a confrontation. The lawyer is looking for the minimum obedience required, but Jesus requires total obedience. That the lawyer seeks the minimum shows that something is wrong: he is approaching God on human terms and not on God’s. The parable leaves no doubt that the lawyer is challenged by Jesus’ command to love his neighbor.
The problem is he does not want to love all people, especially the sinful and hurting ones. So the lawyer is basically asking Jesus, “How can I spot people who belong to God, so that I can love them?” His question about identifying his neighbor is really an attempt to say there is such a person as a “non-neighbor.”
This reminds me of Hitler and the holocaust. Hitler did not consider the Jews to be real people. To him, they were a subspecies. They had no value and were not worthy of his love, which is why he led an army of Germans to annihilate them.
But Jesus refuses to allow this limitation. He rejects all attempts to shrink the scope of human responsibility and love for our fellow man. He refuses to turn people into things that can be ignored. So he basically tells the lawyer, “Do not worry about spotting God’s people, just be a neighbor to everyone.” The scope of the command to love and be a neighbor is far greater than the lawyer had anticipated.
Look at verses 30-37.
30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
In verses 30-35, Jesus tells a story about a man who falls prey to robbers. The victim is only minimally described, since he is not the focus, those who react to him are. He is traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. The journey had a reputation for being very dangerous. It went from almost 2,600 feet above sea level to 825 feet below sea level and was about 17 miles in length. It was rocky, went through the desert, and was surrounded by caves, which made good hideouts for robbers who waited to attack people and exploit travelers on this road.
To meet such robbers was the fate of this man. The robbery left him in a serious state, for not only was he robbed, stripped, and beaten, he was also “left for dead.” He was literally fighting for his life. This man was in need of a “neighbor.”
It’s easy to point our finger at the terrible thieves, but we need to look a little deeper… within ourselves. Maybe, we haven’t physically attacked anybody, but we usually attack people with our lashing tongue. Our tongue is a deadly weapon. It can kill our testimony or the reputation of another. Your tongue can strip a person of their joy, hope, and love. There’s a phrase, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” Not true! When we let the devil have control of our tongue, it becomes a deadly weapon, leaving people half-dead, just like this man was, unable to continue on their journey.
Sometimes, we wound others passively instead of actively by neglect, the failure to speak. We refuse to listen, witness, encourage, teach, uplift. In so doing, we wound our neighbors. There are people all around us who are wounded and in need of a neighbor. Perhaps there are some here this morning – wounded, miserable, hurting, in pain. They feel like life has thrown them on their back and is kicking them while they are down. They are wounded (1) in body – their health has turned to sickness; (2) in self respect – they are defeated or humiliated; (3) in affections – they are lonely, experiencing grief, or animosity; (4) spiritually – they have lost the joy of their salvation, or have fallen into sin; (5) financially – their world is falling apart around them. Before we can ever be a neighbor to someone, we need to see who is in need of a neighbor. This man who was attacked by robbers was in need of a neighbor.
So what is the reaction to this tragic scene? Who will respond to the man in dire need? In verse 31, we’re told the first man with an opportunity to help is a priest. He was coming down the road “by chance.” This appears to be optimistic; help is around the corner. Having a priest on the road would not be surprising, since many priests lived in this region. Here is God’s servant who ministers in the temple and represents the height of piety. But when the priest sees the man, he passes by on the other side of the road and provides no help to him.
Many motives have been suggested for the priest’s refusal to help: fear of becoming unclean from touching a corpse; hesitation to help someone who may be a sinner; fear of being robbed while giving aid. However, none of those motives are legitimate nor is Jesus concerned with the excuse. The point is the priest gave no help. Can we identify with the priest who was too busy, too concerned about his own life, too tired from a long day’s work, and too selfish to love his neighbor?
In verse 32, a second religious leader comes down the road, but he too passes on the other side and offers no help to the man in need. He was a Levite: a member of the tribe of Levi. He was responsible for the less important tasks at the temple and could be thought of as a priest’s assistant. The Greek wording suggests that he took a closer look at the injured man and the place where he lay, but he still walked away. Whereas the Priest didn’t even get close, the Levite is curious; he wants to know what is wrong. He was very willing. The problem is we have a lot of willing people in the church – willing to let somebody else do it! It’s easier to do nothing.
The Passing Priest and the Looking Levite didn’t fail because they were not religious; they failed in spite of their religion. They had religion, but they didn’t have a relationship with God. Both the priest and the Levite are official, pious Jewish leaders. They have two tries to respond to the crisis, but do not. Disappointment with the lack of help is heightened. The drama remains, “Who will love this helpless and dying man?”
In verse 33, everything changes as a third man, a Samaritan, arrives on the scene. For a Jew, a Samaritan was among the least respected of people. Eating with Samaritans was equated with eating pork. Such people were unclean and to be avoided. Jews and Samaritans hated each other.
This would be like a Cuban refugee finding Castro beside the road or like an Indian finding a cowboy beside the road. The Samaritan would be the last type of person the lawyer would expect to help the man and resolve the crisis. This twist in the story is key, for it is a despised Samaritan, who loves the man, outshining the exemplary pious Jews with his sensitive response. It is he who shows compassion to the half-dead man, not them.
This is the essence of being a neighbor: having the sensitivity to see a need and then do something to meet that need. The account focuses on the Samaritan’s activity as a neighbor. While the others scurried past, the Samaritan lingered over the one who needed help. By choosing the Samaritan as the model, Jesus shows that neighbors may be found anywhere, among any racial group, even in those groups despised by the Jewish leadership.
In verses 33 and 34, Jesus describes several concrete compassionate actions the Samaritan undertakes for this man: He (1) comes up to him and (2) binds his wounds. This might have involved the Samaritan’s ripping up some of his own clothes for bandages. As he engages in the process of bandaging the wounds he (3) anoints the cuts with oil and wine. Oil soothed the wound, while wine disinfected it. The Samaritan may have even deprived himself of refreshment in the midst of his journey to care for the man. He (4) loads the man on his own mule, which probably meant the Samaritan walked from here on. He (5) takes him to an inn, where he (6) can provide further care and comfort to the man he has just met. He does not dump the body and run, but stays the night to care for him. As a neighbor, he does everything he can to love the man.
In verse 35, the Samaritan insures the continued care of the man by laying out two days’ wages and offering to pay additional expenses. The innkeeper is to look after the man until the Samaritan returns. It is clear the Samaritan intends to pay the entire bill. The sense is, “I will repay, not the man.” The Samaritan has taken care of the problem, as well as helping with the man’s physical wounds. This compassionate act, as many compassionate acts do, involved a concrete price that the Samaritan was willing to pay.
Compassion is more than just pity. It is an inner stirring; a deeply motivated, unnatural love. The Samaritan saw a need and did something to meet that need. Love does not look at obstacles; it looks at opportunities.
A neighbor is anyone we see, whose need we are in a position to meet. But the lawyer was only willing to talk about who his neighbor was. He was not willing to do anything. One of the best ways to get nothing done in the church is to just talk about it, but not actually do it. A ministry that costs nothing accomplishes nothing. Are we willing to be inconvenienced in order to show the love of Christ to our neighbors?
In verse 36, Jesus asks the lawyer’s opinion about which character acted as a neighbor to the injured man.
The lawyer gives the obvious answer, though he cannot bring himself to say the word, “Samaritan.” Instead, he focuses on the showing of mercy, which was the key to the Samaritan’s exemplary action. Although the lawyer has seen the point of the story, he has yet to break through his prejudice.
So in verse 37, Jesus calls him to respond. He tells the lawyer to, “Go and do likewise.” The lawyer is to emulate the Samaritan. The lawyer is to be a neighbor to anyone he sees—like the Samaritan was. The question becomes does he love God enough to respond to needs of hurting people? Does he love people enough to be a neighbor to them regardless of their background? What about you?
This parable is a significant passage about a disciple’s ethics. It shows what kind of action God require of us. Love for God expresses itself in love for people and sensitivity to the needs of others. If we truly love God, our love for Him will be manifested in outward actions of love and compassion toward others.
Compassion, response, and love is what makes a good neighbor. Neighborliness is not found in a racial bond, nationality, color, gender, proximity, or by living in a certain neighborhood. We become a neighbor by responding in love to the needs of others.
If we seek to restrict those we serve, we are not truly loving God and being a neighbor to all people. The issue is not to seek to identify which people are worthy of our love, but to love and serve anyone where a need exists. We should not to seek to limit who our neighbors might be. Rather, we are to be a neighbor to anyone whose need we can meet. A lack of love for our neighbor reflects a lack of love for God.
Jesus used this story of the good, but despised Samaritan to make clear what attitude was acceptable to Him. All people are to be loved and treated fairly. Anything less is unacceptable. This parable is a call to be a neighbor to everyone, showing compassion to anyone who is in need. Being a neighbor does not make distinctions in offering care. At the heart of believing in God is loving both Him and other people.
Such was the example of the Samaritan, who not only soothed the beaten man’s wounds, but also took him to a place of shelter, cared for him, and made sure his needs were met. The Samaritan cared for a person he had never seen before, a total stranger. Without asking questions, he served a cup of mercy to a person half-dead. By reviving life, he showed life.
Welcome to the neighborhood!