Right now in our country, a debate is raging concerning who belongs within the borders of our nation. While the answer to that question is more complex than most of the sound bites we hear on the news, it has me thinking about a discussion Jesus once had with a young religious man in Luke 10:25-37 concerning who belonged in the kingdom of God.
The man started the conversation by asking Jesus “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus responded by giving the man an opportunity to showcase his own knowledge by asking him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?”
The young quickly rattled off from memory the very Old Testament commandments that Jesus would say were the greatest of all: “‘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.’”
Ask anyone in the crowd that day if the young lawyer resided in the kingdom of God and they likely would have said “You bet.” But Jesus knew better. He knew that having the right information in one’s head is not the same thing as being the right kind of person. So while our Savior acknowledged that the man had read the scriptures well, Jesus made clear that reading well wasn’t the key to participating in the Kingdom of God. One must also do what one has read in order to truly live.
That is after all what the young man asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus had caught him in his own words. This man knew what was right, but he didn’t do what was right. He liked the idea of loving God and loving others, but he didn’t actually like the practice of caring for other people, not once those people became up close and personal. If he’d had a computer, he probably could have clicked that he liked the Torah, and he liked loving God, and loving others. He might have even had a blog that talked about all the different ways a person could love God and love others. The problem was, he didn’t do any of them.
The sharp, young lawyer realized that Jesus had exposed his hypocrisy, so he attempted to justify himself by asking, “And who is my neighbor?” It was one of those questions with no answer or rather a question with a thousand answers. This is a classic move by a hypocrite. When someone corners them into some possible action, they attempt to get into a big discussion about any number of details because frankly, talking is easier than doing. “Who is my neighbor?” was a question that could lead to endless amounts of talking. The religious leaders of that day spent lots of time talking about it. It was a question about boundaries – a question of who’s in and who’s out.
In that way, the question “Who is my neighbor?” is really the question of “Who isn’t my neighbor?” The young man basically wanted to know “Where does my neighborhood end? Where is that line that separates us from them? Where is the border that distinguishes those for whom I am responsible from those for whom I am not?”
You see, another favorite pastime of the self-centered is figuring out the bare minimum amount of work that is required in order to be considered a good person. Jesus wanted to expose this line of thinking as contrary to the life of faith. So he continues the conversation by telling a story. What initially looks like an answer to the man’s question ends up being an extended opening to another question. Jesus wants to move the conversation from asking, “Who is my neighbor?” or “Where does my neighborhood end?” to the far more important inquiry “Am I a part of God’s neighborhood? Am I a resident of the coming Kingdom of God?”
Jesus does this by first exposing the unhelpfulness of “Who is my neighbor?” kinds of questions with the story of a man who became a victim of the notoriously dangerous road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Robbed of even his clothes, beaten, and left for dead we find ourselves with a man who has no identity other than his need. Is he neighbor, someone I know, or a foreigner? It’s hard to tell with all the bruises on his face. Is he a Jew or a Gentile? A respectable man or an outlaw, himself? Without clothes or other cultural markers one can’t be sure. It reminds us that the vast majority of the ways we divide one another up are pretty artificial. Naked and in need we’re all more alike than we care to admit.
One of the good things the Internet has done is open a window into our global neighborhood. While their once might have been a day when we could assume someone in Ghana or Syria or Columbia wasn’t our neighbor, that day is gone. A neighbor, as it turns out, is anyone God places in our lives who is in need.
As the story unfolds, Jesus continues to challenge assumptions by warning that just as it’s not always easy to recognize who our neighbors are, it is equally difficult to pick out those who are the neighbors of God. The two obvious residents of God’s subdivision, a priest and a Levite (perhaps coworkers of the young lawyer) each take turns happening upon the wounded man and each for reasons unknown, pass by on the other side without rendering aid.
Both of these men probably had good reasons for not rendering aid. It was dangerous. It was costly. Maybe they had important church meetings they needed to get to. Plus, there were other ways of helping besides actually helping. Ways that didn’t require so much risk. When they got back to town they would definitely blog about this, how dangerous the Jericho road had become. The Levite had even taken some pictures with his cell phone he was going to post to Instagram. The priest was going to start an online petition to get some lights installed on that stretch of highway. They’d start a Facebook group to protest the violence. They might even make a small donation to the local Jerusalem rescue mission and encourage the folks down there to open a branch on the Jericho road.
The Levite and the priest likely weren’t bad people. They were people like us. They were the equivalent of a Sunday School teacher and a deacon. No doubt, their hearts struggled with the decision to stop or not. Why didn’t they? Jesus doesn’t say and his silence indicates that their motivations for refusing to show compassion were irrelevant . . . whether ill or well intentioned, the outcome was the same. In Jesus’ eyes, idle compassion is no compassion at all.
In contrast to the Priest and the Levite Jesus introduces a Samaritan. For the original listeners, the Samaritan was a clear outsider, a religious heretic, and one whose country men have already shown themselves hostile to Jesus and his disciples just the chapter before. But this Samaritan acts against type and actually does something good. In fact, he does much good. Having compassion on the man, he tends to his wounds, places him on his own donkey, and takes him to an inn where he cares for him all night long. He then gives two full days worth of wages to the inn keeper with the promise of more. To put that in perspective: If you make $50,000 a year, that’s like shelling over $400 on this complete stranger, and then leaving your credit card at the Hampton and saying, the man can have access to it the rest of the week! Jesus’ version of compassion is anything but idle.
Unlike the Levite and the Priest, the Samaritan practiced true compassion. He didn’t just like the idea of being compassionate. He didn’t just feel pity for the man and move on. He was a compassionate person. At the core of his character was this fruit of the Spirit – as a result, his actions flowed naturally from his character. Selfish characters are always looking to discover the absolute minimum that’s required to feel good about themselves. Truly generous people are always on the lookout for new opportunities to be generous to others. The question for us isn’t what’s the least I do to inherit eternal life, but how can I have more of the kingdom of God in my life right now. One of the clearest ways is to practice compassion towards those in need.
The young lawyer mistakenly believed he was already living in God’s kingdom, he just wanted to know what the dues were. Jesus said the kingdom operates from a different set of standards altogether. Who is a neighbor in God’s kingdom? Remarkably, not the ones with the best theology. Not the ones with the best answers. Not even the ones who send the most religious e-mails or quote the most Bible verses on their Facebook or Twitter feeds. No, the one who shared the same zip code as the Almighty according to Jesus was the one who shared in the Lord’s compassion for the wounded man. Even the lawyer could see that. The question remains though, did he go and do likewise? I wonder, will we?