When I was about 23 or so, I lost my favorite bible. I knew exactly where I left it, right under my seat on my airplane, and by the time I realized it hours later, I was sure I’d never see it again. Forget something on an airplane or airport and you might as well drop it in the middle of Clark Canyon Reservoir, gone forever. I didn’t even bother to call the airline – what difference would it make? But I was crushed – the bible had been given to me by my grandparents years before and was really the only bible I used throughout my college years.
Until a couple days later, on my front door was a package from FedEx. In it was my bible, this bible. And in it was a note from my flight attendant from a couple days before, who found the bible, saw my name engraved on it, somehow tracked down my home address from my initial flight reservation, and in it wrote something like, “I can tell just by looking at this thing that you probably wanted it back.” Amazing. In one sense I was floored in a cynical kind of way. Like, wow, outstanding customer service? … from an airline? What? But far beyond that there was this feeling of overwhelming gratitude, that a total stranger, who I’ll never see again nor really ever knew in the first place, would do such an incredibly kind thing for me.
This morning we come to yet another classic bible story – this time, it’s the Parable of the Good Samaritan. A parable and concept so familiar that it’s still a popular moniker used around the world to this day, to describe a stranger who goes above and beyond to help someone in need.
It’s a story that is in many ways an inspiring story about neighborly love, one that describes in vivid and practical detail what it looks like to love our neighbor. And yet the story also comes with a great unexpected twist, that gives the story a far greater and even more profound meaning, a twist that we’ll hold off for now and reveal near the end.
But for now, we’ll start by entering the heart of the story. The lawyer, in the midst of a conversation with Jesus, asks this question, “Who is my neighbor?” The two of them have just talked about the importance of loving your neighbor as yourself and yet “neighbor” is in some ways a vague term. Is it simply the people who we physically live near, who live on our block and street, is it anyone and everyone, or is it something else altogether? The lawyer wants some clarity on who these neighbors are and how the word neighbor is defined.
And to answer this question, Jesus, as he so often does, tells a story, or rather a parable. The parable that we know as the Good Samaritan.
And in it we learn at least three things in terms of what it looks like to love our neighbor:
We’re called to love our neighbors … whomever they are … wherever we are …. with whatever we’ve got
We’re called to love our neighbors … whomever they are
The parable begins in this way: “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.”
The first aspect of loving our neighbor means that we love whomever God puts in our path, regardless of ethnicity, gender, economic status, political affiliation, you name it. In this story we are told that the man who has been beaten by robbers has been stripped of his clothes and left half dead, meaning he’s likely unconscious.
Now think about that and how you tell where people are from – two clues are by their voice, their accent, and the clothes that they wear. But yet, here the Samaritan doesn’t have either of those clues to go off of. And that’s the whole point! It doesn’t matter. The Samaritan doesn’t walk up to the man who’s left for dead and before helping this man asks himself, “Hold on, before I help this guy out, I wonder if this person believes in the same God as I do? Or if they vote the same way I do.” You see, we’re not given those details because in moments like this those details don’t matter! What matters is whether or not that person is made in the image of God, intrinsically worthy of unconditional dignity and respect.
Today, churches around the world celebrate what is known as Pentecost Sunday. Where 40 days after Jesus rose from the grave and after he ascended into heaven, there was Pentecost, a day that is sometimes referred to as the birthday and beginning of the church as we know it today. Where God’s people were filled with the Holy Spirit, it says “tongues of fire” rested upon them, which is why our sanctuary is decked out in red, symbolizing fire- like imagery. We even got new pew cushions to mark the occasion … okay, I’m messing with you. They’ve always been that color.
Anyway, in addition to all that, a beautiful shift is beginning to take place. Where Christianity moves from being a national movement to a global one. From being mono-ethnic to multi ethnic, as every nation under heaven was gathered together, able to understand God’s Word to them in their own native language. You see, Christianity tears down so many of the barriers that the world often uses to divide us.
And so, our neighbors are whomever they are.
We’re called to love our neighbors … wherever we are
In this parable, Jesus tells a story about three people, a priest, a Levite and a Samaritan, each going about their day, living their lives, they’ve got places to be and people to see, who each just happen to see a man desperately in need, left for dead on the side of the road.
And so, who is our neighbor? I think Jesus is saying that our neighbors are wherever we are. He’s saying, take your ordinary life, that one where you go to work or school, the one where you stay at home to watch the kids, the one where you go run errands, and go to church, wherever it is that you live, work, play or learn and notice who’s around you and look for opportunities to be a neighbor to those who are in need.
That means that students, the people who you share classes with or play sports or are in choir or drama with, those are your neighbors. The people that we work with, neighbors. The people sitting next to us at Sweetwater, neighbors. The parents that we sit next to at our kids' sports games, neighbors. The cashier that you see every single week at the grocery store, neighbors. And go with me here, the person that you are sitting next to at church this morning whose name you may or may not know, say it with me now, they are your … neighbor!
Everywhere you go, there are your neighbors.
Years ago, I was working on a sermon at a coffee shop and there was this young, maybe college aged girl, at one of the tables across from me, and she was crying. I was oblivious to the whole thing. Callie was there with me and would later tell me about all of this because she’s far more perceptive than I am. Anyway, you’ve got this girl crying at the coffee shop and as this girl is crying this older woman comes over, sits down and asks if she’s okay. This woman asks her name, sees that she’s got a necklace with a cross on it and then she begins praying for her. Slowly this girl began to collect herself, the older woman went to the counter, bought her a coffee, said her goodbye and then went on her way. That’s neighborly love.
We’re called to love our neighbors … wherever we are.
We’re called to love our neighbors …. with whatever we’ve got
Notice just how far the Samaritan goes to help out the man who was left for dead. Just about every Sunday, when we get to the offering and talk about stewardship, we think about what we can offer in three different areas … our time (sharing time out of our day), our talents (the things we are good at and things we are gifted in), and our treasure (our money, our resources, our belongings.)
Look closely and notice how the Samaritan gives out of at least two of those three areas:
First, he gives his time. Taking precious time out of his day. And he doesn’t just give up 15 minutes. No, the parable says he took the man to an inn and took care of him. And then it says the next day he went up to the innkeeper. That means he spent the night! This man gave up his entire day to help this man.
He gives of his treasure, giving his money and resources. On his way to the inn he put the man on his donkey, which means the Samaritan is now walking all those miles, which would be exhausting. And it says he gave the innkeeper two denarii to allow him to stay there, a sum of money the equivalent of two full days of work, if not more.
You could even say he gave of his talents, using whatever first aid or medical expertise he had for the good of this man, bandaging the man’s wounds, pouring oil and wine.
This Samaritan loves this wounded, left for dead man, his neighbor with everything he’s got. He’s unbelievably generous. Giving of his time, his talents, and his treasure.
In total, the parable of the Good Samaritan shows us who our neighbors are and how we are called to love them … whomever they are … wherever we are …. with whatever we’ve got.
And if we leave things there, the story finishes as an inspiring story of sorts, one that ought to give us this newfound vision and inspiration to love our neighbor, more than we ever have before.
And yet, as I signaled near the beginning, the story contains within itself an unexpected twist.
And that is, the question that hovers over the Parable of the Good Samaritan is not first and foremost, “Who is my neighbor?” but rather a different and more pressing question altogether “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” That was the question that begins the chain of events that leads to this parable.
And that change of questions casts the parable in an entirely different light. Because consider the new implications. What must you do to inherit eternal life? Well, Jesus says you must love the Lord your God and love your neighbor like the Samaritan does … loving them whomever they are … wherever we are … and with whatever we’ve got.
All of a sudden, a story that was once incredibly inspiring, becomes incredibly overwhelming.
Because, I look at this story and I think to myself. Jesus, you can’t be serious. There’s no way I can meet that standard. Besides, who actually loves like this?
I know I don’t. I don’t love my neighbor the way the Samaritan loved his. I just don’t. I mean, maybe sometimes, for people I really like, but not all that often, and definitely not all the time. I often help those who look like me and agree with me or those who can repay the favor. Even more, I’m sometimes stingy with my time and resources. I’m not always open to interruption. I admit some of my worst moments are when I get short with my Callie when she tries to get my attention while I’m watching a TV show. Really, honey? Now I’m going to have to rewind it!
What Jesus wants the expert in the law to see is that he can’t inherit eternal life by perfectly fulfilling the law’s demands of loving God and neighbor. He’ll never be able to do it.
But yet, here’s the thing - maybe just maybe there is somebody else in the parable that Jesus wants us to identify with. In fact, let’s look at the parable one last time.
There is something about the parable that feels kind of backwards. The expert in the law asked Jesus a simple question - “Who is my neighbor?”
And if Jesus simply wanted to help the man see who his neighbor was and explain to him how he could fulfill the law and inherit eternal life, then he would have made the Samaritan the person left for dead by the side of the road and made a good old Jewish boy as the person who swoops in to help and become the hero. And Jesus could have simply said, just go be like that guy.
That itself would be a shocking & powerful message. The lawyer would get the point immediately, that loving his neighbor means loving even your enemies, even the Samaritans, whom Jewish people hated.
But yet, that’s not the story Jesus tells. Instead, he makes a small and yet powerful twist. He reverses the roles and makes the Samaritan the hero of the story!
And when Jesus says that a man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, he was describing an actual road that Jews walked down, an actual real life scenario that could happen to your average Jew. Jesus wants the expert in the law to look at the man left for dead on the side of the road and say to himself, “Wait a second, that could have been me.”
And so, instead of telling a story to the expert in the law that explained to him what he needed to do, Jesus tells a story that is essentially saying, “What if somebody did this for you?” What if someone loved you like this? What kind of impact would that have on you? Would it change the way you live? Would it change the way you look at your neighbor?”
What the expert in the law can’t fully see yet, but years later we can, is that Jesus is in many ways the true Good Samaritan. In fact, he’s the Goodest Samaritan of all.
You and I are unable to fulfill the law, unable to save ourselves, lying helpless on the side of the road. And yet, in his great mercy, Jesus, who we turned our backs on, who we made our enemy, saw us in our broken, helpless state and came to this earth, where he loved us with everything he’s got, laying his life on the line for us, even to the point of death, even death on the cross.
You see, Jesus is not giving the lawyer a new law to fulfill, rather, he’s giving him a new reality. The parable of the Good Samaritan is not merely a moralistic story or fable teaching us how to love our neighbors. No, it’s a story that is meant to point us to Jesus, the one who is the true Good Samaritan and greatest neighbor we’ve ever had.
And I’ll finish with this …
In the end, Jesus gives the lawyer a better question when it comes to loving our neighbor.
The lawyer asked, “Who is my neighbor?”
And yet by the end of the parable, Jesus asks a different question, “Who was a neighbor?”
It’s a small, yet profound shift. You and I today are still called to love our neighbors, loving them whomever they are, wherever we are and with whatever we’ve got. And yet the motivations driving our love change entirely, as we move from “have to” to “want to”
The heart behind the lawyer's question, “Who is my neighbor?” is essentially, “What’s the bare minimum required of me in order to get the job done? That’s a heart thats says, “have to.”
And so Jesus gives the man and us, “Who was a neighbor?” It’s a question motivated by love, overflowing with opportunity. It’s a heart that says, “want to.”
We love our neighbors, saying, “Because Jesus loved me, I choose to love you.” “Because Jesus was a neighbor to me, I want to be a neighbor to you.”