Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

This past Sunday we wrapped up our teaching series, What Jesus Hated, by switching things up. Instead of talking about something else Jesus doesn’t like, we focused our attention on something Jesus loved. Through a look at one of Jesus’ best-known parables, we looked at love in action and talked about why getting that right matters so much for us. Thanks for tuning in with me this week.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

I’m going to ask you a question to get things started this morning. When I do, I want you to shout out the first name that comes to mind when you hear it. Ready? Won’t you be my neighbor? Now, if you’re at all like me, there are two possible names that rushed to the front of your mind, and one of them is a whole lot likelier than the other. The second one of those names is Daniel Tiger from the PBS cartoon series, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. My kids, but especially Micah, used to watch Daniel Tiger all the time. Secretly, I loved it. Besides its being a fantastic show, the songs they included in each episode to teach some basic moral lessons to kids were like gold. We used them with our kids all the time. You probably only thought about Daniel Tiger, though, if you have had preschoolers any time in the last ten years or so. More likely, the name that came to mind first—as you shared out loud like I asked—was Mr. Rogers. 

Mr. Rogers—Fred, to his friends—wrote, produced, and starred in the PBS preschool series, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood from 1968 to 2001 when he stopped the show because of his battle with stomach cancer which he ultimately lost in 2003. While most preschool shows focus on cognitive learning for kids—math, science, reading, and the like—Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood (and now Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood) focused on emotional and social skills. He spent a lot of time talking about feelings and how to navigate some of life’s challenging situations. The real theme for the series, though, was on helping kids think about the people around them as neighbors. All kinds of people are our neighbors. That’s a given. What matters—and what Mr. Rogers worked to help them consider—was how we treat our neighbors. Well, Jesus had something to say about neighbors too. This morning, I’d like to take a look at that with you. 

Today finds us in the final part of our series, What Jesus Hated. For the past three weeks, we have been talking about some things Jesus really didn’t like. Actually, that’s not quite the whole story. We have been talking about some things the culture around us really doesn’t like. The culture around us doesn’t like these things, it often accuses us the church of being guilty of them, and then it rejects the church and a relationship with Jesus on these grounds. The trouble with this rejection is that Jesus didn’t like these things either. And when the culture and Jesus both agree on something like this, that means two really important things for us. We’d better not be guilty of it, but also this very agreement means we have some Gospel inroads when it comes to sharing our faith with our unbelieving neighbors. This common ground can be a great place for us to start building relationships that can eventually become opportunities for sharing the Gospel. 

And so what are these things Jesus and the culture both agree are not good? Judgmentalism, hypocrisy, and discrimination. We’ve talked about each of these through the lens of something Jesus said and which was recorded for us by His disciple, Matthew. Jesus hates judgmentalism because it leaves people in the mess they’ve made rather than helping them out of it through loving accountability. Don’t settle for being judgmental when accountability is the goal. Jesus hates hypocrisy because it proclaims the life of Christ is a lie even as it is the entirely natural result of any religion rooted in rule keeping as a means of righteousness. Jesus instead invites us to faith. If your faith is more than talk, your words will match your walk. Jesus hates discrimination because it is fundamentally a failure of love. Wherever discrimination exists, it is because enemies are being treated like enemies. But the antidote to discrimination is loving our enemies. 

Well, so far along the way of this journey, we have been talking about some heavy stuff. None of these are particularly fun topics on their own, but they are especially not very much fun when we have to reckon with our own failings in these regards. As a result, the last three weeks have been pretty heavy. I’ve tried to keep things from getting too intense, but today I would really like to lighten things up more than we have so far in this journey. Instead of talking about anything else Jesus or the culture around us hates, we’re going to talk about something Jesus loved. I even switched up the series graphic just for today. This morning we are going to talk about neighbors and what Jesus had to say about them. 

To do this, we are going to leave behind Matthew’s reflections on the life and ministry of Jesus and jump over to Luke. Luke was not one of Jesus’ disciples like Matthew was. In fact, we don’t even know if Luke was a follower of Jesus before the resurrection. He was Greek by background, a doctor, and a first-rate historian. After traveling with Paul on some of his missionary journeys (something we recognize by the shift from third to first personal pronouns in the relevant sections of Acts, which Luke also wrote), Luke set about writing an organized account of the life and ministry of Jesus and the rise of the church throughout the Roman Empire. His account is so organized and detailed, in fact, that it has been a veritable magnet for critical scholars attempting to prove the Scriptures are untrustworthy. And, time and time again, Luke has been proven right. Coming from a different cultural background gave Luke a different theological perspective. By that I don’t mean he offers a different spin on Jesus, but rather highlights Jesus’ concern for the least of these a bit more thoroughly than Matthew, Mark, or John do. As a result, Luke includes some of Jesus’ best-loved stories reflecting God’s compassionate heart for His people. One of these is where I want to take us this morning. It’s a story about what the love Jesus’ thinks so highly of looks like in action that has entered the collective memory of the world such that nearly everyone knows what we mean when we use the phrase, “the good Samaritan.” 

If you have a copy of the Scriptures with you this morning, join me in Luke 10, and let’s see how this unfolds together. In Luke 10:25, Luke starts us off with a bit of scene-setting narration: “Then an expert in the law stood up to test him…” Now, we don’t know exactly when this happened in the course of Jesus’ ministry. From the context, Luke places this episode sometime after Jesus had sent out a group of 72 disciples in pairs to teach and preach and do miracles indicative of the arrival of God’s kingdom into the world, but that’s about the extent of what we can see. The Greek word my English version translates as “then,” is the conjunction kai which often serves as a basic transition word. It is more literally translated “and,” but that doesn’t mean the same thing as our “and.” It was just a way for Greek authors to indicate a new part of the story was beginning. The point is that sometime during Jesus’ ministry He was somewhere doing some teaching, and this legal expert stood up to put Jesus to the test. 

Have you ever heard someone ask a question that wasn’t really a question? Politicians do this all the time in public hearings. They’ll “question” a witness, but their question functions a whole lot more like a monologue about some issue designed to give them a good sound bite they can use in an ad later. Or perhaps they asked a question that was intended to be a trap. This could be like asking some parents when they stopped beating their children. Other than perhaps a smart aleck reply along the lines of, “As soon as their behavior improved,” there really isn’t a right way to answer that question. This expert in the law was hoping to catch Jesus in a trap like this. 

“Then an expert in the law stood up to test him, saying, ‘Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’” The trouble for these guys and their efforts to trap Jesus is that Jesus was always the smartest person in the room. He was always smarter than everyone else and it wasn’t a close competition. Their efforts to trap Him always failed. Not only that, but He consistently flipped the script on them and trapped them in their own snare. Refusing to take the bait here, Jesus said, “What is written in the law? . . . How do you read it?” In other words, “What do you think is the way to inherit eternal life?” This was not how the lawyer wanted this to go, but Jesus had taken the spotlight and put it right back on him, so he had to answer. He went with the thing everybody already knew was correct. “He answered, ‘Love the Lord you God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind;’ and ‘your neighbor as yourself.’” 

Forcing the expert to answer his own question accomplished a couple of things for Jesus. First, it took away the man’s ability to question whatever Jesus’ answer might have been (as a matter of fact, Jesus agreed with his answer, which might have been purposeful on the man’s part if he had been following Jesus around to listen to His teaching for long), and it also gave Jesus the chance to use whatever the expert’s answer was going to be as a springboard to talking about the kingdom of God…which is what He did. “‘You’ve answered correctly,’ [Jesus] told him. ‘Do this and you will live.’” 

Now, Jesus’ response there probably deserves its own sermon. He basically affirmed a kind of works-based righteousness. If you could successfully get loving God with your whole being and loving others as a reflection of that perfectly, you would have eternal life. As the apostle Paul would later point out for the Galatian believers, “the whole law is fulfilled in one statement: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” Of course, we won’t ever actually manage to do that, something the Scriptures and all of human history have borne out rather decisively, but that’s why we have Jesus. 

Well, knowing Jesus had wriggled out of his initial trap, but not wanting to give up his quest entirely, the expert in the law asked a follow up question that, honestly, I think Jesus was trying to goad him into asking so He could tell His next story. The lawyer’s response to Jesus’ affirmation of his answer was, “And who is my neighbor?” So Jesus, like Jesus often does, tells him a story. 

“Jesus took up the question and said: ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him, beat him up, and fled, leaving him half dead.’” So, a dude has a run-in with some bad folks and finds himself in trouble. Big trouble. It was big enough trouble, in fact, that it wasn’t at all clear he was going to be able to survive it. He was totally helpless and utterly dependent on the kindness of whatever strangers happened to be passing by where he was laying. 

And, as it just so happens, help was on the way! “A priest happened to be going down that road.” What more could you ask for? Surely someone who undoubtedly took seriously the path to eternal life they had just been talking about would stop and help this poor man. But no. “When he saw him, he passed by on the other side.” Talk about adding insult to injury there. The priest wouldn’t even get close to the guy. But, the word for “priest” used here implied not so much a religious title as a cultural one. This man would have been from the highest echelons of Jewish society. He would have been a top tier politician. Those folks were all snakes anyway. Maybe the next guy would help. 

“In the same way, a Levite, when he arrived at the place and saw him…” The term “Levite” is more of a religious one. This would have been a lower level clergyman who served in the temple. Surely this guy wasn’t as arrogant as the last one so as to refuse to help this poor man. But he was too. “In the same way, a Levite, when he arrived at the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.” Okay, but these guys served in positions in Jewish society in which ritual purity mattered a lot. This guy was lying here half-dead, but maybe they thought he was fully dead. And if he was fully dead, then they couldn’t touch him without becoming impure themselves. And if they became impure themselves, then they couldn’t serve the people. So, I know it looks like they didn’t do the right thing here, but they were really just thinking about everyone else, not merely their own inconvenience. 

Except…both of these guys were coming from Jerusalem. That meant their religious work in the temple was completed. Becoming ritually impure, while inconvenient, probably wouldn’t have kept them from anything terribly significant as far as anyone else was concerned. But they didn’t know who this guy was. There were clear teachings in some of the Jewish writings at the time to which these kinds of guys would have paid close attention stating that while the righteous should indeed be quick to help those in need, they were under obligation only to their neighbors. What’s more, because God hates sinners, they shouldn’t lift a finger to help anyone who fit in such a category as that either. So, while, yes, we look at the priest and the Levite in this story from a position dripping with chronological snobbery and are scandalized at their refusal to even walk past this man on the same side of the road, Jesus’ contemporaries weren’t perhaps quite so bothered by it as we are. 

But there was one more passerby Jesus wanted everyone to hear about. Verse 33: “But a Samaritan…” If this story was given a soundtrack, this would have been one of those moments with a jarring musical sting. Everybody listening to Jesus understood without any doubt or hesitation that Samaritans were the villains of any story. This Samaritan was probably going to walk by and finish the guy off. That’s what Jesus must have been doing here. He was giving an object lesson on the importance of not missing out on opportunities to show God’s compassion to the hurting because you just never knew when someone like a Samaritan was going to walk by and kill them, taking away any future opportunities for righteousness. But, come on. This is Jesus. He never tells a story that goes the way we were expecting it to go. “But a Samaritan on his journey came up to him, and when he saw the man, he had compassion. He went over to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on olive oil and wine [those would have cleaned the wounds and acted as pain relievers]. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day, he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him. When I come back I’ll reimburse you for whatever extra you spend.”

And at this point, Jesus probably got quiet for a minute while He waited for everyone’s heads to stop exploding. And then into the pindrop silence, Jesus asked a really uncomfortable question of the lawyer: “Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” In other words and in light of the question that prompted this whole interchange, “Which of these three do you think are going to inherit eternal life?” The obvious answer to us is the same as the obvious answer to them, which was exactly Jesus’ point. “‘The one who showed mercy to him,’ he said,” to which Jesus replied, “Go and do the same.” 

Now, I suspect many, if not most, of you already knew that story. You didn’t need me to spend so much time telling it. Maybe I added a detail or two you didn’t know before, but that was about it. Jesus clearly thinks this whole loving your neighbor thing is kind of a big deal. And interestingly, the legal expert’s final question is what helps us understand why this was such a big deal to Jesus. Think for just a second about the three things Jesus doesn’t like we’ve talked about over the past few weeks. There was judgmentalism, hypocrisy, and discrimination. The thing about these three vices is that in spite of the world’s professed opposition to them, they are all natural. We do them automatically and without even realizing it. The lawyer’s attempt at justifying himself is a perfect example. 

After Jesus gets him to reveal his thoughts on the greatest commandment and commends him for it, the man asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Now, why would he ask this? Luke tells us that he was wanting to justify himself. Okay, but what does that mean? The man wanted to justify himself and all of the rest of the Jews so that he could continue being judgmental toward Gentiles, support policies of official discrimination toward them, and to continue doing all of that in spite of the Law’s clear command—which he literally just finished identifying as one of the greatest in the Law—to love their neighbors as themselves. If he could successfully define “neighbor” as only the people who are like him, then he could comfortably get away with treating all the “thems” in his life like garbage all the while patting himself on the back for being so faithful to God. 

Listen: We do the same thing. We’re not quite so overt about it as this guy and other Jewish legal scholars from the ancient world were, but we still do it. We find ways to diminish the humanity of our opponents so we can comfortably hate them. We seek to define the category of neighbor like a gerrymandered congressional district that winds in and out of a group of people so that it only includes those folks we are already predisposed to like so we can get away with all of this. But Jesus simply wasn’t having it. The story of the good Samaritan lays bare all of our pretensions at faithfulness and forces us to answer honestly the question of who is our neighbor. And the answer is everyone. Everyone is our neighbor. There aren’t any people in the world who don’t qualify as a neighbor. Why? Because a neighbor is someone with whom you share a basic level of commonality and by virtue of being human, we share a basic level of commonality with the entire human race. Everyone is our neighbor. So, if we are going to love God and love our neighbors as a reflection of His love for us as expressed through Jesus’ sacrificial death and subsequent resurrection from the dead, we are going to have to love everyone. Just like He does. That’s the Gospel. Loving our neighbor is at the very heart of the Gospel. Loving one another is at the heart of the Gospel. 

We’ve been talking about things the world professes to hate for the last three weeks. The irony of this whole series, though, is that the world doesn’t really hate these things. At least, not in practice. In practice, all of these things are exactly what the world is like. Indeed, it can’t produce anything else. But at the same time, our creation in the image of a God who is love and who loves and whose love is the antithesis of these things means that we inherently recognize the world isn’t like it should be. We have a constantly nagging sense of what is right in spite of the fact that we so consistently embrace what’s wrong. And the church is supposed to be the one place that gets all of these things right. In this, the church is the hope of the world. The world doesn’t want to admit that, but it’s true all the same. That’s why the world gets so upset when it sees us living down to the same standards they use. The Gospel promises God’s love for the whole world. And if His love is really going to be for the whole world, we dare not stand in the way of its reaching anyone. Loving one another is at the heart of the Gospel. 

So, what do we do with this? Well, we love one another. We commit ourselves to seeing the people around us moved intentionally in the direction of Jesus. That covers a whole lot of things we can actively be doing. Much of this flows from the question of how we can leverage the resources and advantages and abilities God has given us for the benefit of the people around us. If you have something good in your life, that thing is not intended for only you. It is intended to be a conduit for God’s love to flow through you to the people around you. Look at the community you’re a part of and clarify what are some of the needs it is facing. Then, look at how the resources you have at your disposal can line up with some of those needs. Those places where things match up are where God intends for you to be a herald of the Gospel. Loving one another like this is at the heart of the Gospel. 

This loving one another also covers some things we actively avoid doing. Actually, it completely reframes what might be called negative ethics—things we shouldn’t do to other people. We don’t do things like lying to other people or gossiping about them or speaking unkindly to them or being judgmental toward them or discriminating against them or cheating them or whatever else you want to add to that list not because “the Bible says so.” It’s better than that. We don’t do those things because they aren’t loving. That’s the only rule we have to keep (which is why there’s no place for hypocrisy in the Gospel). Loving one another is at the heart of the Gospel. 

The simple truth is: you and I have neighbors everywhere we look. And each one of those neighbors gives us an opportunity to live our lives in faithfulness to the Gospel as we love them after the pattern of Jesus’ own love for us. Loving one another is at the heart of the Gospel. So, let us show the world what it has been looking for all along. Let us show them why Jesus and His Gospel are the real answer to everything that ails them. Let us do that by our love. Loving one another is at the heart of the Gospel. 

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