And a lawyer stood up and put Him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” And He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How does it read to you?” And he answered, “YOU SHALL 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 YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.” And He said to him, “You have answered correctly; DO THIS AND YOU WILL LIVE.” But wishing to justify himself, he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied and said, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among robbers, and they stripped him and beat him, and went away leaving him half dead. “And by chance a priest was going down on that road, and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite also, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, who was on a journey, came upon him; and when he saw him, he felt compassion, and came to him and bandaged up his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them; and he put him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn and took care of him. On the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper and said, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I return I will repay you.’ Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the robbers’ hands?” And he said, “The one who showed mercy toward him.” Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do the same.” (Luke 10.25-37)This week I’d like to step backwards a chapter or so in Luke and take a look at an interaction between Jesus and a first-century Jewish lawyer. Luke is clear that the motive of this lawyer was not rooted in a sincere desire to answer some question for which his own heart sought an answer, but rather this was a test. Knowing this, and being wise and knowing His own religious culture, Jesus responds with a very safe answer, which is actually another question, “What is written in the Law?”
The lawyer then sums up the entire law, showing a good deal of familiarity with the law and insight in regards to its root principles, which are loving God and loving your neighbor. Jesus then affirms his answer as being correct and then quotes from the law Himself, “Do This and You will Live.” Jesus here is quoting from Leviticus 18.5, showing that He too had an excellent knowledge of the law even in its details, but you have to imagine, up to this point, the conversation is very “surface,” shallow, or formal quid pro quo.
But then the lawyer’s motives transition from testing Jesus to now wanting to show off, or “justify himself.” He now is endeavoring to draw Jesus into one of the many disputes of that day over the law. What does the law mean when it uses the word “neighbor”? I am convinced that the dispute over the law’s use of the word “neighbor” in this context was rooted in a desire to escape the most obvious meaning of the law because it was too demanding. To truly love your neighbor as yourself was a level of other-centeredness that far surpassed the “religiosity” of the contemporary religious system of Jesus’s day and demanded too much. And it was in direct contradiction with their own emotional investment in things such as their nationalism, their own violent picture of God, and their investment in their own sense of moral superiority to the world around them. But Jesus, never one to miss a “kingdom” opportunity, I imagine, says to Himself, “I can work with this.” He then answers this lawyer’s second question with one of the things Jesus was famous for—a story.
This story is so famous that I fear to spend too much time repeating it for fear that many of you will simply tune out at this point, but there is a unique element here that I believe most religious folks just gloss over. I’d like to focus on this missing piece this week for just a moment and see if we can’t really get into Jesus’s headspace on this one.
Jesus here is contrasting a priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan. To get the full impact of what Jesus is doing here, we must realize the roles of each of these in first-century Judaism.
A priest was the highest position in the religious system of Jesus’s day. He was the embodiment of all that their religiosity stood for. Originally the priest role, I believe, was one of teacher. His office was richly symbolic. It was designed to teach us something of the character of the Father. But by the time we get to Jesus’s day, the office stood at the pinnacle of their religious system, the heart of their religiosity. A Levite, in addition to this, was simply an assistant to the priests. But a Samaritan was much different. “Samaritan” was the name given to the new and mixed inhabitants that Esarhaddon (King of Assyria, 677 B.C.) brought from Babylon and other places who settled in the cities of Samaria. They replaced the original inhabitants who had been previously removed (2 Kings 17:24; Ezra 4:2,9,10). These Samaritans had amalgamated with the Jews and gradually abandoned their old idolatry and partly adopted the Jewish religion. Their religious beliefs would have been a hybrid of the teachings of Jehovah and paganism. They were considered “outsiders” by those who considered themselves the people of God, not on the basis of rightness of behavior, but rather on the basis of rightness of belief, because their beliefs were a mixture of truth (teaching of Yahweh) and error (paganism).
Now I do not want to be misunderstood at this stage. Being “right” in what you believe does have intrinsic value. It is important. But it’s important in the sense that it sets you on a trajectory of having a more accurate picture of God and thus a more restored relationship with God and becoming a conduit of His radical, other-centered, self-sacrificial love toward others. But it does not guarantee you will follow this trajectory. You can have all the right beliefs intellectually and still have a heart severely estranged from a correct picture of God and the love that defines what His kingdom is all about.
This is the point of what Jesus is teaching here. The lawyer had all the right answers intellectually and religiously. But he had not made the connection yet about what the right answers were saying about God and the love with which we should relate to others. He still considered himself on the “inside,” considered himself to be more holy than others, more saved than others, as having more truth than others. He looked down with disdain on others, especially that group whose beliefs were a theological hybrid at best—those Samaritans.
And this is the beauty of how Jesus taught. The ones whom this lawyer would be the most likely to revere, the most religious, were the bad guys of the story while the one whom the lawyer would be the most likely to look down on with disdain was the hero. And the reason? Because that which reveals if one is truly following Jesus is not necessarily being right in all your beliefs, or being right in all your behaviors, but rather, it’s in how you choose to love.
“By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13.35)
By this all men will know we are following Jesus, not by how religious we are, but by the degree to which we allow the radical, self-sacrificial, other-centered love of the kingdom to flow through us.
Again, this isn’t saying that rightness of beliefs is not intrinsically valuable, because it is. But we are never to derive our identity from how right our beliefs are (or how right our behaviors are). Our identity, our assurance of whether we are on the inside (versus the outside) of Christ’s kingdom is to be rooted and grounded in the love for us that we see inside of God’s heart, which He revealed to us on the cross of Calvary. Our identity then is not to be rooted and grounded in how “right” we are but rather, whether we have embraced God’s radical, self-sacrificial, other-centered love for us and are allowing that love to be more than a concept, but also our way of doing life. Are we allowing the love that God has for us to flow through us to others? Are we allowing His love for us to awaken in us love for those around us, even our enemies?
This is a significant foundation to what it means to follow Jesus. Now, this week, I’d like you to consider who would fill the roles of this story if Jesus were to tell this story in the context of our religiosity today. Who would the Samaritan be in our contemporary Christian culture? Would it be a “pro-choicer” who may intellectually disagree with you on the issue of abortion but who is more loving to those around them than maybe some of us? Would it be a homosexual, which many Christians would look down on with disdain and consider to be a “sinner,” but who relates to others with a greater degree of radical selfless love than some of us? Or would it be someone of another denomination, or someone who disagrees on some area of theology that you consider to be of great significance, but who is allowing the radical love of the Kingdom to flow through him or her to others to a greater degree than you? We must allow Jesus’s story to confront us too.
And, lastly, who would the priest and Levite be? Who would it be who would play the role of being too busy with his own “religious” agenda to stop and become “unclean”?
I cannot escape the conclusion that what God is whispering to my heart this week is it would be me.
Something to think about this week for sure.
May God’s radical love become the basis of our deepest identity. But may it not simply define our theology, but also how each of us, as His follower, “does” our life. Are we doing life in a way that mimics God? Are we living the life of love? Are we being Jesus to the world around us, not just collectively, but on an individual basis as well? This is the question.
Keep living in love, loving like Christ, and during this holiday season, keep building the Kingdom.
I love you guys.
I’ll see you next week.