I will never forget a man named Jack. We called him "the candy man", not after the movie, but because he would give out candy to all the kids after church. He would always ask the question, "Are you still saved?" Sometimes he would put his hand on my head and tell me he was going to pray for me and he would say, "Out ignorance." My favorite was when he would come up to me and say, "God loves you and I am trying." Today we are going to talk about trying to love others even when it is hard.
Last week, we talked used the story of Martha and Mary to teach the point that we need to make spending time with Jesus and those Jesus entrusts us with. In Luke's account, the story that we are going to share today actually comes before the story of Mary and Martha. I want to suggest that in some ways this story actually goes together. Luke tells us,
On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" "What is written in the Law?" he replied. "How do you read it?" 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.'" "You have answered correctly," Jesus replied. "Do this and you will live."
In Jesus answering the question of which commandment is the greatest, he pieces together two pieces of the Old Testament, first from Deuteronomy 6 when he says that the first thing to do is to love God. He says the second thing is to love your neighbor. Last week we focused on loving God with Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus. This week, I want us to focus in on loving our neighbor. To do that, lets look at the story together.
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" In reply Jesus said: "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins 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.' "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.
Being God's Representative
In the story, the lawyer is not satisfied with Jesus' answer and presses Jesus further. He asks him, "Who is my neighbor?" Stop for a moment and ask yourself what the intent of this question is. Another way of asking this question is to ask, "Who do I have to love and who can I not love?"
Jews had widely understood the Law of Moses to say that their neighbors were fellow Jews. Therefore, the law exempted them from loving the gentiles.
Jesus responds to the question with a parable. He says that a man was going down from Jerusalem and is beaten and mugged by robbers and then left for dead. In the parable, two people, a Priest and a Levite see the man and walk on the other side of the road and do not stop to help this man. Both the priest and the Levite are God's representatives in the temple. They have probably finished their duties there and are leaving, since they are walking away from Jerusalem. These two people have accumulated status as God's people, not because of their actions, but because of the birth status. They are both well respected by their communities because of the importance of their position. These people serve the people in the temple and represent God their, but when they come by a man coming from Jerusalem, who has possibly just come from the temple, they pass him by.
Then, Jesus tells us that a Samaritan walks by and sees the man lying on the road and he has compassion for him. His compassion causes him to bandage up his wounds and take him to an inn where he could recover. He saved this person from dying on the road. As Joel Green points out, what distinguishes the Samaritan from the other two others is not that he is a Samaritan or that the other men are religious figures, but that this person has compassion. This person acts on God's behalf. If you will remember, Jesus is the one who sees people and has compassion for them. It is Jesus' compassion that leads him to heal and restore people.
What makes a person the representative of God is not the position of a person, but rather, whether the person does what God would do. These two people who work in the temple are not God's representatives, but rather, the Samaritan is the one who acts on God's behalf. At the end of the story, Jesus asks the lawyer, "Who was the neighbor?" The lawyer responds, "The one who showed mercy." In other words, "the one who acted on God's behalf is the neighbor." Jesus has totally turned the question around. Instead of asking who can we exclude from loving, Jesus says loving your neighbor is seeing people the way God sees them and having compassion for them.
Shortly after World War 2 came to close, Europe had been ravaged by war and was in ruins. It was not uncommon to see orphans in the streets because their orphanage had been destroyed. Early one morning an American soldier was making his way back to the barracks in London. As he turned the corner in his jeep, he spotted a little boy with his nose pressed to the window of the pastry shop. Inside, the cook was kneading dough for a fresh batch of doughnuts. The hungry boy stared in silence, with his nose pressed against the window, drooling and watching the cook's every move. The soldier pulled his jeep to the curb, stopped, and got out. "Son, would you like some of those?" The boy was startled. Oh yeah… I would." The American stepped inside and bought a dozen, put them in a bag and walked back to where the little boy was standing in the cold. He smiled, held out the bag and said simply, "Here you go." As he turned and walked away, he felt a tug on his coat. He looked back and heard the child ask quietly, "Mister… are you God?"
Part of what it means to love our neighbor is that we love the way God loves. Since God shows love to every person, regardless of who they are, we are called to do the same. Although this Jewish traveler would have agreed theologically with the two guys who passed him by, it was the Samaritan that represented God.
Showing Love when it is Hard.
There is a catch in this story. Although the important point is not that this was a Samaritan that had compassion on this traveler, the point adds a nice twist. Jesus had already said in Luke that it is not good for a person to just love those who love you or to be good to only those who are good to you, or to lend to just those who lend to you. He says even sinners do that. He says that you should love those who hate you and those who persecute you. Indeed we have this type of love in the story. I think it is reasonably safe to assume this person who was robbed and left to die was a Jew. The fact that the Samaritan acted with compassion is important because Samaritans and Jews were not the best of friends. The Jews had excluded them from the neighbor category and they did not associate with each other, nor did they worship together. Yet, the Samaritan loved his enemy.
Some kids ages 6-8 were asked what love means to them and their answers were very clever. One boy said, "Love is when a girl puts on perfume and a boy puts on shaving cologne and they go out and smell each other." One girl, age six said, "Love is when you go out to eat and give somebody most of your French fries without making them give you any of theirs." Terri at age four said, "Love is what makes you smile when you're tired." My favorite answer though came from a six-year-old named Nikka. She said, "If you want to learn to love better, you should start with a friend who you hate."
I think she is on to something. Loving your neighbor is about loving everyone, no matter who they are. The most difficult people to love are the ones who hate you, but those are the people God calls us to love. A guy who I went to church with used to tell me, "God loves you and I am trying." Honestly, I did not know whether or not to laugh or be offended. I think he is on to something though. Because God loves people, we should love them, even if it is difficult. Maybe we should be the Samaritan everyday.