(This also appeared in the Faith column of the Sentinel-News in Shelbyville, KY on July 22, 2016)
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.”
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
(Luke 11:25-29, NIV).
The above passage from Luke 11 is an exchange between Jesus and a lawyer. The lawyer, after having correctly identified the Great Commandment realizes that he has not exactly been obedient. So he asks about a “loophole.” Who exactly is my neighbor? You see, if he can challenge the definition of the word “neighbor,” then maybe he can get off the hook for failing to love certain people.
Jesus answers with the very well known “Parable of the Good Samaritan.” In Luke 11:30-35, Jesus tells the story about a man who was beaten by robbers to within a half-inch of his life and left for dead, stripped naked, on the side of the road. After two religious people ignore him and pass him by, a hated Samaritan stops to help. In fact, he goes way out of his way to help and care for the man. Then Jesus asks the lawyer, which of these three were a neighbor to the man beaten in the ditch? The lawyer correctly answers: the one who showed him mercy. Go and do likewise, says Jesus.
I like this parable a lot and it has challenged readers throughout history. It is especially relevant in this presidential election year when people are slinging hatred across the partisan line, certain that those people who are voting for him or voting for her are traitors to the nation and therefore worthy of the same hatred Jews and Samaritans hurled at each other for centuries. The answer to the lawyer’s question is disturbing news to him and to us. Who is my neighbor? We ask. Everyone, Jesus says. Yes, even that person. Go and love that person.
I like this parable for the way it answers the lawyer’s question, but did you notice that it answers another question too? The question that is answered is “who is my neighbor?” But the lawyer, looking to justify himself, looking to find a loophole to get him off the hook for not following this command, could have asked a different question: “And what exactly is ‘love?’” And you know what? This question is answered too!
And that is a really, really good thing, because perhaps there has never been a more misused and misunderstood word than “love.” We use this word when we really mean that we desire or enjoy something. And most offensively, we use this word to keep us from looking like jerks when we gossip about people: “Don’t get me wrong, I love Mr. Jones, but….” The word “but” should never come after the word “love.” And the one that drives me up a wall is “I love the sinner, but I hate the sin.” Again, there is that word, “but.” And, we only seem to use that phrase for certain people. Did you notice that? We never speak about our children or our parents that way, only people we don’t want to associate with. But the fact of the matter is, we are all sinners, right? So if that phrase means what people say that it means, then if you use it for one person, you have to use it for all people. Love is not just this thing that we say to justify treating someone like trash.
But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. The Greek expression translated “took pity” literally means that his guts were ripped open. Ouch. “Compassion” is another word. Compassion means, “to suffer with.” Love hurts. If you love someone, then when they hurt you hurt. This shared sense of humanity transcends all demographic lines we draw between each other.
He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. Love is action. Good God, let me say that again: love is action. Love is not a feeling, it is not a desire, it is not an idea. It is an action. When you love, you do something. And you don’t just do anything; you do what is needed. In our society, the only place I consistently see this is among first responders and hospitals. Firefighters, police, EMS, ER doctors do not give you a test to make sure you are worthy of being helped before they help save your life. By God, I wish I could say that the church was like that.
The next day he took out two denarii 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.’ Love is costly. And sometimes, you don’t know what love will require up front, so it takes a leap of faith. This parable amazes me, because the Samaritan basically writes a blank check. Whatever it costs, he says, just write the amount in on the line. I’m good for it. Wow!
Now, I have to be honest, I don’t know if I could write a blank check to help a stranger. There is a limit to my bank account. But there is one who has no limit. Do you know who that is? He’s the one that pulled a hopeless and helpless sinner like me from the ditch. Jesus wrote a check just like that Samaritan and said, whatever it costs to save his life, write it on the line. Even if it costs me my life, write it on the line. Because I’m good for it.
And what is love? It looks like the cross. Praise be to God. Go and do likewise.