The Great Commandment: Loving Our Neighbor (Part 3 of 3)
The second part of Jesus’ Great Commandment was that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. The question that comes to mind is, “Who is my neighbor?” You would not be the first one to ask that question. In fact, it was an expert of the law who asked it in Luke 10. In Luke’s version of the story, the lawyer asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life” to which Jesus asked the lawyer, “What is written in the Law.” The lawyer answered with the Shema, “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.” Jesus replied, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” Willing to justify himself, verse 29 tells us the lawyer asked, “And who is my neighbor?”
Jesus answered him with the parable of the Good Samaritan, one of the most well-known stories from the Bible. One researcher found that 49 percent of people in our biblically illiterate society could tell the story. Among the other half of the population, the idea of the “Good Samaritan” is familiar to most people. We name hospitals, churches, and institutions in his honor. Most people know a “Good Samaritan” when they see one—police officers and firefighters who come to our aid, and more particularly, those anonymous people who stop to change people’s flat tire or help blind people cross the street.
To understand who our neighbor is, according to Jesus, we need to examine three characters in the parable of the Good Samaritan:
THE WOUNDED WAYFARER
Verse 30 says, “And Jesus answering said, A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.”
Travel in some parts of Palestine in Jesus’ day was dangerous, and the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was a notoriously dangerous way to travel. It was a steep, mountainous road down 3,500 feet with narrow, rocky defiles and blind turns, which made it a place fraught with the danger of robbers. While on the road to Jericho, this traveler fell among thieves who stripped and wounded him and left him for dead.
You don’t have to be physically wounded to see yourself in this man’s sandals. In this life full of bad people, persistent problems, and serious struggles, there are wounded people all around us. Some are wounded in body as health has turned to illness; other’s self-respect has been wounded and they feel defeated or humiliated; some are wounded in their emotions, feeling loneliness or grief or alienation; and some are financially wounded, their finances are in freefall.
TWO PITILESS PASSERSBY
Two people passed by but showed no pity. Sadly, they were religious people. If there’s anyone who ought to care for another human being; if there’s anyone who should be compassionate and merciful; if there’s anyone you would think would help, you would think a person serving God as spiritual leaders would show compassion on this hapless traveler. Unfortunately, you would be wrong.
The first to pass by was a priest according to verse 31, “And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.”
This was one of the most outrageous aspects of this parable when Jesus told it. The priest was considered the holiest person among the Jews. He was taught the scriptures, entrusted with offering sacrifices for people’s sin, and allowed to go further into the Temple than regular people. If anyone should have reflected God’s character, it should have been the priest.
The second person who passed by this wounded traveler was a Levite, as we see in verse 32, “And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side.”
Levites were people who helped with the more menial tasks around the temple. Whereas being a priest was a full-tome profession, Levites served only at appointed times of the year in rotation with other Levites and worked other occupations during the rest of the year. You would think that someone more down on the level of the everyday person would have more compassion—but again, you would be wrong.
Why didn’t these men help this poor wounded traveler? The priest may have refused for a couple of reasons. First, a priest was not allowed to touch a corpse. But the Old Testament Law had a rich tradition of active compassion. All Jews, priest or no, were expected to help someone in need. The least the priest could have done was to determine if the man were dead or alive, but he didn’t even do that.
What he was doing was using one law as a loophole excusing him from obeying a higher law. Jesus denounced the Pharisees for this very thing in His diatribe against the Pharisees’ propensity to soften the Law to make it more palatable on one hand or to focus on the minutia of the Law at the expense of more important truths in the Law on the other. In Matthew 23:23-24 He said, “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law: judgment, mercy, and faith: these you ought to have done, and not to leave the other undone. 24 You blind guides, who strain at a gnat and swallow a camel.”
This priest was using his religious duty as an excuse from doing his spiritual duty, or even his basic duty as a decent human being. Have you ever known people like that?—meticulous about certain rules of their denomination or faith group, dressing just according to standard, avoiding their faith group’s list of condemned evil things, avoiding sinners—crossing all the t’s and dotting all the i’s—but having little compassion for others, and little willingness to sacrifice anything to help someone in need? A faith that is void of mercy and compassion is worthless to God. Maybe this was the reasoning of the priest, or maybe he didn’t want to be bothered, or had to get to synagogue in time to teach as lesson on mercy! Whatever his reasoning, he did not show compassion.
The Levite had no real religious excuse at all. He was a “commoner” with a fancy title. That’s not to diminish the important functions Levites had in the temple. But he should have felt more fealty towards his fellow man because he was closer to his level than the priest would have been.
Why did he not help? Was he just selfish? Was he too busy to help? Was he in a hurry to get home after his service in the temple in Jerusalem? Did he feel like he had done his religious duty for the day and therefore didn’t need to do anything more? Did he assume that maybe the man must have deserved what he got since God allowed it, so to help him would be to take away God’s just judgment upon him? We don’t know. We just know that he went to the other side and refused to help him.
In the end, both of these men did nothing. A speaker at a banquet was upset because he had forgotten his false teeth. The man next to him said: “I just happen to have an extra pair, try these.” The speaker tried them on, but they didn’t fit. “Well, try these,” the man next to him said as he took another pair out of his pocket. After trying several pairs, the speaker finally found a pair that fit. He said: “See how the Lord worked it all out…He sat me next to a dentist.” The man replied, “I’m not a dentist, I’m an undertaker!” Well, at least the undertaker did something rather than nothing!
When we see someone who is wounded in life, in need of a helping hand, needing some attention or love or care, you should do something rather than nothing.
A REMARKABLE RESCUER
Verses 33-35 continues: “But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was. And when he saw him, he had compassion on him, 34 And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 And on the next day, when he departed, he took out two pence (i.e., two denarii), and gave them to the host, and said to him, ‘Take care of him; and whatever you spend more, when I come again, I will repay you.”
I chose the words “remarkable rescuer” for this man not to alliterate, but for a specific reason. First, he was a rescuer. Notice what this rescuer did: He had compassion on this man. This is the key to the whole passage and it was the immediate cause of everything else he did.
Also, he “went to” the wounded man. The others went to the other side of the road to avoid him. The Good Samaritan wasn’t ashamed or afraid or concerned about what others might think about going to help this man.
Additionally, he bound up his wounds with oil and wine. There are over 600 references to oils for medicinal purposes in the Bible. I found references to thirteen specific medicinal oils. Each had healing properties for various injuries or ailments. Jesus doesn’t say what kind of oil the Good Samaritan added to wine, but most travelers carried a little “first aid kit” in case of accident or illness along their journey. Wine, being 7-15 percent alcohol, was an effective antiseptic to kill germs and as an anesthetic to dull pain.
The Good Samaritan also set the man on his own beast, probably a donkey, which means he had to walk the rest of the journey. Then he brought him to an inn and took care of him overnight. Finally, he gave money to the innkeeper to pay for room and board while he recuperated and promised to pay extra costs on a return visit.
Not only was the Good Samaritan a rescuer, he was a most remarkable one. The actions of the priest and the Levite were shocking to Jesus’s Jewish hearers, but the identity of this rescuer was clearly outrageous, even scandalous. Why? Because of his racial identity as a Samaritan. The prejudice and hatred of the Jews towards the Samaritans was fierce and longstanding, going back hundreds of years. Jews thought of Samaritans as half-breeds who had intermarried with the Assyrians, and impure in their religion because they did not worship in Jerusalem as expected of “true Jews,” and only recognized the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. It was not uncommon for Jews to refer to Samaritans as “dogs.” Such was the revulsion of the Jews towards Samaritans that many in the audience would no doubt have rather died than be helped by a Samaritan.
THE CRUX OF THE MATTER
Now back to the original question: Who is our neighbor? According to this parable, Jesus teaches that our neighbor is that person who is in need, whether he is like us or not. The battered wife, the emotionally abused husband, the verbally abused child, the grieving parent, the heartbroken divorcee, the sick, the infirm, the aged, the homeless, the defeated, the humiliated, the alienated, the discouraged, the financially broken, the orphan, the foreigner—these are all our neighbor. God calls us to love all these as our own selves.
But how are we to love them? Examining the Good Samaritan’s response, four things come to mind.
We must have compassion.
Compassion is not the same as pity. Pity is mere emotion; compassion does something about what you are feeling. Compassion compels action!
We must engage.
Luke tells us that the Samaritan moved toward the wounded man, not away from him like the religious leaders did. You must move toward people in order to love them. If you keep people away from you, love doesn’t happen. It involves engagement, sometimes with people really outside our comfort zone. The Samaritan was moving toward someone who would despise him, if he were conscious. But that didn’t stop him.
We must do something.
He did whatever he could do to help this man. He couldn’t do everything. He wasn’t a doctor. He had no expertise in the healing arts. Even his time was limited. For some reason he couldn’t stay longer to help the man. He had other pressing needs. But he did what he could…and that was enough.
We must be willing to pay a cost.
The Samaritan paid a cost of time and money to help this wounded victim. Loving never is without cost. There is a cost of time and there is often a cost of money. But there is no such thing as a costless love. By its nature it is sacrificial.
May God help us to live out the kingdom calling of the Great Commandment. May we strive to love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind. And may we love our neighbor as ourselves. Show true compassion to someone who needs it, engage with, rather than avoid, him or her, do what you can, and be willing to pay some cost. Be a good Samaritan.