Indifference or Compassionate Action?

 

Week of March 17, 2013

 

Bible Verses:  Luke 10:25-37.

 

Lesson Focus:  This lesson can help you choose to live a compassionate life.

 

 

Ask the Right Questions:  Luke 10:25-29.

 

[25]  And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, "Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?"  [26]  He said to him, "What is written in the Law? How do you read it?"  [27]  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."  [28]  And he said to him, "You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live."  [29]  But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"[ESV]

 

[25-29]  Jesus had been rejoicing over the way His Father had hidden the secrets of salvation from people who thought they were wise and revealed them instead to people with childlike faith. In this context,  a lawyer stood up to put him to the test. In Israel, to be a lawyer was to be an expert in God’s law – a Bible scholar and a theologian. This man knew the laws of God from the Scriptures of the Old Testament, and he sought to apply them to daily life. In this case, his question dealt with a matter of supreme importance: eternal life. What could be more important to know than the way of everlasting life? Yet as important as this question is, there were some problems with the way the lawyer asked it. One was his motivation. Luke tells us that he was putting Jesus to the test. How foolish it is to test God on His Theology, and yet people do the same thing today. Rather than accepting Jesus on His own terms, believing that He is the Son of God and Savior of sinners, they evaluate Him according to the principles of their own theology. Yet the Bible explicitly warns us not to put God to the test [Deut. 6:16]. The real question is not what we think about Jesus, but what He thinks about us. There was also a problem with the way the lawyer phrased his question: what shall I do to inherit eternal life? Phrased this way, the question is self-contradictory. On the one hand, the man referred to eternal life as an inheritance – something granted as a gift. On the other hand, he assumed there was something that he could do to gain eternal life, that his salvation would come by some good work. This was typical of Judaism in those days. Many people make the same mistake today. They assume that if there is a heaven at all, they will gain entrance only if the good that they do outweighs the bad. This is not an assumption that God happens to share. To help the lawyer see this, Jesus responded with a question of His own: What is written in the Law? By referring the Bible scholar back to his Bible, Jesus was reclaiming the agenda. The way to eternal life is written in God’s Word, and what does that Word say? As the lawyer well knew from his own careful study and daily worship, it said, 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. This was a good answer because it came straight out of God’s law. It came from Deuteronomy 6:4-5, which pious Jews recited every day, and from Leviticus 19:18. These verses summarized all Ten Commandments, the whole law of God [see Matt. 22:37,39]. So Jesus told the lawyer that he had given a good answer and instructed him to obey these two commands. All that the lawyer had to do – all that anyone has to do – was to keep the two great commandments by loving God and loving his neighbor. In contrast to the lawyer, Jesus uses the present tense of the verb do to indicate that this was an ongoing responsibility and not a onetime act as the lawyer’s question implied. But keeping these commandments is easier said than done, and therein lies the problem. The love that God requires is perfect love – not just once, as the lawyer seemed to think, but all the time. To love God truly with heart, soul, mind, and strength is to love Him with everything we are and have. To love our neighbors properly is to love them with the same intense interest and constant concern that we have for ourselves. But who has ever loved in such a wholehearted and supremely selfless way? Jesus was answering the lawyer on his own terms, giving a legal answer to a legal question. Is there anything we can do to gain eternal life? Yes, the law of God offers salvation to anyone who fully satisfies its demands. But who is able to do it? No one, except the sinless Son of God. In other words, we can never be saved by keeping the law – not because there is anything wrong with the law, but because there is something wrong with us. This was the obvious implication of what Jesus said to the lawyer. He was laying down an impossible challenge designed to drive sinners to seek a Savior. At this point, the lawyer should have prayed for grace. He should have fallen to his knees, confess his inability to satisfy the demands of the law, and plead for God’s mercy. If the lawyer had done that, Jesus undoubtedly would have explained the true way of salvation, which is not by anything that we can do, but only by what Jesus has done – His perfect fulfillment of the law in love for His Father and for us as His neighbors. But instead of asking God for justifying grace, the lawyer, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” The lawyer was trying to save face. He had asked a question to show his intellectual and spiritual superiority. But Jesus responded with an answer so basic that it made him look stupid for even asking. Love God and love your neighbor – these were simple answers that even the youngest scholar at the synagogue knew from learning his catechism. In all likelihood, the lawyer also raised this question because he knew that he did not love his neighbor after all, at least not the way that Jesus demanded. He was looking for some sort of loophole (as sinners often do). His desire to justify himself related not merely to his initial question, but to his whole life before God. Obviously, he could not love everyone. That would be impossible. But if he could find a way to limit the size of his neighborhood, then maybe he really could love his neighbor, and then he would be able to justify himself before God. This is what always happens when we try to be saved by our own works. Rather than upholding the law in all its perfection, we undermine the law by reducing it to something we think we might be able to keep. Thus the lawyer tried to make God’s second great commandment more manageable. This attitude was common in those days. When the Israelites spoke about their neighbors, they were referring almost exclusively to their fellow Israelites, to members of their own covenant community. So as far as loving one’s neighbors was concerned, some people counted, and some people didn’t. Some people were inside the circle of neighborly love, but everyone else was left outside. The Israelites took care of their own, but they did not think that they had an obligation to care for anyone else. This attitude is equally common today. Sometimes we draw the boundary along ethnic lines, excluding people from a different background. Sometimes we draw it along religious lines. We do a decent job of caring for other Christians, but we have much less concern for people outside the church. Sometimes we draw the boundary along social lines, making a distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor. Wherever we draw the line, we find the lawyer’s logic compelling. We have to make choices in life. Our love has to have limits. Since we cannot help everybody, only certain people qualify as our neighbors. Everyone else will have to go somewhere else to get whatever help they need.

 

Discover a Person’s Need:  Luke 10:30-32.

 

[30]  Jesus replied, "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead.  [31]  Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side.  [32]  So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.  [ESV]

 

[30-32]  Rather than offering a theoretical definition of the concept of neighbor, Jesus answered the lawyer’s question by telling a story. This parable answered the lawyer’s question, at least indirectly, by redrawing the boundaries of his neighborhood. Jesus got the man to think outside of his usual categories by putting a Samaritan at the center of the story. More importantly, the parable shows that he was asking the wrong question altogether. The real question is not “Who is my neighbor?” but “Whose neighbor am I?” The story began with a dying man in desperate need. This situation was not uncommon. As it made its long and winding descent from Jerusalem the Jericho road passed through treacherous country. With its narrow passages and dangerous precipices, it was an ideal place for thieves and bandits to ambush lonely travelers. In ancient times people called it “the bloody way.” So it proved to be for the victim in Jesus’ story. Stripped and beaten, his battered body was soaking the trail with his blood. The man was almost dead. As he lay dying, several people has a chance to save the man’s life. The first two people who passed by the crime scene were both religious leaders. They were fine, upstanding citizens – exactly the kind of people one would expect to stop and help. Sadly, they did nothing at all. Both men were guilty of a sin of omission: they failed to save a man’s life. They passed the victim by, pretending not to notice. The cruelty of their neglect was all the more wicked because they were coming from Jerusalem, where they had almost certainly been to worship. The people who heard this story would assume that these religious leaders had been in Jerusalem to serve at the temple, where they had recited the law and offered sacrifices on God’s altar. But however fervently they worshiped at God’s house, when these men went out on the road they failed to keep the law of God’s love or to offer themselves as living sacrifices for a neighbor in need. Jesus does not tell us why the priest and the Levite refused to help, yet it hardly matters. What excuse could possibly justify their refusal to save a man’s life? These men had a righteous responsibility to stop and help, and when they failed to do so, they became accomplices to the man’s murder. The poor example of these religious leaders shows us some of the characteristics of bad neighbors. When am I a bad neighbor? When I avoid people in obvious need. When I come up with flimsy excuses for refusing to get involved with someone who had a legitimate claim on my love. When I have little concern for those who are wounded and dying, whether their injuries are spiritual or physical. When I see someone who might be in trouble, but refuse to stop and find out what kind of help I might be able to offer. When I walk away from worship with a heart as hard as the one I came in with. When I am too selfish to interrupt what I am doing or to be inconvenienced by someone else’s problems. Whenever I make lame excuses for not doing what I know, deep down, that Jesus wants me to do for someone else. I am a bad neighbor whenever I refuse to be a good neighbor to someone in need. What kind of neighbor are you? Are you stopping to help needy people, or are you making all kinds of excuses for passing them by?

 

Respond as God Desires:  Luke 10:33-37.

 

[33]  But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion.  [34]  He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him.  [35]  And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, 'Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.'  [36]  Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?"  [37]  He said, "The one who showed him mercy." And Jesus said to him, "You go, and do likewise."  [ESV]

 

[33-37]  At this point we might expect a good, honest Israelite to come along and help – not another proud clergyman, but a pious layman. Instead, Jesus adds a surprising twist to the story. The hero is not a Jew at all, but a Samaritan. A Samaritan was just about the last person that anyone in Israel would expect to stop and help. In centuries past the Samaritans had defied God’s law by intermarrying with the Assyrians. Over time they had developed their own version of the Torah and set up their own center for worship. Thus, as far as the Jews were concerned, the Samaritans were half-breed heretics and the Jews had no dealings with Samaritans [John 4:9]. It is difficult to come up with a contemporary comparison that conveys the same sense of social animosity. Maybe it would be something like an Islamic fundamentalist helping an evangelical Christian who was injured in a terrorist attack. It was the last thing anyone would expect, and in fact if the injured man had not been so desperate, he may have refused the Samaritan’s help altogether. These men were not neighbors at all; they were enemies. Nevertheless, the Samaritan stopped to help, giving us the superlative example of what it means to be a good neighbor. What are the characteristics of a good neighbor, as exemplified by the good Samaritan? A good neighbor notices people in need, as the Samaritan did when he saw the victim lying in the road. A good neighbor has compassion for people who suffer. The Greek word for compassion expresses strong feelings of pity and tenderness. The word is often used to indicate God’s compassion for us in Christ, but here it is used to express the Samaritan’s heart-response to someone in desperate need. Even without knowing who he was, the Samaritan had pity on the man’s condition. Yet being a good neighbor involves more than an emotional response: it also requires practical deeds of mercy. A good neighbor is willing to stop and help, even when it is inconvenient. So the Samaritan stopped in the middle of his journey, got down from his donkey, and began to administer first aid - binding, soothing, and disinfecting his neighbor’s wounds. As he poured out his oil and wine, he was pouring out his love. A good neighbor refused to draw artificial boundaries in order to avoid getting involved. A good neighbor helps strangers. Without prejudice, he loves people who do not belong to his own ethnic or religious group. The Samaritan was willing to help this man simply because he needed the help. A good neighbor also makes costly sacrifices of time and money to serve people in trouble. In short, a good neighbor is someone who loves others as he loves himself. Jesus ended His story by making a point of practical application. To help his lawyer friend understand this point for himself, Jesus asked him the all-important question: Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers? Carefully avoiding any use of the hated word “Samaritan,” the man nevertheless answered correctly: The one who showed him mercy. To which Jesus replied: You go, and do likewise. In this parable Jesus wanted to show the lawyer that he was asking the wrong question when he asked, who is my neighbor? Rather the question we should be asking is “Whose neighbor am I?” Note how Jesus focuses attention on this in verse 36: Which of these three … proved to be a neighbor. The real question is not what someone else has to do to qualify for my assistance, but what kind of neighbor am I anyway? Neighbor is not a concept to be debated and defined, but a flesh-and-blood person in the ditch waiting to be served. You cannot define your neighbor in advance; you can only be a neighbor when the moment of mercy arrives. To say this another way, a person becomes my neighbor when I treat him in a neighborly way. How will you respond the next time you encounter someone in need? On a deeper level, this parable teaches us our own deep need for the gospel. Remember the context: the lawyer wanted to know what he had to do to be saved. Jesus gave him the answer that is written in the law [27-28]. But knowing how difficult it is to keep this law perfectly, the lawyer asked Jesus to place some kind of limit on the law, so that it would be possible to keep. Jesus refused. Instead, He made it clear that loving our neighbor means making costly sacrifices for anyone in need, including our enemies. By doing this, surely Jesus wanted us to see that this is a law we cannot keep. Who is able to offer such mercy to all his neighbors? If everyone is my neighbor, then how can I possibly love my neighbor the way God wants me to love? The story of the good Samaritan is a law parable, therefore, that shows us how much we need the love God has for us in the gospel. The good news of the gospel is that through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has loving grace for law-breaking sinners who are not good neighbors. As we read about the good Samaritan, we cannot help but be reminded of the saving work of Jesus Christ, who always practiced what He preached.

 

Questions for Discussion:

 

1.         What was wrong with the lawyer’s questions in 10:25 and 29? What did the questions reveal about the way the lawyer was thinking concerning obedience to God’s law? Think about the times you have approached obedience to God in the same way.

 

2.         What does it mean to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind? When people ask us about eternal life, we should point them to this verse. The impossibility of keeping this command opens the door for the presentation of how the Gospel provides the only solution to the impossibility of anyone earning eternal life.

 

3.         What does Jesus’ story teach us about being a bad neighbor; about being a good neighbor? Ask God for His love and strength to be a good neighbor the next time He provides you with an opportunity to love your neighbor as yourself.

 

References:

Luke, Darrell Bock, ECNT, Baker.

Luke, Walter Liefeld, EBC, Zondervan.

Luke, Philip Ryken, REC, P&R Publishing.