Neighboring: The Good Samaritan

Read Luke 10:25-37

It might be useful to back up and read the post I published a little over a year ago on this scripture. It’s pretty brief, but I don’t want to repeat myself, so take a look at this link. With that background in mind, let’s walk through the story by first looking at the setting.

If we zoom way out we remember that this is in the middle of Luke’s account of the life of Jesus. Luke is fully aware of the other writings that are circulating at the time, important words from eyewitnesses, and he sets out to give us his detailed perspective in his gospel record.

With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. Luke 1:3-4

Luke was crazy about details. In my imagination, I can see a large room with several tables, lots of horizontal surfaces with stacks of papers spread out all over the place. He walks around rearranging the stacks until he’s got it just right. Yes, indeed, with the prompting of the Spirit, Luke is constructing a document for us to read for centuries to come. In the end, he writes the bulk of what becomes the New Testament in two books we call Luke and Acts.

I wanted to give you that perspective as we focus on this parable. Take a look at the stories in Luke 9 that lead up to the current study. Here’s a quick summary: Jesus sends the disciples out on their first mission, miraculously feeds 5,000 (plus women and children), predicts His death twice, is transfigured, heals a demon-possessed boy, is rejected by a Samaritan village, and warns those about the cost of being a disciple. Luke 10 starts with Jesus sending out seventy-two missionaries to spread the Gospel news. That’s a lot to take in, but it’s interesting to consider when we think about Luke’s goal of providing an orderly account.

Jesus’ fame is growing quickly. For the common man, His deeds were amazing and His teaching was inviting. For the keepers of the Law, He was a growing threat.

The Parable of the Good Samaritan is Unique to Luke

If you’ve read or study the Bible much, you know there is a lot of parallelism between Matthew, Mark, and Luke. These three are referred to as the synoptic Gospels. Of all the verified accounts spread out on Luke’s table, he chooses to include this particular story. Over the next 2,000+ years, this becomes one story that almost everyone has heard about. Inside or outside of the church, most people know the story about someone tending to the needs of a stranger. But it’s far more than a story of showing kindness to strangers. Jesus uses this story to answer questions posed by the religious elite of His day and challenges our thinking hundreds of years later.

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.’” Luke 10:25-27

The expert in the law, the religious expert, correctly summarized the law by drawing on his knowledge of what we refer to as the Old Testament. First, as part of the great Shema:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. Deuteronomy 6:4-5

And the second from Leviticus 19:

Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord. Leviticus 19:18

This particular chapter in Leviticus has several references for dealing with neighbors. When you think about the time when it was written, it’s quite interesting. Who were their neighbors before and after entering the Promised Land? Perhaps another post is in order, but for now, I’ll try to stay focused.

Jesus’ response is profound:

“You have answered correctly, Jesus replied. Do this and you will live.Luke 10:28

The expert wants to know more. There are three entities in his summary: God, neighbors, and yourself. There is no doubt about God and yourself, these are easy to identify, but for a rule-keeper, he wants a precise definition of the middle term: neighbors. He asks Jesus to give him a set of rules to follow.

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Luke 10:29

Luke clarifies that Jesus knew the man’s heart was about self-justification when he asked his question, “And who is my neighbor?” You’ve probably seen this scene enacted at youth camps, retreats, in churches, etc., and you’ve probably heard all kinds of ways to pose the question ranging from innocent to arrogant. I’m thinking it was on the arrogant extreme, but Jesus doesn’t dismiss the expert. Instead, He shows incredible patience and leans in to tell a story. Jesus demonstrates how to love by engaging with one who He knows doesn’t get it. I hope we can learn from this example.

The Story

30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 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. 35 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.’

36 “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.” Luke 10:30-37

An unfortunate traveler is ambushed on the road and left for dead. Historians tell us that this stretch of road was notorious for robbers and thieves, a place well known for treachery. Was he traveling alone? Did his friends scatter and leave him? Was it just bad luck? Is he one of the guys that show up at the Soup Kitchen for a meal? Apparently, that detail is not important, so we are left to use our imagination. The last idea is there for you to ponder as you help serve those in need.

All we really know is he was beaten and left for dead. The implication is that he would have died if someone did not intercede.

The Levite and the Priest are careful to avoid touching the man. They see him but stay far away.  Jesus probably includes two Jewish characters, a Levite and a Priest to add tension for the expert, but He doesn’t dwell on these two and He doesn’t make a big deal about them passing up an opportunity to help someone in need. Matthew 25:31-46 provides details about the cost of not serving the least of these. This question is centered on defining the term neighbor, so I’ll try to stay focused.

Up to this point, the expert was taking notes, perhaps judging the actions of the Levite and Priest. I’m sure he could recall similar events or robbery and murder in the past along this stretch of road. In modern times, we can probably remember seeing bad accidents where yellow tape demarks the scene of death and sadness. Then Jesus says the unthinkable — a Samaritan enters the story.

The Samaritan

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, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 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.’ Luke 10:33-35

Jesus turns it up to eleven (an arbitrary reference to a guitar amplifier) by suggesting a Samaritan enters the scene. Of all people, a Samaritan is the least likely to be of service here. In Luke 9:51-56, Jesus sends a messenger to a Samaritan village, but they reject the messenger. James and John wanted to send fire down from heaven and smite the village, but Jesus rebukes them. What’s up with that? Jesus just moves on to the next village.

Samaritan’s were especially offensive to Jewish leaders. They were the kind that mixed theologies together into some sort of blended religion in an effort to please themselves. In today’s culture, I would compare these guys to those who embrace Unitarianism, Universalism, or the New Age movement. If that doesn’t offend you, think about the Samaritans as Mormons, Scientologists, or strong advocates of some cult or movement. Whatever it takes to raise your pulse. Think about it from that perspective. And remember, the person telling the story is Jesus, the one who just feed thousands, healed many, and cast out demons. His reputation demands your respect and attention.

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” Luke 10:36-37

Jesus brings the story home by asking a question. He could have asked, which of these was helpful or who did the right thing, but he didn’t. He asked, which was a neighbor.

Being an expert in the Law, we’re looking at a very intelligent man. He’s not easily manipulated or motivated to react to a story. I think the man listened to Jesus tell the story with great intensity. In other words, he was trapped by the cadence of the question and he wasn’t influenced by cellphone cameras or news reporters. He was having an intense conversation with Jesus. I can see Jesus looking directly at him eye-to-eye. Making sure the story made sense.

The conclusion seems anticlimactic. Of course, the Samaritan is the good neighbor, but that’s not what the expert says. Take a look at the words more carefully:

The one who had mercy on him

The expert in the law couldn’t even say the word Samaritan. That’s how offensive the character was in his legalistic mind. As a religious expert, he simply could not imagine someone who was despised could be a hero. The Samaritans were wholly rejected by Jewish leaders; this expert would be no exception. Do you see where I’m going here? The one who was rejected by others is the one who saved the one who was dying. The man on side of the road had no hope of living through the day except that someone had pity on him, risked his life, his reputation, and went to great expense to save him. Sound familiar?

Jesus never implied that we should adopt Samaritan beliefs. Nor did He tell the expert to ignore the law. Either approach would be easy to understand, but Jesus is not about being easy and he’s not trying to provide a checklist. He’s talking about changing hearts. His words follow His actions. Jesus is teaching us how to love our neighbor as a way of life, not a list to execute.

Our Neighbor

So who is your neighbor? Most of the time when we read this we conclude that the term neighbor is a metaphor for anyone in need. So the first answer is simple: anyone in need, anywhere, anytime. We should be concerned about people in need. This is a great answer that crosses cultural and racial barriers that separate our society. We must not lose sight of the implications of caring for people across social divides. Jesus provides a great incentive in the Matthew 25 reference above.

But the problem with only embracing the term neighbor as a metaphor is it lets us off the hook. I can love my metaphorical neighbors by giving to Compassion International or going on a mission trip every year. But here’s a funny thought, what if part of this answer has to do with the people that actually live next to us? Would you agree that the term neighbor could include those that live in our neighborhood?

Block Map

In serving our community and in talking to service providers around the area, all agree that the key to success is centered around building a relationship over creating new programs.

Building relationships is hard. It takes time and energy. It’s costly. It might even be dangerous. But it’s what Jesus describes in His parable. It was dangerous for the Samaritan to stop at a point on the road that evidence would suggest you could get beaten and robbed. His actions certainly cost him a great deal of time and money. Here’s a place to start.

The Art of Neighboring

Jay Pathak & Dave Runyon published a book, The Art of Neighboring, Building Genuine Relationships Right Outside Your Door, in 2012, to give us some guidance on how to become the kind of neighbors we are commanded to become. They created the “block map” below.

Imagine your house is in the center. Write the names of the closest eight people to your house, apartment, condo, etc. These are your nearest neighbors.

If there is one theme we must take from the teachings in the Bible, especially from Jesus, is that we are called to love one another. The song Reckless Love embodies this concept. Our God is one that loves us, present tense, so much that He was willing to send Jesus Christ as a man to live and walk among us and show what He meant by loving each other.

You can’t love someone without having a relationship with them. You won’t begin to have a relationship with someone if you don’t know their name. But we are called to love our neighbor, both metaphorically and physically.

If we adopt this principle we will be different, we will be distinctive, we will look like God’s chosen people. And guess what, others will want to be a part of that.

Imagine you are being relocated to a city far away from here. One of the first things you have to figure out is where to live. Three things drove our decision-making process as we did this several times thanks to the military: 1) school, 2) church, and 3) neighborhood. For #3, consider two options, one where everyone knows their neighbors in a genuinely friendly manner and the other where doors are locked, fences are walls, and people have no idea who comes or goes. Which would you want to be a part of?

The story of the Good Samaritan compels us to love the way Jesus loved. It will be costly, inconvenient at times, even tense. For those that are married, can you relate to this? But there is such great joy in being part of a community of faith.

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.

The Challenge

Use the block diagram as a tool to pray for your neighbors. Let it remind you to memorize their names as you get to know them. Be vulnerable by letting them get to know you as well. Build meaningful relationships and encourage them to spread the love to their neighbors. Once this becomes second nature, use the concept at work, at your children’s games, in the grocery store, etc., wherever you meet people.

Then take it up another notch. As Peter directs us:

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. 1 Peter 3:15-16

I challenge you to write down your answer to Peter’s directive. All of us who call ourselves Christ-followers should be able to do this without hesitation, but perhaps you haven’t been encouraged to stop and write it down. Now you have.

Lord, may we be a people that love You with all we’ve got. May we be those who love our neighbors as ourselves without reservation. Holy Spirit, teach us how to make the first step, and the next, and the next. May Jesus be the center of all of this great activity for His glory and for His Kingdom.


Thoughts about serving others

This link includes a list of posts about Serving the Least, the Lost, and the Lonely.

My prayer is for you to join me on this journey. Subscribe to this blog below to get an email when a new post is available.

Let the Word evoke words. May your life encourage lives.

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