Who do you love? It’s a hard question. It may be easy to name the people we feel love for in the moment. It might seem obvious to list the people God has put in our lives like our family and friends. But what about how we handle the idea of love towards the vast sea of humanity that exists in our time? How can we ever love them all? And since we can’t, how can we decide who to love and when?
As the Lord was preaching in one the towns of Judea, a lawyer stood up from among the people who were listening and asked Jesus a question. Another name for a lawyer in the nation of Israel was a scribe. These were men who spent their whole lives studying the Law of God in the Old Testament. He was an expert, someone that everyone else turned to for learning about God’s ways. He had not come to Jesus because he needed help with an answer. He came because he wanted to test this radical young preacher who was turning his nation upside down.
“‘Teacher,’” he asked, “‘What shall I do to inherit eternal life?’”
Jesus turned the question around and asked him right back, “‘What is written in the Law? How does it read to you?’”
The lawyer 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.’”
The scribe was pulling these words from the Old Testament Law:
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”
“Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.”
Jesus told the lawyer that he was right. If the man did these things, he would live!
But the man wasn’t happy with that answer. Loving other people with the same love that we love ourselves is an incredibly high standard. Surely there were limits to who he should have to care for! The scribe wanted to make himself feel better about picking and choosing who he had to be kind to.
Instead of telling the lawyer what to do, Jesus told a story. This was a very clever way to share a lesson. Instead of confronting us with a hard truth, a well told story woos us and persuades us by drawing us in…and even the most secular literary critic will tell you that the Bible tells the best stories of all.
When we get involved in a story, our hearts naturally get involved with the characters. Some of the characters might be good or bold or brave or kind, and as our emotions and our intellects are engaged, we relate to them. Everyone from neurobiologists to the best in psychology will tell you that we can’t think our way into changing…if our emotions are not involved to strengthen our motivation, it simply won’t happen. Stories are a powerful way to engage both our minds and our feeling. When they work together, we become capable of greater transformation. A strong, beautiful, or noble character can engage us to want to shine in our own story just like he or she did in their story. They model for us the kind of people we want to be and give us new options for new choices and new energy to live them out.
Other characters in the story might be cowardly or corrupt, and we naturally despise them. We can see clearly all the ways that their poor behavior brings harm and destruction, and it makes bad choices less appealing. We become quicker to identify sin in our own lives and are more motivated to move in new directions.
As you read the story that Jesus told, consider how easy it is for you to understand what goodness looks like…and how it affects the kind of person you want to be.
Here is what 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 onto the other said. 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 cared for 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.’”
Before we go on in the story of Jesus and the scribe, let’s dig a little deeper into the story that Jesus told him. The priest and the Levi were both religious leaders in the nation of Israel. God had raised each of them up and given them the role of caring for the people on His behalf. They received a great amount of honor every day from their fellow Jews because of their sacred positions of authority.
Yet in this story, when they see a man left bloody and half-dead on the roadside, they simply walked onto the other side and went their way. What other choices did they have?
They could have stopped. They could have turned around and sought help. They could have hurried on ahead and sent someone back. Instead, they allowed this man to suffer alone, vulnerable on a dusty road miles away from any city.
What does the choice they did make tell us about these men? What words can we use to describe them? Kind, generous, full of love and compassion? Selfish, cruel, arrogant?
Then Jesus describes the choice of another man…though He adds a special twist to the story. This man isn’t a Jewish leader with responsibility for the Jewish people. He’s a Samaritan…the group of people that the Jews hated. They disliked them so much that they would go miles out of their way just to avoid travelling through Samaritan territory. It was true that the Samaritans had taken parts of the Old Testament and distorted them. They worshipped falsely, and they truly dishonored God’s Word. Yet in this story, it was a Samaritan who honored God’s compassionate heart with his actions.
Isn’t it interesting that Jesus chose to tell this story with a Samaritan man as the hero? He not only stops to help the bloodied and beat-up Jewish man on the road, but takes overwhelmingly wonderful care of him. He tends to the wounds with his own wine and oil, which was a messy business, no doubt. Then he takes him to an inn and not only pays for everything, he promises to come back and cover any other costs that might come up with his care. It was a huge investment of both time and money for a man who, as a Jew, might not have even acknowledged him had they had met on the street.
After telling the story Jesus asked, “‘Which of the these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’”
The actions of the Samaritan are so kind and good that the answer is obvious. And somewhere deep in our souls, not matter how hardened we are, we feel his goodness. We know what the best in ourselves understands to be true…and we know how we would want to be treated if we were ever found lying broken and bloody on the side of the road. God’s definition of love is doing whatever good we would want our neighbors to do for us. That’s our measure. It’s as simple as that.
In this story, the scribe wanted to scrimp on the definition of what a neighbor is. Jesus made it clear that our neighbor is whatever person God brings across our path. The lawyer asked who he had to count as his neighbor. If he was right in his heart, he would have asked who he could be a neighbor to! The opportunity to love someone in need is a gift from God. Through our compassion, we display the tender purity and beauty of His compassion and grace.
When we read this story, isn’t it natural to want to be like the Samaritan? And if we don’t…shouldn’t that bother us a little bit?
In the end, the scribe had to agree. A neighbor was not simply the person who lived next store, had the same color of skin, the same status, or was from the same religion. The person who wants to shine the character of the God will see any person that God brings along in their life as their neighbor. We are not to ask who we have to serve, we are to ask who we get to be a neighbor to. And if we want our hearts to match that request, then maybe we can ask for a purer heart, too. That’s the kind of prayer request we can be sure that the Lord loves to bless.