Okay, I know I’m sticking my foot into it now, ’cause I’m guilty of this most of the time myself. But how many times do we lay claim to a deep spirituality and a love for God yet turn a blind eye to the difficulties of other people around us? In my case, it looks more like “sure, I’d love to sit with you and chat about deep theological issues, but if you don’t mind, please don’t trouble me with your messy life.”
You know that story of the Good Samaritan in the Bible? It’s a bit troubling to me. I don’t like it, because it places demands on me that are inconvenient. But here’s the bottom line: if you want a real relationship with the Eternal God, it will only go as far as your involvement with other people.
In that story, in Luke 10, a religious expert comes to Jesus and asks his advice. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Sounds heavy, but really the guy is just expressing the emptiness he’s feeling inside. He knew his Bible; he lived it as best he could. He was an expert. But something was still missing; he knew it, but he just didn’t know what it was. So he asks the guy who had become famous for his connection with Heaven, who’d healed all kinds of diseased and injured people, who’d set people free from dark forces in their lives. Surely, he would know. And Jesus, being the good Jewish rabbi that he was, turns the question back on the man: “What is written in the Torah; how do you read it?” And the man responds with the classic and correct answer: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” “That’s right,” Jesus affirmed, “do this and you’ll have life.”
Standard Answers Won’t Do
But it was the standard answer the man knew his entire life. And it wasn’t enough. So he probes deeper, “but who is my neighbor?” Basically, I believe the man is asking Jesus to show him how to make it work. “What does this look like in real life? How am I supposed to do this?”
And then comes the famous parable. A man is walking from Jerusalem to Jericho and gets way-laid on the road by robbers. He’s beaten and left half dead on the side of the road. Two religious types, a priest and a Levite, walk by, see him laying there, and cross over to the other side of the street to avoid him. But a Samaritan sees him and has pity on him. He walks over to him, cleans his wounds with wine and oil, bandages him up, places him on his donkey and takes him to an inn where he pays the inn-keeper to care for him. Which of these acted as a neighbor to the beaten man? Obviously, the Samaritan. The point is simple enough, and the religious expert gets it.
Catch the Details
But there is some really rich subtlety in this story we might easily miss. Jesus describes the beaten traveler as “half dead”, and I’m struck by his choice of words. I think they’re deliberate. After all, the original question he was asked concerned obtaining eternal life. So the word-play involving life and death would be striking. And our impression of the two men in the story who walked by, ignoring the injured man, would naturally be one of revulsion. “How cold-hearted. How hypocritical. And they call themselves ‘religious,’ that priest and Levite. That wounded man may be half dead, but those two guys are completely dead inside. The Samaritan, on the other hand, taking compassionate action to help the man, now he is fully alive, fully in-tune with his humanity. He’s the one with ‘true religion’; he’s obviously got a clue about what true godly life is all about.” In Jesus’ deliberate choice of words, we can already see what is involved in “inheriting eternal life.” It’s not about what happens to us after we die; it’s not just about life in the “age to come.” It’s about the quality of the life we live in the here and now. We can go around as religious zombies, dead to those around us, or we can live a rich, fulfilling life involved with others. When God’s life invades us, it will change the way we interact with people.
And look at what that Samaritan man actually does. He sees the beaten victim and is immediately moved by compassion. In the story, this is the first reference to any kind of emotion, any type of personal connection with the robbed man. The Samaritan is emotionally engaged in the situation and with his fellow human being. Next, he cleans and bandages the man’s wounds, he touches the man. He gets his hands dirty. He is now physically as well as emotionally involved in the man’s plight. Then he puts the man on his donkey and takes him to a place where he can recover. That means he has to walk. He gave up his own comfort to help the man; he readily puts up with the inconvenience. And finally, he even pays the man’s medical bills. This Samaritan was fully engaged in the situation — emotionally, physically, materially and financially. He knew what life was all about. He had what that original seeker was missing.
The full impact of this can be seen when we go back to the answer Jesus elicited from the religious leader. What is needed to participate in the divine life? “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength … and love your neighbor as yourself.” In answer to the man’s follow-up question, “But how do I do this?”, Jesus shows that loving God is inseparable from loving people. If we are supposed to love God with all our hearts, minds, souls, and strength, then those are exactly the same qualities we must use to involve ourselves with others. Like the Samaritan, we must love others with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strength. That is what loving God is really about.
To put it another way, “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but closes his heart against him, how can the love of God be in him?” … “If anyone says ‘I love God’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. … Whoever loves God must also love his brother” (1 John 3:17; 4:20-21).
Interestingly, in the Gospel account, Jesus turns the religious man’s question around. Instead of asking “who is my neighbor,” we should be asking, “who can I be a neighbor to?” You can’t claim to have a deep sense of spirituality or a great love for God while at the same time ignoring the needs of people around you. To love God, you must love your neighbor, you must be fully engaged with those around you — emotionally, physically, materially and financially: with your heart, your soul, your mind and your strength. In a word, it’s about relationships. It’s about real human-to-human involvement. If we want a more meaningful life that only a closer walk with God can bring, that’s what we must do. “Now go, and do likewise,” Jesus tells us.
So the next time someone asks you to help them move, you may just have to double-check your initial reaction. “Help you move? Of course I will.”