Loving our Neighbors
May 27th, 2018 sermon
By John Ulrich, Senior Pastor
Jesus’ parable of “The Good Samaritan” (Luke 10:25-37) rings very familiar to many of us Christians, but a deeper look provides insights that are crucial to our behavior with those people God puts in our life path and are important to our own joy in life.
Practical Considerations about the “Good Samaritan” Story:
I. How should I treat my neighbor?
In response to a Jewish lawyer’s asking about how to inherit eternal life, Jesus focuses on how believers are supposed to live in the Kingdom of God on this earth: “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.” (Luke 10:27) As we love God & are loved and valued by Him, He wants us to grow in our feeling and acting for those around us by helping (not harming) them. We are to give our neighbor the same care (interacting, loving, serving) that we ourselves would want to receive.
II. Who is my neighbor?
This lawyer, who already knew the Jewish law and tradition of helping others, then asked a more basic question of Jesus, hoping to narrow the circle of who should be helped: “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29) Instead of directly answering this question, Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan. This parable suggests that our neighbor is not everyone in the world, but rather it includes all those whom God places in our path of life, in this case a man attacked by robbers. It even includes those we might hate, e.g., as the Jews detested the Samaritans.
III. How do we do this?
A. Nobody does this perfectly.
Just like this Jewish lawyer, we will inevitably fall short in loving our neighbors in our path as ourselves, and need God’s mercy and forgiveness through Jesus.
B. Trust God and take action.
After finishing this “Good Samaritan” story, Jesus tells the lawyer (and ourselves): “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:37) Unlike the Jewish lawyer with his calculating questions to justify himself, believers are to step out in faith as children of God and DO something for others needing help in our path, even if they might not be able to help us back. As we obey Jesus’ command to “do likewise”, we will also discover the earthly joy of His promise: “Do this and you will live.” (Luke 10:28) True living in the Kingdom of God on earth is trusting that God will place our neighbors in our path, show us how we should relate and act with them, and even give us His amazing grace for our shortcomings.
- What hope does it give you to know that you do not have to be perfect as a Christian?
- What does it mean for you to “trust God” and “take action”?
- Have you ever experienced the joy of the Holy Spirit showing you whom you should relate to and how to act? Describe.
- What might stand in the way of your loving your neighbor as yourself? What “neighbors” and their issues seem to block you? How can you be released from these issues and your own shortcomings to act in love to help them?
- How are Christians any different than other people who “do good deeds”? (Check out Luke 10:27).
- Scripture seems to interchange the ideas of the “Kingdom of God” and “inheriting eternal life” (See Luke 18:18-25 and Mark 10:17-31). What does the parable of the “Good Samaritan” teach you personally about the Kingdom of God?
Wouldn’t it be great if you could just pick your neighbors? Wouldn’t it be great if “type of neighbors” was an option on any house you bought? You could be like “Yeah, we’ll have the granite countertops, the stainless steel fridge and the quiet, reasonable, mind-your-own-business neighbors.” Wouldn’t that be great?
I say this, because over the years, Kelley and I have had some interesting neighbors! When we were first married, we lived in a tiny apartment with some very close neighbors. We had a neighbor named Debbie. From the smell of things, you could tell that Debbie was really into herbs if you know what I mean. She liked to smoke, so I think we actually called her “Doobie.” She would often knock on our door at all hours of the night to say “Something smells really good over here, and I’m super hungry. Can I have some?”
When we lived in Africa, we lived near a guy who liked to smoke in a different way. This guy loved to burn trash, and burning trash is part of life in Africa. I get that. It’s no problem. But this guy would get a big fire going and let it billow smoke all night long. I don’t know what the guy was burning, but it smelled like a he had an endless supply of tires and dead animals. It would give me a tremendous headache. We asked him to stop or do it during the day when we weren’t home, but he said “No, this is the time that is most convenient for me.” He was interesting.
Now, I gotta say since we’ve returned to the states, our neighbors have been wonderful! We’ve lived near a police chief. Our neighbor to the side now has the cutest English bulldog, and the neighbor across the street has the sweetest kids! Of course right now, they are probably saying “We have the weirdest neighbor! This guy from Africa with all these animal heads on his wall ” But wouldn’t it be great if you could just pick your neighbors?
Well, today we are going to talk about that. In fact, today we are going to have our last message in this series about relationships called “Master Plan.” In this series, we’ve looked at several relationships. We’ve looked at relational issues, like general principles of family and conflict. We’ve looked at the relationship of husband and wife. We’ve looked at the relationship of parents and children and at employers and employees. But before we finish, there’s one more relationship we need to look at, and that’s the relationship of neighbor, those who are not related to us as spouses or family, those who are not connected to us through employment, just our neighbors.
To do that, we are going to look at one of the best-known Parables that Jesus told in his earthly ministry: The parable of the Good Samaritan. Let me invite you to turn in your Bibles to Luke 10:25-32. Most of you have probably heard this parable. Some of you may know the background.
Let’s read this well-known parable:
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.’” “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
In reply 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 by on the other side. 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 took care of 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.’
“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 10:25-37
Perry Creek, here’s my heart as we look at this parable: As the last step in our series on Relationships, I want us to get better at loving our neighbors. I want us to grow in our feeling and acting for those around us. For some of us, that might mean opening our heart to a person or a group of people that we have never really seen, never really cared for. For others of us, that might mean it’s time to stop talking and take action and do something to help someone God is calling us to help. For some of us, it might mean something else. I want us to get better at loving our neighbor. In order to do that, we are going to ask three simple questions about our neighbors as we look at this parable:
- How should I treat my neighbor?
- Who is my neighbor?
- How do we do this?
So Jesus gives us in Luke this parable of the Good Samaritan. Most of us are familiar with it on some level, probably everyone in here has either heard the phrase “Good Samaritan” or knows the story, and maybe a few of us even knew the background.
Basically, an Israelite lawyer, an expert interpreter of the commands and regulations of the Old Testament, comes to Jesus to test him (to see if he should respect Jesus as a teacher) and he asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. This is before Jesus’ death on the cross, so Jesus answers the man according to the Old Testament Law, the Law of Moses. Jesus basically encourages the man to say that what he must do is observe the two great commandments:
- Love the Lord Your God with everything you’ve got, which is a quote from Deuteronomy 6.
- Love your neighbor as yourself, that comes from Leviticus 19.
So the guy says that, and Jesus commends him.
But the Lawyer isn’t done. He goes on to ask Jesus “And who is my neighbor?” So Jesus answers him by telling him the parable of the Good Samaritan. Where an Israelite traveler goes on this very narrow very steep, very cave-ridden, very robber-infested piece of road that runs from Jerusalem to Jericho and is set on by thieves and left for dead. Then two religious figures:
- A priest comes by and ignores the man and walks by on the other side of the road.
- A Levite, which is like a Priest’s Assistant, does the same thing.
But then this Samaritan this guy from a country that is completely despised by the Jews comes by and he, of all people, has mercy on the man. He sees the man and stops. He binds up his wounds with wine (which was an antiseptic) and oil (which would soothe the pain), not even worrying that he himself might be in danger on that road. He loads the man on his own donkey, so he now has to walk that road. He takes him to an inn to heal and pays in advance everything the man needs for his food and lodging. His care is incredibly extravagant!
Then Jesus asks the lawyer “Who was neighbor to the man that was robbed?” The lawyer can’t even bring himself to admit that the guy was a Samaritan, so he just says “The guy who had mercy on him.” And Jesus says “Right go and do thou likewise.” So that’s the story of the Good Samaritan. Now in order to understand this parable and plug it into our lives, we want to ask three basic questions of it today, and the first one is this:
How Should I Treat My Neighbor?
Now this is probably the main question that we think the parable of the Good Samaritan is answering. In the parable, we see the Priest who treats his neighbor poorly the Levite who also treats his neighbor poorly. Then we see this Samaritan, who treats his neighbor correctly. Then Jesus tells us “Go and do thou likewise.” So this parable answers the question “How should I treat my neighbor?”
In fact the Lawyer answers the question before Jesus even tells the parable. Did you catch that? Jesus asks the Lawyer what the Law says he should do to inherit eternal life and look at his response:
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 10:27
That is, in a nutshell, the answer to the question “How should I treat my neighbor?” We are to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. That’s the answer that the man gives. That’s the answer that Jesus gives later in his teachings, and that’s the answer that the New Testament gives, again and again. Matthew, Mark, Luke, Paul, James and John all repeat in one form or another the command “Love your neighbor as yourself.” So we’re told again and again to love our neighbor as ourselves.
The Old Testament Law, which is where this command comes from, did a beautiful job of showing us what it really meant to do that. We sometimes think of the Law as just this strange set of funky rules about food and sacrifices and weird stuff. Trust me, it can be that. If you read Leviticus, there are multiple chapters on how to deal with mildew. That’s kind of weird!
But the Law also did a beautiful job of showing Israel what it really meant to love your neighbor as yourself. If you read the Law, you can see that loving your neighbor means not mistreating him. You weren’t supposed to kill your neighbor or take his stuff or sleep with his wife or speak falsely against him in court. You weren’t even to be jealous for what God had given him. You’re not supposed to do anything harmful to your neighbor. But the law went further. It also told Israel that they were to help their neighbor if he was in need. It commands Israel to help the poor and disadvantaged:
If you see your brothers (or neighbor’s) ox or sheep straying, don’t ignore it; take it back to him.
– Deuteronomy 22:1
Just a few verses later, it says “If you see the donkey of someone who hates you fallen down under its load, do not leave it there; be sure you help him with it.” So the law taught them to help their neighbor when he was in need.
But the law went even further than that it taught Israel that loving their neighbor meant loving them enough to do what was really good for them. Loving your neighbor as yourself doesn’t mean giving someone everything they want every time they want it. I mean that’s not the way you love your kids. That’s not the way you love yourself. Sometimes you have to love yourself enough to say “no” to something you want.
But the Law taught Israel to do what was truly good for their neighbor. Instead of just giving food to the poor, the law told landowners that they weren’t to cut the corners of their grain fields. They weren’t to go over their vineyards twice when they picked the grapes. They were to leave those so that they could feed the poor, but also give them the self-respect of working for their food. The law taught that you were to love your neighbor enough to have the hard but necessary conversations with him. Do you know what Leviticus says right before it says “love your neighbor as yourself”? It says:
Do not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in his guilt.
– Leviticus 19:17
In other words, it’s saying “Love your neighbor as you love yourself. Do what’s good for him, whether that means not coveting what he has, or giving him help when he needs it, or even saying “no” to him Love your neighbor.” So that’s what God’s people are supposed to do. How should we treat our neighbors? We should love them as we love ourselves. Just like Samaritan does in the Parable, we should give our neighbor the same care that we ourselves would want to receive.
There are times when Christians have done that well. A while ago, I had an interesting conversation with a business owner who had moved here to North Carolina from the West Coast. He’s not a Christian or doesn’t go to church. He’s not really religious. But when I asked him why he moved here, he said “I wanted my kids to grow up in an area with a lot of Christians to show them that people can really care about each other, and to give them a sense of right and wrong. I thought “That’s pretty cool. Sometimes we get it right!”
But then there are other times that Christians aren’t so good at loving people. At times in history, the church has been really involved in racism. At times, Christians have judged people very harshly. I can remember being in church one time as a kid and an older man who obviously was not used to being in church kind of wandered into the service. He came in late, and he had a farmer’s ball cap on. The Pastor called him down from the pulpit. He pointed at the man and said “Sir, I’ll thank you to take your cap off in the house of God.” He hadn’t even sat down, and the guy left and never came back. I think maybe the Pastor was trying to make a point about honoring God, but I don’t think he was really loving his neighbor.
But this is what we are called to do. We are to love our neighbor. How are we to treat our neighbor? We are to love them as we love ourselves. We can see that from the Parable that much is clear. But it may surprise you to learn that that’s not actually the question that this parable was written to answer. It kind of shocks me every time I look at it, but the real question of this parable is:
Who Is My Neighbor?
That’s the real question of this parable. Because we see the care of the Samaritan and because Jesus tells us “go and do likewise,” we tend to think this is all about the question “How should I treat my neighbor?” But that’s not the question Jesus is answering here. Look at verse 29. Here’s the question: The lawyer has already said that what he’s supposed to do is love God and love his neighbor as himself. Jesus has already said he’s correct. They’ve already fist-bumped., and then this happens
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
– Luke 10:29
That’s the question that Jesus is answering with this parable. By the way, Jesus comes back to that question after the parable at the end of the story. He doesn’t ask the lawyer “How was the wounded man treated?” He asks him “Who was neighbor to the wounded man?” So this question “Who is my neighbor?” is really what this parable is all about.
Now what’s going on here? Why is this such an important question? Well, look at verse 29 again. “He (the Lawyer) wanted to justify himself.” To justify someone is to declare them not guilty or innocent. What the Lawyer wants Jesus to do is reduce the categories of people that he is responsible to be neighbor to so that Jesus’ command is manageable, so that he can justify himself. He is waiting for Jesus to say “Your neighbor is your immediate family members and the people whose houses are adjacent to you. So he can say “check and check. I’m innocent. I’m in full compliance!”
He wants Jesus to reduce the categories to make the demand manageable. Don’t we all do this? Don’t we want to reduce the categories, so that we can excuse ourselves? We say “This one’s not my neighbor. He doesn’t live near me.” That one’s not my neighbor. Her skin is a different color than mine.” That one doesn’t think like me. He’s too conservative or too liberal, so I don’t have to care about him. This one doesn’t speak English. That one seems like a racist. This one is an addict. That one’s from a different part of town. No matter who we are we all have ways of reducing the categories in our hearts, so that we can make this manageable? Don’t we all do that? I know sometimes I do.
See “Who is my neighbor?” in many ways is a much more dangerous question than “How should I treat my neighbor?” Because as long as I can control the categories, I can do what I already wanted to do. I can help those who help me back. I can help those I really like, and I can feel great about myself. I can justify myself.
But notice that Jesus isn’t having any of this. He deliberately chooses as the main character of his parable the one person that a Jew would NEVER consider to be his neighbor: A Samaritan. See when the Lawyer asks Jesus “Who is my neighbor?” he in all likelihood expected Jesus to write off two categories of people (1) the un-Jewish, because they weren’t part of God’s nation, and (2) the un-righteous, because they didn’t obey the Law so what they needed to feel was not the love of God, but the wrath of God.
The Samaritans were both un-Jewish and unrighteous. They were the ultimate sellouts to God and country. When Assyria invaded their part of Israel, instead of staying separate like the Law said you were supposed to do they interbred with the people who moved into the area and fell into idolatry. Then, they established a temple not in Jerusalem which God clearly said you were never supposed to do. Then they rejected most of the Old Testament as Scripture. So to a Jew, Samaritans were everything you weren’t supposed to be. A Samaritan was the one guy this lawyer would think he would not have to love so a Samaritan is the very guy Jesus puts in the parable.
So Jesus refuses to accept the Lawyer’s categories. But here’s the thing: the Lawyer’s question still remains. Who is my neighbor? And the maddening thing about this story is that although that is the whole point of the story, Jesus never really answers the question, does he? He never says “Your neighbor is X.”
So we’re kind of left to puzzle it out who is my neighbor? My neighbor isn’t just people that are like me. The Samaritans were not like the Jews at all, yet the Samaritan is said to be a neighbor to this Jewish man. It’s not just people that are near me. The Samaritans were 100 miles from Israel. The point isn’t that my neighbor is whoever I choose to recognize as my neighbor. That’s the Lawyers problem! He wants to pick and choose. We might say my neighbor is everyone, but you can’t act on that. It’s too broad you can’t help everyone and Jesus says go and DO thou likewise.
So who is my neighbor? What is Jesus saying? The last time I preached on this I said “I don’t know” but after a few years of reflection let me make a suggestion. I think maybe my neighbor is this: “Whoever God places in my path,” whoever God puts in my life for me to interact with and recognize and love and serve. My neighbor is whoever God places in my path.
Maybe it’s someone that lives in your neighborhood. Maybe it’s someone at work or that you pass on the way to work. Maybe it’s the people you play tennis with or the guy who cuts your hair, the lady that bags your groceries. What would it be like if you really asked God to open your eyes and help you see the people who are your neighbors? Sometimes I think it’s people God brings into our path and sometimes God changes our path so that we encounter someone he wants us to be neighbor to.
Some of you might be going “I don’t know. How I would ever figure out who my neighbor is?” Let me give you one example of a neighbor that everyone in this room has: The families of River Bend Elementary School. If you know the story of our church, you know that God moved us so that these families would be in our path. We were originally in a cozier place and happy to be there.
But then God closed that off and moved us to this school. At first I thought it was really going to hurt us and I talked to God about that! But then I realized God wasn’t trying to hurt us. He was giving us an incredible gift – hundreds of new neighbors, hundreds of families for us to interact with and recognize and love and serve. Do you know how fortunate we are? Do you know how many other churches and church plants I talk to and I say “Who is your mission field? Who are you serving? Who are you trying to reach?” So many of them have got nothing.
I looked at my own notes last time I preached this passage (not that this church) and I can tell we weren’t really clear on who our neighbors were. But Perry Creek, we know. We have a treasure chest of neighbors here! It’s a great stewardship. Who is your neighbor? Who has God placed in your path? Here at River Bend Elementary School and elsewhere in your life? So (1) How do I treat my neighbor? Love him as you love yourself (2) Who is my neighbor? Whoever God places in my path. Now last question:
How Do We Do This?
How on earth do we actually go about loving our neighbors as we love ourselves? How can we be Good Samaritans to those God has placed in our path? I think there are two answers to that question. These answers seem to sort of run in opposite directions, but they are both actually valid, and they do fit together. Let me show you what I mean. The first answer to the question “How do we do this?” is this:
- Nobody does this perfectly
Nobody loves their neighbor perfectly. Think about it: Given what we’ve learned today about what love actually means, that it goes beyond just not harming your neighbor to helping them and doing what is truly good for them given that. Given what we’ve learned about who our neighbor is that it is anyone that God has placed in our path. When we put these two facts together I think it’s safe to say that no one here today truly fulfills this command perfectly.
Nobody does this perfectly! If you think you do, let me give you a little test: Men, Ephesians says you are to love your wives as you love yourself. Ladies, how’s that going? I don’t know about you, guys, but I think I missed a few opportunities this week to help with the dishes, do the laundry, make the bed. I’ve got a ways to go before I truly love my wife as I love myself, and that’s just one person and an easy one to love!
So no one fulfills this perfectly! That’s a major point that Jesus is making here. He’s talking to an expert in the Law, a guy who’s given his entire life to knowing and applying and obeying the Jewish Old Testament. If anyone could do it, it would be this guy. Jesus is saying to him “You’re falling short.” You are excluding giant groups of people from the command to love your Neighbor just to make yourself feel good, but you’re not actually obeying God. You don’t just need clarity on who your neighbor is. You need God’s forgiveness and mercy.
I think Jesus would want each and every one of us here today to be clear about that as well. We don’t obey this perfectly. No matter how nice of a person we think we are, we need God’s forgiveness through Jesus. So the first answer to “How do we do this?” is “No one does it perfectly.” We want to be clear about that. But there’s a second answer this parable pushes us toward, and it’s this:
- Just Trust God and take action.
Yes, it’s true that none of us does this perfectly, but that is not meant to paralyze us into doing nothing. We’re not meant to say “Well, I guess I can’t do this perfectly, so I’m just going to sit here and ask for forgiveness.” No Jesus says “Go and DO likewise!” We are meant to do something about this parable. We are meant to stop calculating, to stop justifying ourselves and to find the joy of doing something! We are meant to find the joy of investing in someone other than ourselves, someone other than those closest to us someone other than those who can help us back. Let me ask you today “Are you doing that?” Because if you’re not, let me just say you’re missing out! It’s not that you’re going to fulfill this command perfectly, but if you’re not serving your neighbor, you’re missing out on the joy of living the way God calls you to live. He made you to love your neighbor!
So let me encourage you: Take action! Love your neighbor this week! You say “I’m really, really busy!” I know it takes trust. You have to believe that God can restore the time you invest in your neighbor. You say “I don’t know what I can do!” I know it takes trust. You have to believe that God can show you little and big ways to serve your neighbor. You say “I don’t know who my neighbor is.” I know it takes trust. You have to believe that God can help you see who he has placed in your path. But if you ask him, God will show you who and how to serve. And he’ll provide the resources.
We have some great opportunities right here at River Bend Elementary School! End of grade exams are coming up, and they need people who love these kids enough to proctor. We have Soccer Camp coming up, and we need people to set up to serve food and to talk to parents as they wait for their kids. So maybe it’s one of those things. Maybe God has an opportunity for you to serve elsewhere in your life.
Whatever it is, let me encourage you to trust God and take action. See as your neighbor the people that God places in your path. Love your neighbor as God calls you to love him as you love yourself. Trust God, and take action.