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The Good Neighbor

March 17 2024

Book: Luke

Scripture: Luke 10:25-37

This is one of the stories that we only find in the Gospel of Luke. It’s also one of the most famous stories in the Bible, familiar even to people who know very little about Christianity. It’s the parable of the Good Samaritan. 

Several years ago, I did four sermons on this one story because it is so rich. You might want to buckle up today, because we are going to cover a lot of ground.

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?” 

That might be the most important verse because it reveals the heart of the man Jesus is trying to teach. He asks this question to justify himself. What does that mean? It means there is a deeper question he wants Jesus to answer. It’s not “who is my neighbor?” but “Have I done enough?” At what point can I say that I have fulfilled this commandment? 

He assumes, like most of us, that we can keep the law on our own – we just need the information. Years ago, I asked a group of middle school students this question, “How many of you think that God will only save you if you are a good person?” Almost all of them raised their hands. Then I asked a second question, “How many of you think you are good enough right now?” Only one person raised her hand. At least for most of them there was some humility, but like most people on earth their faith is in themselves. We think God is waiting on us to get it right.

That’s what this lawyer reveals about his heart. Who is my neighbor so I can be sure to do what I need to do to justify, or save, myself. What is the problem with this? It’s that even if you choose to help someone, it is not motivated by compassion for the other person but by a desire to save yourself.

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. 

The road in the story was a notoriously dangerous road. It was a 17 mile drop through hill country. There were a lot of twists and turns, boulders and caves. It was a popular road for thieves. Stopping to help someone would leave you exposed. You could end up like the man you are trying to help. And thieves were known to set traps like this for “good neighbors”.

And so, we have already learned the first lesson. Being a good neighbor can be risky. It might cost you something. They might drag you into their mess. You might get used.

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. 

You have two men that are recognized by everyone as being “holy men”. They are religious leaders in the nation of Israel. They do what is expected of them. They keep the religious purity laws. They make sacrifices when they are supposed to. They know the answers to all the Bible questions.

But they both go out of their way NOT to help a man in their path who is hurting. So it is possible, according to Jesus, to be very religious and yet at the same time be a terrible neighbor.

It is possible for a church to be known for being a place of Bible study, worship, men’s programs, women’s programs, youth and children’s programs, a lot of religious activity and at the same time NOT be known for love and concern for their neighbors.

33 But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion.

The man who turns out to be a good neighbor has the reputation of being the least religious of the three men. To Jesus’ audience, a Samaritan was considered to be a half-Jew: worshiping in the wrong places, only caring about part of the Bible, theologically confused, and unclean. In terms of keeping the law, they would have assumed this man to be far beneath the priest and the Levite.

But it’s worse than that. Jesus intentionally brings race into the story. Jews were taught to hate Samaritans. There were racial slurs associated with this hate – “dogs”, “half-breeds”, “unclean pagans”. And these were people who were actually half-Jewish.

By using a Samaritan as the hero, Jesus is intentionally challenging the Jewish idea that they are better than other groups of people. We call this “ethnocentrism”.

Ethnocentrism has no place in the kingdom of God. It’s the idea that “my people” matter more than “your people”. But there are only two types of people in this world – God’s people and lost people. And we are told to love both as we love ourselves.

I think this is something that all of us struggle with. The “us” versus “them” mentality. The world pushes us into categories. We get caught up in it. Our hearts like feeling a sense of belonging… feeling like part of a group. It’s easy to do.

But Jesus intends to challenge our boundaries. This man’s worth, his value, has nothing to do with his race.

On that point, I think it is important that Jesus does NOT tell us the race of the man on the side of the road. He intentionally leaves this information out of the story. Why? Because the man’s ethnicity doesn’t factor into the need for a response. The priest and the Levite were not more obligated to help the man if he was Jewish.

It is also interesting that the Samaritan is in hostile territory because of his own ethnicity. It is more dangerous for a Samaritan traveling this road alone than a Jew. This would be like a Ukrainian medic crossing over Russian lines to help a Russian soldier. Honestly, that makes this story almost unbelievable… Jesus wants the lawyer to think, “Would this ever even happen? Would any Samaritan do this?”

But this is the story Jesus tells.

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.’

This is obvious generosity. He gives time. He gives money. But this is not radical generosity. It’s a little inconvenient. It’s a decent expense. But it’s reasonable.

This is not the shocking part of the story. The shocking part of the story are the circumstances, the risk involved in stopping, and the ethnicities of the men. The time and the money are less important to the story.

Notice also that the Samaritan goes on with his business. He has other obligations. He has other people depending on him. Jesus doesn’t release him from those obligations. 

Instead, this is a lesson about margin. We should leave some room in our lives to love and serve people that God puts in our path. We don’t get to use ALL of our time for ourselves. We don’t get to spend ALL of our money on ourselves. This man had a little extra time and money to spend if needed. 

But it’s impossible to be a good neighbor if we have no time or resources available for others. And now we reach the end of the story.

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.”

Notice the man can’t even bring himself to say the word “Samaritan”.

Mercy is the key word. A good neighbor is a merciful neighbor. In other words, it doesn’t matter if the person in need deserves our help.

This is important, because in those days everyone assumed bad things happened to you because you deserved it. Very likely, the religious men walked by because they reasoned with themselves that this man got what he deserved.

The Samaritan in the story did not just provide the correct resources – he did that – but he is also offering the man an opportunity to have his dignity restored. He raises the man up, follows through on the process to see the man’s life restored to peace. He comes back. It’s about restoration, not just money. He was a concerned, merciful advocate.

In the same way, the Bible teaches that Jesus was our concerned advocate – that God had mercy on us. While we were still sinners, while we were still helpless and turned away from Him, God chose to show us mercy. 1 John 2:1 actually calls Jesus our “Advocate” before the Father, the one who makes it possible for a sinful person like me, with no resources – no righteousness to my name – to stand before a Holy God. Jesus is my advocate because He stands with me and makes His resources, His righteousness, available to me by faith.

Christians believe that we are now united to Christ, which means we are now sons and daughters of God. No matter our past struggles or our present circumstances, we are loved by God as children by a perfect Father. Our status has changed. Our identity has been restored. I am not worth only what I have or even what I do – I am a child of the King.

That’s the kind of mercy God shows us and it restores us. And that’s the kind of mercy He calls us to show the people God puts in our path, people who need merciful neighbors.

God will put people in our path that need us to love them. I am certain of that. And I think the message here today is that Jesus is less concerned with our church getting our religious activity right and more concerned with us going out of the way to respond to the needs of people in our community.

I hope Christ Fellowship will exist for a long time. But if one day we close our doors, I hope people notice we are gone – not because of our programs, but because of the people we loved and served when they needed us.

It requires us to do some things that will not benefit us. It will be inconvenient. It will cost us something. We may not even see the results of our actions. We may never know what our help meant to the other person or to God’s kingdom. But Jesus says to us, “Go and do likewise.”

We want to be a church of compassionate neighbors. We want to be people who respond to the compassion of Jesus for us in compassionate ways. We want to move into people’s lives the way Jesus moved into ours. 

Is there someone in your life right now who needs you to go out of your way to love them?