Where Are the Neighbors?
Topic: Stand-alone Messages Passage: Luke 10:25–10:37
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?” 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. 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. 33 But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. 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.’ 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.”
Sometimes it does us good to get back to the basics…back to why we’re here, what we’re all about, and where we’re going. It’s often good to just take a step back and renew our perspectives, whether it be in our family, our business, or our church. Successful people in every walk of life have mastered the art of occasionally pausing to reflect and reload. Teachers and coaches do it. In fact, those who are the most successful in life are the ones who manage to keep themselves from straying very far from the fundamentals of what they do.
The biographer of the late Vince Lombardi shares a story from that legendary coach’s career that both amuses me and challenges me whenever I think about it. Back in the days when Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers ruled the professional football world and were rolling over opponents on their way to yet another championship, they prepared to face the Chicago Bears, who at that time were the lowly “whipping boys” of the league. The Packers were predicted to win by several touchdowns, but as every fan will tell you that is a precarious perch from which to take one’s team into battle. No one gave the Bears a chance of winning…no one, that is, except for Lombardi, who repeatedly warned his charges against being over-confident and looking past that week’s opponents. He urged his players all week long to not get overly-confident....to not forget that winners were those teams that stuck to the basics—running, blocking, tackling, passing, catching—and worked on doing those well. But the Packers didn’t get the message that Sunday. They lost handily, and Lombardi was seething with rage. On the short flight back to Green Bay that evening, Lombardi told his players that before they entertained any ideas of going home to their families, they were to put back on their sweaty jerseys and pads and meet him on the 50-yard line at Lambeau Field, where they would practice until dawn, if necessary...until they relearned the fundamentals. So under the lights on that icy-cold Sunday evening, Lombardi gathered his humbled and beaten troops around him and began one of his most memorable speeches. “After today’s performance,” he told them, “it’s time to get back to the basics.” Then holding a ball over his head he proclaimed, “Gentlemen, this is a football!”
You can’t get more basic than that, can you? It’s like saying to a librarian, “This is a book.” It’s like saying to the mother of a newborn, “This is a diaper.” It’s like saying to a computer technician, “This is a keyboard.” It’s like saying to a Christian, “This is a…a what?” What is it that Christians should consider as the most basic aspect of their identity? In search of an answer, I suggest to you that our Lord Jesus would have us stand before a mirror and take a good look at ourselves. Perhaps, just perhaps, if we listen carefully, we would likely hear Him say, “Look carefully, because this is a neighbor.” You see, what the ball is to the game of football, what the book is to the librarian, and what a keyboard is to a computer expert, a neighbor is to the Christian. That’s because the Bible teaches that we cannot separate being a Christian from loving and showing compassion to others.
We need to be reminded of that from time to time, don’t we? Our Lord knew that our memories would need stirring, and so He put for us in His Book a story that would take us back again and again to this most basic—and yet often neglected—Christian truth. So, let’s think about the passage we just read for the next several minutes.
Near the end of Luke, chapter 10, we find a masterful dialogue between Jesus and an expert in the Jewish Law. In the middle of a busy day this lawyer, hearing Jesus teach on eternal life and having his curiosity aroused, perhaps stood and raised his hand in order to ask Him a question: “You there,” he may have gestured. “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Now, that is a great question!
When I graduated from seminary, I thought that I had all the answers. In fact, I had answers for questions that no one was asking. I kept waiting for questions to be asked, so that I could provide answers. If someone had asked me that particular question, I would have had an answer just like that. I could have told them in just a few sentences what it means to have eternal life. But I’m not a very good teacher…nothing like Christ, because Jesus didn’t give him an answer. He didn’t dump a truckload of information on this young lawyer. Instead what He did was to ask a question of His own.
I’ve tried to picture in my mind the scene that day. In biblical times, lawyers, who were the ancient scribes or copyists of the Law, wore on their wrists little leather pouches, known as phylacteries. Tucked within those pouches were passages of Scripture from the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament. Perhaps Jesus saw that leather pouch flash in the air as the man raised his hand, and instead of preaching a sermon on eternal life merely asked the man, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” Jesus wanted the man to think through his own question. “What do you have tucked away in that phylactery?” I imagine the man thought for a moment, and then quoted flawlessly from memory: “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.” Perhaps the lawyer then looked around to make sure others in the crowd were impressed with his ability to quote Scripture.
And then, in the most profound simplicity, Jesus responded, "You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live." We might paraphrase Jesus’ words to read, “You got it…now go do it.” The ball is now back in the lawyer’s court, a position no attorney ever likes to be in. Every lawyer I have ever met much prefers to be asking the questions rather than answering them. Feeling obviously uncomfortable, he begins to pick at terms—as attorneys are prone to do. “Neighbor?” he asks. “And who is my neighbor?” Is he the person who lives next door? Is she the one who lives across the street? How about two blocks down? Or what if they live in the next county or in the next state? What if they are not my race or my religion? “Who is my neighbor?”
Some years ago, the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr decided to systematize his theological beliefs. Being a prolific writer, he put together page after page of detailed material as he explained his thoughts on faith. Realizing that what he had written could possibly be over the heads of “everyday folk,” he sent a copy to a pastor-friend whom he admired. That practical-minded pastor began to wade through that heavy material—page after page—and when he had finally finished reading, he wrote a brief note to Dr. Niebuhr that said, “I understand every word you have written, but I don’t understand a single sentence.” The lawyer in this passage has the opposite problem: “I understand the sentence, but there’s a word here that confuses me: ‘neighbor.’ Would you mind defining for me what a ‘neighbor’ is?”
Once again, in brilliant simplicity, Jesus, the Master Communicator, tells a story...a story that can be understood by the youngest child in an inner city school classroom or by the most profound mind in the most distinguished university. Anyone can understand this story. Christians know it almost by heart. It’s known to us as “the Parable of the Good Samaritan.”
The story takes place on a road between two important cities—Jerusalem and Jericho—separated by about 17 miles and 3600 feet of elevation. The road that connected those two cities was a dangerous and treacherous trail where robberies, rapes and murders occurred with relative frequency. Individuals were cautioned to never travel alone on that road, even in broad daylight. The “man” in Jesus’ story, for some reason was traveling alone, and sure enough he fell into the hands of thieves who “stripped him...beat him, and...leaving him half-dead.”
Now the plot of Jesus’ story thickens. Remember the question: “Who is my neighbor?” Along came a priest…a pastor, an elder, if you will. Pastors are busy people. They have sermons to prepare, schedules to keep, appointments and deadlines to meet. As this priest walked along the road he saw this needy man sprawled out in front of him, and according to verse 31, “when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.” Do you get the picture? He crossed the street to avoid becoming involved with this man who was obviously in need. Although this man was stripped, beaten and abandoned, the priest chose to avoid him...pretend he wasn’t there. “Too bad,” he may have thought, “but he’s not my problem.” And then along came a Levite…who may be likened to an assistant pastor or maybe a deacon. They too can be busy...their calendars can be full. Like the priest, the Levite also spotted the beaten man, but he didn’t want to get involved either. So he also passed by “on the other side.”
Then a Samaritan, who was traveling on that same road, came by. Samaritans were looked upon with utter disdain by the Jews because they were half-breeds; that is, they were not full-blooded Jews. They were so hated that I am sure that when Jesus mentioned the word “Samaritan,” the hair on the back of the lawyer’s neck must have stood up. The Jews held the Samaritans in such contempt that they did not even want the dust of Samaritan soil on their sandals. They would literally take a longer, circuitous route in traveling from Judea to Galilee simply to avoid passing through Samaria. This Samaritan saw the same thing that the priest and the Levite had seen, but instead of passing by, he stopped and, we are told, “had compassion” on the beaten man. In other words, he felt pity for him and sought to show him mercy. Whereas the “religious professionals” passed by the man in need, the Samaritan stopped and had compassion. Remember the question? “Who is my neighbor?”
This Samaritan went to the man and he knelt down. The text says that he “bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine”…that was the medicine of the day. He cleansed his cuts and bruises, and I’m sure that he got a little dirty. And then “He set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn (an ancient motel) and took care of him.” He spent the night beside him, because the following verse says, “The next day he took out two denarii (two silver coins which were equivalent to two days’ wages for a laborer) and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, 'Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’” There was nothing about this Samaritan that was out of the ordinary, other than the fact that he “had compassion” for someone in great need.
Years ago a story was related to me of a seminary Greek class where the professor assigned his students this passage of Scripture to exegete. They were to write their own translation and commentary from the Greek, taking the passage apart linguistically and explaining all the nuances of the text. Most Greek students love that type of assignment, but in every group of students there are a few who don’t get all that thrilled about the linguistics. Instead, they prefer seeing the practical aspects of the text. So, several of the more practically-minded students decided on the day that the assignment was due for one of them to dress up like a “victim.” So he put on ragged clothes, smeared fake blood on his shirt and dirt on the side of his face, and he sprawled out on the pathway between the dormitory and the classroom. And all of the heady, serious-minded, Greek commentary-carrying students walked right on by. Not one of them stopped to see if they could help! It’s astonishing the ease with which we seem to be able to get the message into our heads, but the difficulty we have in letting it fliter into our hearts. Releasing our Bible knowledge into our hands and into our feet is the real test of how much of what we know we truly believe. Even though we rub shoulders with stripped, beaten and abandoned people every day of our lives, I cannot help but wonder how many of them you and I leave lying “on the other side.”
Jesus then asks the lawyer, “Which of these three—the priest, the Levite, or the Samaritan—do you think, proved to be a neighbor?” But wait! That wasn’t the original question, was it? The question asked by the lawyer was “Who is my neighbor?” However, the question asked by the Master Teacher is “Who proved to be a neighbor?” Great teachers have the ability of turning questions around a casting them in a brighter light…to move them out of the realm of the passive and theoretical and into the active and practical. The real question is not “Where does a neighbor live?” or “What does a neighbor look like?,” or even “Who is my neighbor?” The significant question is…“am I a neighbor?” Can you see that? Sure you can, because it’s the type of question—especially when asked by our Lord—that makes us stumble all over ourselves as we make excuses or look for a place to hide. The issue is not “Who is my neighbor?” but “am I being a neighbor?”
And like us, the lawyer is left with nowhere to escape to. He has no choice but to answer: “The one who showed him mercy.” Although it was probably not the answer he preferred to give, the mirror of the Lord’s Word had reflected his own image back to him and demanded that he respond with the obvious. Jesus then said, “You go, and do likewise.” “You got it...now go do it!” So, we’re right back at where we were in verse 28. Or are we?
We are not given the lawyer’s reaction to this stunning twist from the Master. Was his response the correct one? Was his life changed? Did he, from that moment on, pursue a new course? We don’t know...and perhaps that is the point. For, you see, Jesus’ instruction is not isolated to that one lawyer…it is for us, as well.
The longer I live and work among people, especially within the context of ministry, I am progressively discovering that people really do not care how much I know until they know how much I care. And I think that’s what this passage is saying. I believe that the outcome of this story leaves us with Jesus asking, the question, “Where are the neighbors?”
Let me shoot straight with you for a few minutes. Wherever we go in our daily lives, we bump into, rub elbows with, and carry on conversations with people with deep needs, most of which we are not even aware of. Maybe you do not even know the names of the people you interact with everyday. For many, their best kept secret is that they are “stripped, beaten and abandoned”…stripped of the righteousness of God, beaten by the world-system, and raped by the enemy of their souls. In other words, they are “lost” and in desperate need of people like you and me to show them mercy. We may not readily observe their pain, but as we take a risk and dare to interact with them we begin to realize why the Lord has placed us on the same path. Their need is for what we ourselves have received...the loving mercy of a God who is able to heal their deepest wounds. We who know Jesus Christ have been commissioned to bring spiritual health to those about us. We have been called to be neighbors to those whom God lays across our paths, wherever that happens to be.
Early in my Christian life, I was taught a chorus that went, “This world is not my home; I’m just a-passin’ through.” That is certainly a true statement, but I wonder if we really believe it? If we did, wouldn’t there be a greater urgency on our part in sharing the Gospel with others, and meeting their immediate needs as we do? Could it be that we, like the lawyer in Jesus’ story, have all the answers but are not hearing the questions being asked or seeing the needs that often go unexpressed? Are we allowing the clock to run out while we busy ourselves in the trivial affairs of this life while the greatest needs go unmet?
“Am I a neighbor?” If I could summarize the principle that I believe underlies Jesus’ teaching in this passage, it would go something like this: What you are determines what you see…and what you see determines what you do.
“Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor?” Well, look again at what they did. One walked by. And another walked by. But the third stopped. Why? Because he saw. Why did he see? Because he was something different. He didn’t find a neighbor…he was a neighbor. Jesus tells us that “neighbors” are the ones who recognize needs and go out of their way to address them. And by doing so, they prove themselves to be disciples of Christ.
There is no shortage of needs in our world. Jesus told us that the poor would always be with us. That reference is not restricted to financial or material poverty. In fact, the greatest need that any of our fellow human beings has is in knowing the forgiveness of sin through the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ. And if you are His by faith, then you already have everything you need to be a neighbor.
“Where are the neighbors?” Neighbors may know a lot, but that’s not the most important thing about them. What’s important is that others know that they care. You don’t have to have a theological degree to be neighbor. You don’t have to know the Bible from cover-to-cover. You just have to be willing, as Jesus taught us, to “Love the Lord our God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30-31).
At times I am overwhelmed by Matthew 25(:32-40), where Jesus said that, “Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” On that day when there will no longer be an opportunity to render service in His Name, we are told that He will put the sheep on His right and goats on His left, and "Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’”
For what reason? What was the criteria by which they would be so blessed? Jesus adds, “For I was hungry and gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.”
"Then the righteous (I am sure with astonishment) will answer him, saying, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’”
Now, listen to Jesus’ climactic reply: "And the King will answer them, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did to me.'” Please don’t overlook something very significant in that statement. The emphasis is not on “brothers;” it is on the adjective “least.” “Inasmuch as you did it to this brother of Mine—even the least of them—you did it to Me.” You see, the so-called “little people” of this world—the stripped, the beaten, the abandoned, and the lost—are important to God. Are they important to us?
May God grant to us grace and compassion to be able to stand before others and say with all legitimacy and authenticity, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is a Christian.”