I’m not sure how many times I’ve missed the right answer because I was asking the wrong question. Even if you get the right answer to the wrong question – it’s still the wrong question.
Here’s what I’ve learned: to make forward progress in any area of life (marriage, business, faith) requires us to ask the right questions.
As you would imagine, people asked Jesus all kinds of questions. In fact, much of his teaching is not of the presorted, canned variety; it’s in response to someone’s question. In today’s passage, an expert in Jewish law asks Jesus a really good question: how can a person have a right relationship with God?
The expert answers correctly. It boils down to two things: Love God and love your neighbor.
Let’s pick up the story in Luke 10:28-29 …
28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” 29 But the man wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
What kind of answer does the man expect? Remember, he’s a lawyer!
- How big is my neighborhood? Is it one mile? A half-mile?
- Does it apply to just my street?
- What if someone else lives closer to a potential neighbor? Does that remove me as a neighbor?
However, here’s what I believe he’s really asking Jesus …
- What if my neighbor isn’t very friendly?
- What if my neighbor votes differently than I do?
- What if my neighbor is a New England Patriots fan?
How does Jesus respond? Not with a lecture. He tells a story!
30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. – Luke 10:30-32
The priest and Levite were religious leaders who had religious responsibilities. For the priest and Levite, maintaining the right outward appearance was their definition of being religious. Under Jewish law and customs, if they helped the “wrong” kind of person, they might have been designated spiritually unclean and been unable to work in the temple.
It could have been that they made a pragmatic decision: I can stop and help this one person but I also have a family, a community, or a synagogue that depends on me. What would my friends think if helped this guy?
Their desire to be perceived a certain way was more important than helping a half-dead man in a ditch.
Unfortunately – many Christians today put more emphasis on their outward appearance than their inner transformation. We project the image of being religious (or spiritual) but without the inner transformation that ought to accompany it.
In other words, like the priest and Levite, we can do things for God without being changed by God.
At this point, the audience expects one more person to pass by. Surely, Jesus wouldn’t leave this beaten man to die on the side of the road. In their mind, there has to be one more person … and surely it would be a Jew. Probably an average, ordinary Jew – one that stops and helps when the religious leaders would not.
33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii 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.’ – Luke 10:33-35
This was not the hero the Jewish audience expected. Samaritans and Jews were deeply divided. Their dislike of each other went back generations and it was much more than just a difference of opinions.
As I thought about modern equivalents, I thought about our current political environment. Rather than disagree, both sides tend to demonize their opponents.
If Jesus were telling this story today to a group of Bernie Sander’s most devoted supporters, the unlikely hero would be wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat. Or, if talking to Trump supporters, they would never expect Bernie to be the good guy.
But here’s the thing: the divide and animosity between Jews and Samaritans goes much deeper than our political divides.
When the good Samaritan took action, he crossed religious, political, racial, and social barriers. Why? Because he saw a need and had the resources to help. In fact, the word “good” itself doesn’t appear in the story. It’s something we’ve attached as a recognition of his compassionate action.
After shocking the crowd with this unexpected twist, Jesus then asks the expert this question:
36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” 37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” – Luke 10:36-37
If I’m reading the story correctly, asking “Who is my neighbor?” might be the wrong question. According to Jesus, rather than look for a neighbor, I am to become a neighbor. A good neighbor.
Our western expression of Christianity often emphasizes the individual. We talk about our personal relationship with Jesus, our personal walk with Christ. While it’s true that our salvation is personal – you can’t be grandfathered in or delegate your decision to someone else – it is never just a private experience.
John Wesley put it this way: “There is no holiness, but social holiness.”
As God changes us, it changes how we interact with others. The Holy Spirit works in our lives so that we will be better prepared to do his work in the world.
What do we learn from the story of the Good Samaritan? Let me offer three reflections.
There are no bystanders in this life. God does not allow us to just be members of the studio audience. When we give our lives to Christ, we are giving ourselves to the living out of his mission here on earth.
Both action and inaction have consequences. The religious leaders asked the question of action: What will happen to me if I stop? Their list of consequences was readily apparent: I would become unclean, I would be inconvenienced, I would be unable to perform my regular duties.
The Good Samaritan asked the question of inaction: What will happen to me if I don’t? It was easy to assume what would happen to the beaten man. But what happens inside of us when we don’t do what is right?
Just as callouses don’t show up overnight, the long-term effects of inaction may not appear for weeks, months, or even years.
You have a choice about what kind of person you will be. This is good news. If the story of the Good Samaritan happened in real life, neither the priest or Levite would have to pass by. Likewise, the Good Samaritan would not be required to stop.
God has created us moral free agency and you can decide to be active or passive. You can choose to be known as a helper or a hater.
The Jewish legal expert started with a good question – how do I inherit eternal life? How do I experience a right relationship with God? But Jesus wouldn’t let him off the hook. It’s not about identifying your neighbors or neighborhood. It’s about acting like a neighbor.
When we act like good neighbors by showing mercy to others, we’re not just following in the steps of the Good Samaritan. We’re following in the steps of Jesus himself.
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Experience and Background
- 25+ years of senior leadership experience
- masters in management and leadership
- presenter at the WFX National Conference
- former president, Church Planters of the Rockies
- helped start 2 for-profit tech companies
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