One of the things I look for when I am talking with people in conflict are repetitive patterns. Things that seem to come up again and again, and never get settled or accomplished. Usually people will point to specific issues like housework, or money, or family rules but we never resolve the problem because these are the issues not the problem.
Usually when we are in a repetitive pattern arguments feel like an endless loop. Maybe you have noticed in your relationships how often arguments center about the same things over and over again? Nothing is ever accomplished by hashing over these identical and repetitive points. No one convinces anyone else, and both parties remain entrenched behind their emotions and the arguments that cover them. Kind of like every argument on Facebook.
In our text this morning, the religious leaders were inviting Jesus onto an argument that they had been having for centuries. In the Law of Moses there were 613 different commandments, but in an effort to help the Jews keep those laws, they also had the Talmud or the teachings of the Rabbi’s about the law. Essentially, the Talmud was a second law around the first to keep folks from breaking the law.
We understand the practice, because we have been guilty of making our own Talmud. When I was a kid I was taught that sex outside of marriage was a sin. So to protect me from the law, God loving people came up with a second law that said we were not allowed to participate in mixed bathing which was a fancy term for swimming. If those two laws don’t make sense to you, let me try to unwrap that a bit. The law was that fornication, or sex outside of marriage, was sinful. Paul addresses the issue in 1 Corinthians. These adults that went to church with us loved me, they knew that if we were going to be swimming, we would be wearing swimming suits. Swimming suits showed skin, and they believed that seeing skin would lead us to lust, and lust leads sex. So I was taught that mixed bathing and fornication were basically the same thing. I always had my doubts but these God loving adults said it and we had our own Talmud.
Every religious culture is guilty of putting barriers around the law because they want to keep their people safe. Even in the time of Christ the religious leaders had put laws around the law. They knew that no one could possibly know and obey all of the commandments. So, in order to make it easier, they divided the commandments into heavy or important commandments and light or unimportant commandments.
When this lawyer approached Jesus he is not asking for information, he is there to make a point, he wants to use an old argument to try to catch Jesus. What is the greatest commandment, or what law carries the most weight? This lawyer wanted to know what type of religion Jesus was going to practice and support. If Jesus picks one, He could be guilty of picking the wrong one. If He refuses to choose, then He looses His authority.
Jesus’ response was so traditional that no one could challenge Him on it, and at the same time so deeply searching that everyone else would be challenged by it. Jesus takes the conversation from the viewpoint of religion and put it into the realm of relationships. Jesus introduces us to a better way; instead of obeying the 613 laws by adding laws to keep us from breaking the laws, Jesus reduced the 613 laws down to 2.
The lawyer doesn’t get the satisfaction he was looking for. Jesus sends him back to his childhood lessons, something that so very elementary that it often goes overlooked. Every Jew would recite the schema, or prayer, every morning when they woke up and every evening before they went to bed. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment.
But Jesus expands on the idea and says And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. Jesus is saying if we love the Lord God with all our heart, soul and mind, then loving our neighbor is the natural result, the second is like the first.
Think about it this way. When Trafton was born, from the moment I laid eyes on him I was awestruck with how much I loved him. It was this immediate, overwhelming commitment to him. And for almost 3 years we were a family of three. Everyday I grew to love that little boy more and more. Then Trista got pregnant with Rylan and we grew to a family of four. Guess what happened when I saw Rylan for the first time. I didn’t have to figure out how to love him, I didn’t have to love Trafton less, my love for Rylan was like my love for his brother. The second was just like the first.
The Rabbi’s of Jesus’ day would explain this passage to mean that we would do for our neighbor what we would do for ourselves. If you are out mowing the grass on a hot day and you would like a glass of water, then when you see your neighbor mowing their grass take them some water. If you get hungry and have the ability to find something to eat, you need to feed your neighbor when he is hungry. If you want nice clothes for yourself, a comfortable place to live, a warm coat when you are cold you should want these for your neighbor as well. Everyone of us are born with a desire for self-fulfillment, we all want to be happy. We want to find meaning in our day, and friends to share life with. We all want our life to have meaning, this is self-love. That's what Jesus starts with when He says, as yourself.
We have never really had a struggle with the love part, or the yourself part. The part we have struggled with is the neighbor part. Does Jesus want us to love our white neighbor? What about our black neighbor? What about our Hispanic Neighbor or our Mexican neighbor? What about our Muslim neighbor? What about our Buddhist neighbor? What about our homosexual neighbor? What about our atheist neighbor? What about the guy who refuses to mow his lawn? What about the lady who allows her dogs to come dig in your yard? It’s easy to love folks who are lovable, folks who are agreeable, folks who love me and make me happy. But the call to love your neighbor… well that leaves us a bit of wiggle room.
In Luke’s Gospel, he tells a similar story our text in Chapter 10. In verse 25 we read: And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
This is an expert in the law, he knew what the Old Testament said but he wanted to put Jesus to the test. He was heresy hunting and trying to discredit Jesus. I mean his question is one big contradiction; what must I do in order to inherit eternal life. An inheritance is not something that we work for; it’s a gift.
Jesus used a teaching tactic often used by rabbis, He turned the question back on the person who asked it in verse 26: “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” I’m not sure what happened next, but I imagine that the man reached down and touched the phylactery that was under his shirt sleeve. All Jewish leaders wore these small leather pouches that held scripture written on pieces of papyrus. Maybe his phylactery contained Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18: “‘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.’”
In verse 28 Jesus embarrasses the man when He said You have answered correctly; While I don’t believe it was Jesus’ intention to embarrass the lawyer, the fact that this man has failed so miserably in his attempt to trap Jesus put him in position where he had to save face.
But Jesus didn’t just say that he was right, Jesus then adds these unsettling words: Do this and you will live. Jesus is reminding the man if you want to use the Law as leverage to get into heaven, then you better follow everything in it by always loving God every second, every hour, every day from the day you are born until the day you die. And don’t forget to love your neighbor perfectly, all the time. That’s the standard that God sets. If you want to get in, then be perfect. One slip up and you’re out. The truth is that none of us are perfect, because we cannot measure up to the perfection the law requires.
Jesus’ response makes the man and probably the crowd nervous. What the man should have said is, I admit that I can’t keep the law perfectly. What should I do? But that’s not what he does. In verse 29 that the lawyer is looking for a loophole. But he, wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
What a great question. I mean, I can claim to love God with all my heart, soul, body, and strength and you just have to take my word for it. I can dress in my Sunday best and look piously at the culture. I can separate myself from the unclean folks. I can offer long and loud prayers on the street corners and pour dirt on myself to show you that I am fasting. I mean I can definitely look the part. But loving my neighbor? That’s going to be a little tricky. How can I love my neighbor by not really loving my neighbor?
So the man needs to deflect some of that responsibility and he asks for a definition of the word neighbor. Which is another argument that the Jewish Rabbi’s like to have. They often debated about who was a neighbor and who was not. They wanted to know who was in and who was out. The Jews typically interpreted neighbor having to do with proximity, closeness, or a fellow Jew. The Pharisees tended to reject ordinary people while a other communities excluded everyone who was not part of their group. This man wants Jesus to draw a circle but it’s a lot bigger than he bargained for. The lawyer wanted a legal limit by making the Law require less than it does.
People do this all the time. Who am I required to help? We talked this week in our office Bible Study about Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 5, where Paul says the church needs to help “Widows indeed”. We shared about how churches have turned a deaf ear to their own members in need, because the Bible say that their family needed to take care of them. And while I believe that I have a responsibility to help take care of my family, don’t for one moment think that widows who have children are not your neighbor.
Jesus doesn’t directly answer the question but instead tells a simple story. He could have embarrassed the man but instead He gives him one more chance to see his own sinfulness.
There was once a Jewish man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho when bandits robbed him along the way. They beat him severely, stripped him naked, and left him half dead.
“Soon, a Jewish priest walking down the same road came upon the wounded man. Seeing him from a distance, the priest crossed to the other side of the road and walked right past him, not turning to help him one bit.
“Later, a religious man, a Levite, came walking down the same road and likewise crossed to the other side to pass by the wounded man without stopping to help him.
“Finally, another man, a Samaritan, came upon the bleeding man and was moved with tender compassion for him. He stooped down and gave him first aid, pouring olive oil on his wounds, disinfecting them with wine, and bandaging them to stop the bleeding. Lifting him up, he placed him on his own donkey and brought him to an inn. Then he took him from his donkey and carried him to a room for the night. The next morning he took his own money from his wallet and gave it to the innkeeper with these words: ‘Take care of him until I come back from my journey. If it costs more than this, I will repay you when I return.’ (Luke 10:30-35 Passion Translation)
This might be Jesus’ most popular parable, but I’m not sure that we really understand what Jesus is saying. It’s like the little boy who came home from Sunday School after learning about the Good Samaritan. He told his mother the story in great detail. He had all the facts straight and all the people in their right character roles. The mother then asked, “What’s the purpose of the parable? What’s it supposed to teach us?” The boy replied, “It means that when we’re in trouble, others should come to help us!” At least that what I used to think Jesus was teaching in this parable.
Let me ask you, what character are you in the story? None of us want to be the Priest or the Levite. I mean these were holy people, but they were more interested in keeping the rigorous law of cleanliness than they were about keeping the law of love. We often assume that we are supposed to be the Samaritan, and who doesn’t want to be the hero of the story. Even if the hero is someone of a different race or a different culture, they are the hero. But that’s not our part in the story either. We are the guy in the ditch. We are the one in need, we are the one who cannot help ourselves, we are the one that has been robbed, beaten, and left for dead.
When Jesus says love your neighbor as yourself He is saying that we need to recognize what an awful situation we are in. We are not good people, we don’t have it all together, we cant figure it all out. We are beaten, broken, and in a ditch. What we want, what we need most in this world, is for someone to come along beside us and be a neighbor, to come and show us love and compassion.
The question we face every day is not “Who is my neighbor” but rather, “Am I being neighborly to everyone?” The lawyer put the emphasis on whether a person was worthy of love; Jesus put the emphasis on the one who does the loving.
One of the struggles we face in our communities is that we tend to use someones belief system to distinguish who is acceptable and who is not. Don’t miss the irony here, the religious people in this story gave the right answers but they didn’t apply what they knew. They spent all their time worshipping God but left their religion in the pew. They were in God’s presence but somehow God’s presence was never in them. We need to be very careful here, we can sing Create In Me A Clean Heart Oh God in worship and yet walk right out the door and close off our hearts to our neighbor made in the image of God.
The question that lawyer, and we struggle with, Who is my neighbor? Who is worthy of my love? If we are going to model love in the model city we need to realize that our neighbor is anyone we have the opportunity to see, anyone we meet. You will run into a neighbor everywhere you go. The world is our neighborhood.
We are being called to love men, women, young, old, rich, poor, black, white, Asian, Mexican, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, Muslim, Hindu, atheist, a homosexual, homeless, a divorcee, a cancer victim, an AIDS patient, an out-of-work engineer, a persecuted believer in North Korea, a single parent, lonely widow, a new arrival from another country.
Our neighbor is anyone in danger, anyone in need, anyone in pain, anyone in trouble, anyone who is sick, lost, or discouraged. Folks don’t have to look, sound, or act like us to be loved. They just have to cross our path. For that to happen we are going to have to bury our prejudices at the foot of the cross and begin to see everyone created in the image of a wonderfully diverse and creative God. Until we do, we will never be able to Love our neighbor.