But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29)
Last week I wrote about the parable of the Good Samaritan and the tension between Jesus and those whose responsibility it is to uphold the law – the lawyers, scribes and Pharisees of his day. This story is found in Luke’s gospel, chapter ten, verses twenty-five through thirty-seven. In it we hear about a lawyer who wants to test Jesus on how he interprets the laws given to Moses by God.
Keeping the law, making sure you are within the boundaries of the law, was a matter of great importance for lawyers in first century Palestine. Jesus agrees with the lawyer that one must observe the law by loving God with one’s whole heart, soul, mind and strength – and loving one’s neighbor as oneself. But the lawyer wants to define who his neighbor is, and isn’t, so that he loves only those he has to. However, fulfilling the law’s literal requirements does not necessarily mean one has fulfilled the intent of the law.
Jesus makes this point by telling a story. It goes something like this: A man is traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho and runs into criminals who beat him up, steal his belongings and leave him beside the road for dead. Both a priest and a Levite, who happen to be passing by, notice the injured man but cross over to the other side of the road and walk on.
Finally, a third man, who is from Samaria – a region north of Jerusalem, whose residents are despised by Jews to the south because they do not faithfully keep the law – passes by and takes pity on the injured man. He binds up the man’s wounds, takes him to an inn, looks after him and pays the cost for the man’s continued stay until he is fully recovered. It is he, a Samaritan, who fulfills the intent of the law, while the other, law-abiding characters, do not. Jesus instructs the lawyer, “Go and do likewise.” (v. 37)
Jesus teaches the lawyer, and the crowds who are listening to their exchange, that fulfilling the law requires mercy and compassion. It isn’t about knowing the boundaries and doing only what lies within them. Jesus does away with legalistic boundaries. Fulfilling the law requiring love of neighbor means showing mercy and compassion to anyone and everyone because there is now no one to whom we can say, “You are not my neighbor.”
But there is more to this passage from Luke’s gospel. It isn’t just about, “Who is my neighbor?” Ultimately it is about, “Who is my Savior?” Luke makes this clear for us when he tells us at the very beginning of the passage that the lawyer desires to “justify himself.” (v. 29) By seeking to justify himself he wants, like every faithful Jew in his day, to set himself right before God (and man) by living his life in such a way that he qualifies for salvation. Yet the only way he can qualify is to keep the law, perfectly.
But here’s the problem with self-justification: No one can keep the law, perfectly. No one can be merciful and compassionate all the time to everyone – as well as love the Lord with one’s whole heart, soul, mind and strength. But that is what we would have to do if we, too, wanted to justify ourselves – to qualify for salvation through our own efforts. So if you think you can save yourself, then you’re in trouble. No one can be their own savior. The law will condemn you every time because everyone falls short at some point, in some way. (Romans 3:23) No one can keep the law perfectly. Even Mother Theresa did not.
On our own, each one of us will fail in our attempts to be righteous, to love God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength – and love our neighbor as ourselves. We will never be able to fulfill the full requirements of the law. It is not possible for anyone to justify him or herself no matter how hard he or she may try. We will all end up lamenting with Paul, as he writes in Romans at the end of chapter seven, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me fromthis body of death?” (v.24) Before we can even attempt to love God and neighbor, we first need a Savior, and none of us qualify for that role.
The sad truth is that we are all undone by sin – by our own sins and by the sins of others. Like the man beset by robbers and left for dead at the side of the road, we have no future ahead of us – we are seemingly dead because of sin. Our shortcomings, our pride, selfishness, and deceits are like festering wounds. Even our attempts at virtue run afoul because we can never fully divest ourselves of selfishness. (I know about this only too well.) In the end, we are unable to heal ourselves.
We all need a Savior, someone to show us mercy and compassion. Someone who will come alongside us as we lay in a ditch of our own making. Someone who will bind up the brokenness caused by sin and pour upon our wounds the balm of forgiveness and redemption. Someone who will pick us up and carry us and pay-in-full the cost of our recovery. We all need Jesus.
So, are you striving to save yourself? Trying to be good enough, to earn your way to salvation? You can’t possibly wholeheartedly love your neighbor or God, unless Jesus has first become your Savior. Only he can thwart the power of sin to turn every good deed and faithful act into self-interest and self-promotion. Only he can give you a heart that is full of true compassion and mercy. Where you can give yourself away and you don’t feel empty or burdened. Only he can take you beyond the narrow boundaries of fear and defeat that hem us all in so that you can begin to be more like him.
It all begins when you turn to Jesus as your Savior and let him be a neighbor to you.
Next week: Some thoughts on the story of Martha and her sister, Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet.
If you would like to hear my sermon on the parable of the Good Samaritan click the pulpit icon below: