Of course it was a trick question. Everywhere Jesus went, the religious leaders and teachers of the law tried to trap him into saying something they could use against him. So when this expert on the law asked, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” he wanted to see what kind of teacher Jesus was. Did he know the law as well as the expert did? Was he dedicated to following it? And Jesus offered the predictably logical reply to such a legal expert: “What does the law say? How do you read it?” Answered the expert: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” “Correct,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
But the legal expert wasn’t finished. The first question was the easy one. Everybody knew the answer. The real question, though, was not answered by the law. It required interpretation and an appreciation of nuance. “And just who is my neighbor?” Whom am I commanded to love as I love myself? Is it the person living next door? Is it the person working alongside me? Is it someone across town or across the country? Geography aside, is my neighbor perhaps someone different from me, someone who looks and acts and believes differently? Who, exactly, is my neighbor?
In response, Jesus, never one to miss the opportunity for an object lesson, told a story. It’s one we all know well: the Parable of the Good Samaritan. A man, presumably a Jew, on the treacherous road from Jerusalem to Jericho was attacked by robbers, who beat him, stripped him, and took his belongings, leaving him for dead. Along came a priest, then a Levite, both of whom crossed the road in order to avoid him and pass him by. But a Samaritan, enemy of the Jews, came upon the man, and he took pity on him. Ignoring the danger to himself, he cared for the man as well as he could, then hoisted him onto his own donkey, took him to an inn, and further tended to his wounds. When he had to go away on business, he left money for the innkeeper to look after him, promising to repay the innkeeper for any additional expenses he incurred.
Then it was Jesus’s turn to ask a question: “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” Genius! Jesus flipped the legal expert’s question around and returned it to him. Instead of asking, “Who is my neighbor?” he should have been asking, “To whom can I be a neighbor?” To whom can I show the love and mercy of God? To whom can I offer the things I expect for myself and take for granted: food, water, clothing, shelter, education, medical help, friendship, community? And the expert on the law answered correctly: “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.” He said it to the legal expert, and he says it to us as well.
Go, and do likewise. To whom can we be a neighbor?
You are welcome at Westview Church! Join us this Fall at 9:30 for worship as we explore these important words of Jesus.