Some time ago, a professional London actor ran into some trouble onstage. He was supposed to pick up a telephone and respond to what he heard, but when he put the phone to his ear and listened, he forgot his line. There he was, on stage for a moment that felt like an hour, with absolutely nothing to say to an audience waiting for him to speak. He did what you or I might do if we thought of it. He gave the phone to one of the other actors and said, “It’s for you.”
A clever trick to save a performance is not at all a proper way to receive the Word of God. But isn’t that sometimes how we treat what God has said? Forgetting our part, we say, “It’s for you.” We have a friend, a child, a spouse, who needs this message. But as for us? Not so much.
Jesus once gave a lawyer a message that he couldn’t squirm away from. (And neither can we.) The lawyer came to Jesus asking a good question from a bad motive. “He, desiring to justify himself, asked Jesus, ‘Who is my neighbor?’” (Luke 10:29). Jesus did not answer the lawyer’s question—at least, not directly. His response was the Parable of the Good Samaritan. In it, a Samaritan sees a beaten victim and delivers the needed help that was not given by those who knew better—a priest and a Levite. He finds a neighbor in need, has pity on him, and generously gives of himself to bring healing.
The direct answer to the lawyer’s question is obvious. All people are our neighbors. Our duty is to love God and to love everyone. But at the end of the parable, through a question of his own, Jesus suggests that the lawyer really asked the wrong question. “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” asked Jesus. The lawyer said, “The one who showed him mercy.” (See Luke 10:36–37.)
Let’s not ask the question, “Who is my neighbor?” We know that answer. Let’s ask instead, “How can I be a good neighbor to those I am called to love?”
This parable is for all of us. Let’s never look at the lawyer and say, “That’s not me.” Or at the priest and Levite and say, “I am not like them. I would have helped.” Or at the Samaritan and think, “I’m not perfect, but I am basically a merciful person.” Let’s not name others who could use this message before we admit our own need to hear and respond. While we may never find ourselves in the presence of a half-dead victim of violence and theft, we are all called by Jesus to show mercy to others.
When Jesus said to the questioning lawyer, “Go and do likewise,” he is saying it also to you and me. Let’s all listen. Let’s all go and do likewise. Let’s have compassion for those who suffer, with a view toward doing good to them in Christ’s name.
Consider eternal life
The lawyer’s initial question to Jesus was this: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He was naturally interested in such things. In a way, it was his job to think about them. He was an “expert” in God’s law. He read it and studied it. He was an authority on it—at least, that was the expectation in the religious culture of his time. When Jesus responded, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” the man was prepared to give an answer. He didn’t understand the answer he gave, but the words he spoke were from the Bible: “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” (Luke 10:27).
While the lawyer’s understanding was defective, and his intention was to justify himself and discredit Jesus, the question he asked was a good one. We should all be interested in eternal life and its relation to our present time. Peter’s confession to Jesus must be our confession: “You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).
Grace-empowered mercy-giving is the duty of all believers. Those who have been shown mercy in the gospel are to deliver that mercy to others in need. But mercy has its price, even when the costs are not material. It is often inconvenient to enter the lives of others. It is time-consuming and interrupts our plans. We might be persecuted for the efforts we make. Those costs, though they feel burdensome, do not compare with the honor of glorifying Christ through attentive, selfless living, and the eternal joy that comes to those who live for Jesus.
The love of neighbor needs to be qualified—surely we cannot love everyone! At least, that is what the lawyer believed. He asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” The man knew that the teaching of the day was an expanded (and corrupted) version of Leviticus 19:18. Jesus knew it too. That is why he said in the Sermon on the Mount,
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. (Matt. 5:43–44)
Do not discriminate and withhold love because, by some twisted understanding of God’s law, you think that people exist who do not qualify as neighbors. That was the message of Jesus to the lawyer.
Right now, in the broadest sense, the neighbor count is 7.7 billion and rising. Our neighborhood is the whole world in a way. No earthly resident is disqualified. But only a small number of our global neighbors are within our mercy-reach. Jesus is not calling us to show particular acts of mercy to every person in the world. He wants us to show mercy to needy people we see. Be like the Samaritan in the story. Be a good neighbor.
While we are not to exclude anyone, we do have to restrict our neighboring in geographic terms. A good place to start is the street where we live. We all have neighbors. Our neighbors have needs. Do you know your neighbors’ needs? Do you know their names? Do they know you? Have you considered how you might get to know them better and contribute positively to their lives?
Christians live in neighborhoods. Congregations worship in neighborhoods. Emerging mission works are located in places where people live. Even when a church building is not surrounded by homes, its ministry has reach to people who live nearby. It is so important that we see this and love our neighbors well.
The victim in the parable was in bad shape, as are many in our communities. They may be lonely, underemployed, or troubled by a decision that needs to be made. Some have medical conditions, addictions, or disabilities that make life very hard. Some neighbors flourish and seem to have everything put together, but they may be the neediest of all if they are relying on themselves and see no need for God.
Consider that God has positioned his church and its members in places where opportunities to show mercy abound. And then ask how mercy can be delivered.
It is possible to feel overwhelmed by the brokenness of the world and the particular trials faced by our neighbors. God is not calling his people to address every issue and fix every problem. But he does want us to be involved with people. He wants us to love them. He wants us to see them as he sees them—broken, loved, needy, and invited to believe in his Son, Jesus Christ.
Jesus is the ultimate mercy-giver. We who know his mercy recognize ourselves in the injured man on the side of the road—weak and incapable of helping ourselves. We are in trouble, but not left for dead. Jesus came, lived, died, and rose in order to save us from our sins and bring us to heaven. We wait for his appearing and a time when all things will be made new. He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy. (Titus 3:5)
The ways to show mercy are many, and it is good for us to think creatively about how to show the mercy we have been shown. The very best gift of mercy we can give to our neighbors is Jesus himself. We have Jesus. Our neighbors need Jesus. Let’s give him to them.
Article written by Al Tricarico, the associate general secretary of Home Missions, in the July 2019 edition of New Horizons.