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Wanting to justify himself, he asked, “Who is my neighbor?” (Part 3)

July 16, 2012

Now in order to evoke a better motive from the heart of this legal-minded man, Jesus tells him a story.   (read 30-37)

As you know, the Jews hated Samaritans.  The Samaritans were their enemies.  So you might think that the point of the passage is this: Who is my neighbor?  Even the Samaritans are your neighbors.  You must repent of your racism.  You must love not only those who love you but you must love those who you regard as your enemies as well.   Now that’s true, of course, but Jesus is saying something even more radical.  For if the point had been to tell this Jewish expert in the law that he needed to love Samaritans, you would expect Jesus to put the Samaritan half dead in the ditch and the Jew in the saddle passing by.  Then the expert in the law would have had to think to himself, “Well, I want to just ride over this disgusting Samaritan and finish him off, but I suppose Jesus is right, I suppose I should have compassion on even this abominable half breed”   But Jesus didn’t tell the story that way, because then he would have just been giving this legalist another duty to perform by which he could hope to justify himself.

So Jesus does something even more amazing than tell this man to love Samaritans.  He makes the Samaritan the hero of the story.   He puts the Samaritan in the saddle and the Jew in the ditch.  It totally changes the way you think about this passage when you realize that you’re in the ditch and not in the saddle.

Jesus doesn’t answer the question “Who is my neighbor?” because it’s the wrong question.  The right question is “How can I be a neighbor to others?”  and in answering that Jesus says, “Imagine that you were lying half dead in a ditch and your only hope was to be shown mercy by an enemy who owes you nothing.  Consider how you would hope to be treated and then go and do likewise.”

And this is not just hypothetical.  The fact is that you were that man in the ditch.  You were dying and the only reason you now live is that while you were still an enemy of God, he sent his Son to be a neighbor to you.  To bind up your wounds, to pay all your expenses, and to do so at great cost to himself.  Only when we see in Jesus the true Neighbor and are melted by what he has done for us, only then will we become a neighbor to others.  That’s the motive that empowers love in a way that guilt and self-justification never can.

So we can conclude that it is the love of Jesus for us that should be the model for our loving our neighbors.   This principle goes a long way toward answering all the objections that arise in our minds to pursuing ministries of mercy to the poor.  Jonathan Edwards preached a sermon in which he answered the following objections to Christian charity.

1) I don’t want to give to a particular poor person because he is rude and ungrateful.  But remember that God sent His Son to be a neighbor to you even though Romans 1 says that you did not honor him as God or give thanks to him.

2) I don’t want to give to a particular poor person because the reason he’s poor is his own laziness and debauchery.  He’s drank away or gambled away all his money.  His poverty is self-inflicted.  But remember, says Edwards, that “Christ hath loved us, pitied us, and greatly laid out himself to relieve us from that want and misery which we brought on ourselves by our own folly and wickedness.”   So Edwards concludes that “if they are come to poverty by a vicious idleness and prodigality, yet we are not thereby excused from all obligation to relieve them, unless they continue in those vices.”  In other words, just because a man’s poverty is a result of their foolishness doesn’t mean we shouldn’t help him.  But if you give him money and he spends it on drugs, then don’t give him any more money unless he gets in rehab.  But Edwards also reminds us in this case that “if they continue in the same courses still, yet that doth not excuse us from charity to their families that are innocent.”

3) I can’t give to the poor because I can’t afford it.  Edwards points out that when we say this what we really mean is that we cannot help the poor without it forcing us to change our lifestyle.  If we give anymore than we are currently giving it will cause us a little suffering and we don’t want to suffer.

Edwards writes, “In many cases we may, by the rules of the gospel, be obliged to give to others when we cannot do it without suffering ourselves….we should be willing to suffer with him, and to take part of his burden on ourselves; else how is that rule of bearing one another’s burdens fulfilled?  If we never be obliged to relieve others burdens, but when we can do it without burdening ourselves, then how do we bear our neighbor’s burdens, when we bear no burden at all.”   We must give until it hurts a little, otherwise we are not bearing the burdens of our neighbors.

Now I know that you probably have many more questions about how exactly we should go about showing love to our neighbors.  So I want to invite you to discuss this with me for the next few months every Sunday morning from 9:30-10:15am.  We’ll start in a few weeks when the students return.  I will be leading a Sunday school class through Tim Keller’s book Ministries of Mercy.  I’m going to be ordering some copies of the book, so let me know if you would like one.  I’m hoping most of the participants in the class will read the book.

Today I will conclude by reminding you if you are feeling guilty about how little you love your neighbor as yourself that you need to knock that off.   You are not justified by your love for your neighbor, you are justified by faith alone.  You don’t need to feel guilty, you don’t need to make excuses, you don’t need to compare yourself with others, you don’t need to convince anyone that you’re doing the best you can.  Just reflect on the love of Christ for you and then go and do likewise to others.

The ministry of the gospel is both word and deed.  We have spent a long time studying the word.  We have for three years been in Romans learning to rejoice in the good news that the righteousness God demands from us he has now given to us in Jesus.  And so I pray again that we, the guilt-free fellowship of the non-condemned, will be exemplary in our love for our neighbors.  For the key to overcoming neighbor-avoidance behavior is the good news that we are justified by faith alone.  We are free indeed.  Let us use our freedom to love our neighbors and to serve one another in love.

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