A lawyer asks Jesus what to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus responds with a question: “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” The man responds with the two great commandments (Love God and your neighbor as yourself). Jesus says, “You answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” The lawyer is not satisfied. He wants to know exactly how to put this into practice. He asks, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds with the familiar story of the Good Samaritan.
As an aside, I never understood how deeply honest the lawyer’s question was until I began trying to explain what it means to practice Christianity to others and discovered that the whole idea of loving people outside your immediate family/social circle, what’s more your enemies, could be viewed as a little weird. Someone said to me: “It’s not exactly clear how you should go about loving everybody.” It struck me as a funny statement because I know that as a Christian I do not go about loving everybody at once. I just do my best to love individuals as God brings them into my life. I’ve always viewed the twin commands to love God and others as practical guides for living life. Any real challenges or conflicts can be worked out along the way. And it seems to me that the great commandments presuppose trust in God. We have to trust God to bring us to the right place at the right time and give us what is needed to act in accordance with His will:
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And it is not your own doing: it is the gift of God, not a result of works so that now one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.-Ephesians 2:8-10.
If God prepares the good works for us and the Holy Spirit leads us to do them, then the love that we share with others is merely a sign that we are in Christ to the glory of God.
Back to our story: Two very religious men, a priest and a Levite, passed by the stranger who had been stripped by robbers, beaten, and left half-dead. We can give these men the benefit of the doubt: They may have had good reasons. But in the story it was the Samaritan man who was moved to compassion and responded with generous, even extravagant care. It’s easy to imagine the Samaritan as an ordinary man who simply returns to the business of caring for himself and his family after this encounter. He didn’t go looking for someone to help, but when he saw the need he responded with love.
I think the story of the Good Samaritan puts to rest a concern that I have heard expressed from time to time: For some, the only logical conclusion of loving others who are fundamentally different is to erode what differentiates one group of people from another. As a matter of practical reality, I just haven’t found this to be true. Caring for others has only led me a better understanding of what makes me different. I have gained a deeper appreciation and loyalty to the tradition that has helped shape me even as I have learned to see the good in other traditions.
In the story of the Good Samaritan, the man’s only identifying feature is his nationality. Jesus showed concern for the Samaritans, a group closely related to the Jewish people that became separate and hostile. Jesus reached out to them in unconventional ways through the stories he told and through his encounters with them. His special concern for them did not change the fact that they were a separate people, and the man’s identity as a Samaritan is crucial to the story.
After telling the story, Jesus asked, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” Jesus asked the lawyer to look past differences and to see the good in the other. The lawyer, who was likely taught never to even talk to Samaritans, did not answer by simply identifying the man as “The Samaritan.” Instead, he says, “The one who showed mercy,” and Jesus simply responds, “Go and do likewise.” Showing mercy doesn’t mean wiping away our differences, but caring for each other in the sense that good parents care for their children’s safety and well-being. With trust in God, an awareness of context, and a dash of creativity, love starts to seem sensible (really!). The key is not to overthink it. Trust God and show some love as you interact with others today!