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Message: Focused Love Finds A Neighbor Rather Than Avoiding One
Pastor Jake Schram
Every so often I run into someone who needs help. One time, coming out of a store I was confronted by a guy who wanted money from me to buy food. He had so much alcohol on his breath, it almost staggered me. I also noticed an empty bottle hidden in one of his inside coat pockets which I had seen him drinking on my way into the store. I told him I’d buy him food and give him the food. I’d help how I could, but I wasn’t going to give him money because I wasn’t sure what he would do with it. He came up with every argument against that because he really wanted the money to buy more booze. And I’m not trying to pick on this guy because we’ve all needed help with something at some point. But I didn’t want to give him what he wanted. I wanted to give him what he actually needed. That’s what it means to be a good neighbor. In our text, Jesus is going to run into someone who needs a little help. And instead of inflating his ego or just giving into this guy’s desires, Jesus gives him what he needs in God’s Word. Jesus with his focused love finds a neighbor rather than avoiding one.
In the first part of our text we have a verbal dispute, a showdown if you will. I think when most of us think of a showdown, it involves a physical fight of some sort whether it’s an old western quickdraw or two people punching each other in the face until one of them falls over. However, here we have a showdown of a different sort. Two people are going to joust with words over the correct interpretation of God’s Word. One of the characters we are quite familiar with: Jesus. And he obviously knows what he is talking about. The other is a type of biblical lawyer, an expert in the law. This man was considered the authority in interpreting and teaching the law of Moses. Both are experts in their craft. Both know the Word like the back of their hand.
Before we begin, know this. Both Jesus and the lawyer will be talking about the same thing. Eternal life. But if you look closely, you will notice the lawyer thinks he can gain eternal life by what he does, by his righteous deeds. Jesus is arguing that eternal life comes only by grace and our deeds reflect that grace.
The lawyer strikes first. “Teacher. What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Listen carefully again and you’ll see his point of view come across. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” You don’t necessarily have to do anything to inherit something from your loved ones. Often, they give it to you upon their death. You didn’t have to do anything for it. Jesus is going to give the inheritance of eternal life through his death. No one will have to earn anything. But because he knows this discussion will lead to a teachable moment, Jesus lets the lawyer’s argument play out for now.
Jesus asks, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” The lawyer gives an answer that accurately sums up the Ten Commandments. If someone is going to earn salvation through the law, they are going to have to keep the law. That means that person will have no other gods, nothing distracting his attention away from God. That person will not misuse God’s name, but always treat it with respect. He will have to keep the Sabbath Day by continuously making time for God’s Word in his life. In other words, to keep these commands you would have to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind. But not only that. A person must keep all the other commandments, like honoring parents, never murdering or wishing harm, never committing adultery with body, eyes, or thoughts, never stealing, never giving people a bad name through gossiping, never coveting people or possessions. In other words, you would have to, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” Do this and you will live. Ha. It sounds so simple. All you need to do is love the Lord your God and treat people well and you can win eternal life. No big deal, right? Let’s look at that again. Love the Lord your God with all your heart. That means the entirety of it. If even a little part belongs to someone or something else rather than him, you have already failed and eternal life has escaped your grasp. Love the Lord your God with all your soul. Your entire being should yearn to be near Jesus, to love Jesus, and to remain fully committed to Jesus at every second of every day. If that’s not you, I guess eternal life isn’t meant for you either. Love the Lord your God with all your strength. Do you look at each moment as another moment to serve God, to please him, to give your everything to your very last ounce of strength, to follow every one of his words? If you haven’t, eternal life is just out of reach. Love the Lord your God with all your mind. Do you think about him all the time and can’t get him out of your mind? Is it your number one joy to purify your mind with his Word? Do you consider everything you think and do through the focused lens of Jesus? If not, you cannot earn eternal life through your actions. And don’t even get me started on loving your neighbor as yourself. Can you honestly say you wake up each moment thinking of how you will best serve other people to the same extent that you think about the things in your own life?
The command, “Do this and you will live” is impossible to keep. At least perfectly. No one can keep that. The lawyer in our text is about to learn the same lesson that we do. We can’t be saved by the law. It would be impossible for this to happen because we are obviously not perfect. But the lawyer is going to try and justify himself. He does not want to see his inability to do what the law told him to do. He does not want to admit that he had not met the demands of the law. So he asks another question. “Who is my neighbor?”
In order to appear righteous before the law he has to make exceptions to the rule. By asking this question he is trying to avoid full responsibility. He is asking Jesus who he can exclude from his love. Which people are not his neighbor and therefore he does not have to care for them. Back in the day, among the Jewish people, the legal definition of a neighbor was defined as a fellow countryman, one of the same race. Jesus is going to completely overturn this type of thinking.
He tells a parable to show the expert in the law his heart is in the wrong place. “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho when he was attacked by robbers.” If you’ve ever seen the land this verse is talking about, it is just full of rocks and places for robbers to hide and ambush anyone walking the path. Anyways, “the robbers stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead.”
Now I’m going to change the characters of this parable slightly because I want to make this more personal to you. I want you to imagine you are the one lying there, battered and helpless, with no hope…until…could it be Pastor Jake coming down the path from church to help? Imagine as you bearily look up through swollen eyes and see me walking towards you, just hoping I’ll see you. And there it is! You notice the recognition in my eyes. I’ve seen you. Now in real life, hopefully I’d never do this to you, but for the sake of the parable I walk right past. In the actual parable the first person to go past was an Israelite priest. Someone who should stop and help, someone who preached God’s Word regularly, but didn’t practice what he preached and walked right by.
Imagine how you must be feeling now. Your pastor just walked right past you. If he didn’t help, then who possibly would? Surely there must be no one…but look! Your church president comes walking along. He will help. But as he sees you, instead of hurrying toward you, he hurries past you. Again, our church president wouldn’t do this to you, but I’m just trying to make the parable more real to you. In our text it was a Levite who walked by, a temple assistant, a church worker. It must have been heart-wrenching to watch him walk away.
You are lying there and at this point probably ready to give up on life when you see a third person walking down the road. This is going to be your last chance. You can feel yourself fading. As the figure bends down before you, you force your vision to focus one more time to make out the figure before you. Your heart drops as you recognize the person you hate most kneeling before you. You think to yourself this person is more likely to finish you off than to help you. Yet in the ultimate plot twist, the person shows you were wrong about him. He gives you medicine, he bandages your wounds, puts you on his donkey (and since there is no room for him on the donkey, he walks the rest of the way), brings you to a hotel, takes care of you for the whole day, then pays for the hotel to take care of you for a couple more days, promising to pay more for whatever will help you get better. Who was the better neighbor? The ones who knew how to help or the one who actually carried it out?
When describing the parable to the expert in the law, Jesus used a Samaritan as the person who helped the injured one. Jews and Samaritans hated each other with a passion. In our text Jesus asked the expert in the law the same question I just asked you. Who was the better neighbor? You can almost see the lawyer’s lips twitch because he knows it wasn’t the Jewish priest, or the temple assistant in the story. It was the Samaritan with his focused love to help anyone he came across. The answer is obvious. And so is the lesson involved. There is no need to spend time avoiding some and trying to figure out who our real neighbor is. God shows us everyone is our neighbor. Whoever you’ve been brought into contact with, whoever is in need, is one toward whom we can and ought to show mercy.
You know where this is headed, don’t you? “Yes pastor, we should serve others.” Yep, absolutely. If you need more proof try looking at the parable this way. The reason I wanted you to imagine yourself in the parable is because there are days where we feel beat up and no one is around to help. Your family was nowhere to be seen. Your friends didn’t understand. Maybe the pastor got busy and should have been there, but wasn’t. I’m sorry. But that doesn’t go back and change the situation. You know who isn’t going to let you down? At times you have hated him. You were born opposed to him. You sinned against him. He owes you nothing. You didn’t make yourself his family or his friend. And yet God will be there for you because he loves you. Like the “certain man” in our parable, we can’t always act on behalf of ourselves because we are naturally spiritually dead. We need Jesus. And he doesn’t walk past. He makes you his neighbor. He bandages your sins with his forgiveness. He heals your past hurts with his love. He has sacrificed himself for full payment in exchange for your life and he has even made sure you’ll have a place in a heavenly inn when it’s time to rest from this world. Jesus is our good neighbor and his focused love finds us and helps us.
In your life, you are going to meet people who have been through a lot. And many of them will be spiritually half-dead, if not completely. But God shows us you can give that person what he really needs. Love and support through God’s Word. God has given us the gift of salvation through his Word. If someone wouldn’t have shared it with us, we wouldn’t be here. God doesn’t want us to shy away from showing the same love he showed us. Don’t leave your fellow people on the street half dead because they don’t understand who God is. Don’t just wait for someone you know to fall away. Go and help somebody. Anybody. They are all our neighbors. And focused love finds a neighbor rather than avoiding one. Amen.