After loving God, the greatest command according to the Bible is to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’? But who counts as a ‘neighbour’? That is the question an expert in the Old Testament Law poses to Jesus. Jesus responds with a story and a question.
The Queen: Who was her neighbour?
One of the most important commands in the Bible is; “Love your neighbour as yourself.”
In today’s passage a Jewish Lawyer agrees with that idea, but then asked Jesus a key question: ‘Who is my neighbour?’
In order to obey the command, he seems to be saying, I need to know who ‘the neighbour’ is that the command is referring to. He seems to be suggesting that some people will count as ‘neighbours’ and others won’t.
Tomorrow, we have the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II. In her role as head of state she had to meet literally thousands of different people from a vast array of cultures and backgrounds. We could ask, which of those she considered to be her neighbour?
1961 Queen Dances with President of Ghana
It is perhaps hard to believe now, but at the start of the Queen’s reign much of Africa was still ruled as colonies of European powers. Vast areas were still part of the British Empire.
The first country to escape colonial rule was Ghana, which became independent in 1957 and became part of the Commonwealth, a free country, but still associating itself with Britain and particularly the Queen.
In 1961, however, the President of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, was considering taking the country out of the Commonwealth
Ghana and aligning with the Communist Bloc. It was a move that could have destroyed the whole idea of the Commonwealth.
So, the British government sent the Queen to visit Ghana. This was at a time when Blacks and Whites were still segregated in many American States, there was Apartheid rule in South Africa and many in the West were struggling to let go of a sense of European superiority.
So, what did the Queen do on her visit? She danced with the Ghanaian President! It was an impromptu move that demonstrated that she no longer that the relationship between nations was no longer to be one of a dominant power suppressing another, but of a group of multi-racial independent nations voluntarily associating with one another for mutual support.
In her role the queen often had to relate to people from many different cultures and races to help encourage peace and good relations between cultures. It appears she did so with ease and respect.
2012 Queen Shakes hands with Martin McGuiness
50 years later, the Queen was also involved in another moment of incredible reconciliation that involved crossing cultural barriers. As you probably know for much of the last century and through most of her reign, there were ongoing troubles in Northern Ireland. The country had a big cultural divide between the Nationalists who were culturally more closely connected with the people of the Republic of Ireland and religiously Roman Catholic, who wanted the whole of Ireland to be one country and the Loyalists, who were keen to remain a part of the United Kingdom and religiously tended to be Protestant. The troubles often resulted in violence, sometimes caused by rioting, but often by terrorist organisations on each side. In particular, the Irish Republican Army, committed a number of terrorist attacks in Northern Ireland and across the United Kingdom and were even responsible for blowing up Lord Mount Batten, her husband’s uncle, to whom they were very close.
Yet, in the late 1990s, the Good Friday agreement, brought peace and eventually the Nationalists and Loyalists were able to work together in the Northern Ireland assembly. Martin McGuinness, who had been a leader in the Irish Republican Army, had become the deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland in 2007.
When the Queen visited the Assembly, she met with Martin McGuinness and famously shook hands with him. This was seen as a moment that sealed the peace agreement in Northern Ireland and underlined the end of hostilities that had caused so much pain. It demonstrated that the Queen was able to reach across the cultural and religious barriers and even shake hands with someone who had been an enemy, a leader in an organisation that had been responsible for murdering a member of her family.
We may celebrate such behaviour today, but historically it is not normal! Throughout history, people have more often than not treated those from other cultures, races and religion as less important and less to be loved and cared for than those like them. So, what inspired the Queen to love these neighbours?
The answer, ultimately, is Jesus. The way he answers the Lawyers question powerfully challenges us to consider anyone we meet as our neighbour.
‘Who is my neighbour?’
So, how does Jesus answer the Lawyer’s question: “Who is my neighbour?” He does so with a story about a man who is beaten up by bandits and left for dead, then a question about the story.
I think it is helpful to start with the question about the story. It is a question, that in a sense turns the ‘Who is my neighbour’ question on its head. Jesus asks the lawyer at the end:
“Who was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hand of robbers?” (Luke 10:36)
In other words, Jesus wants us to hear the story he tells and ask ourselves, if I was the man beaten up and left for dead on the side of the road, what answer would I want someone coming across me to give to the question, ‘Who is my neighbour?’
Those who walk on by
In the story, the first two people to walk by are a Priest and Levite. They both see the man broken up, they both would know the great command to ‘love your neighbour’, they are both people who would see themselves as those who obey the Law, but they walk on by.
Somehow, it seems they justify to themselves, that this man lying in the road does not count as a neighbour they should love. How they come to that justification, Jesus does not say, but from the perspective of the man in the ditch whatever justification they came up with would have been unacceptable. He needed their love and care and they failed to give it to him.
Samaritans and Jews
Then comes the Samaritan. The fact that he was a Samaritan was deeply significant.
In Jesus’s time where he lived, there was a cultural divide that in many ways was similar to the cultural and religious divide in Northern Ireland in the last century. It was between Jews and Samaritans. Although both groups claimed to follow Moses, the Samaritans rejected much of the rest of the Old Testament and especially the temple in Jerusalem. There was also a long history of violence and antagonism between the two cultures.
A sense of this antagonism comes across even in the preceding chapter of Luke’s gospel:
“[Jesus] sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?”” (Luke 9:52-54)
Jesus quickly rebuked the disciples for the suggestion of destroying the Samaritan village, but the incident itself shows that Jews and Samaritans were quite antagonistic to each other. They saw themselves as enemies and certainly not neighbours!
Now Jesus who is talking to a Jewish audience, probably wants them to assume that the man who is half dead, is a Jew. He would probably not naturally count Samaritans as neighbours to be loved, given an excuse he may well have wanted to torch their villages too!
But given his desperate situation he would have been incredibly glad that this Samaritan did count him as his neighbour.
Unlike the others, when the Samaritan sees the man in the ditch he has compassion on him.
“Compassion” is the key word at the centre of the story. It is a word that suggests an emotional association with the one in need that leads to action. It sums up the idea of loving your neighbour as yourself, because it implies putting yourself in the others shoes and doing for them what you would want them to do for you!
That is what Jesus is trying to do with this whole story. If we are to love our neighbour as ourself then we need to think ourself into the situation of the neighbour and ask what would we need them to do for us in our moment of need.
The Samaritan certainly does that for the man in the ditch with a generosity and enthusiasm that is almost over the top. He stops, he bandages up the man’s wounds, he pours wine and oil on them to help them heal, he puts the man on a donkey, takes him to an inn and pays what amounts to £100s in today’s money for the man to stay in the inn and even offers to pay more if necessary. This was truly sacrificial care.
Who was neighbour to the man who was beaten up? The Lawyer, who can’t bring himself to say, ‘the Samaritan,’ nonetheless concedes that it is, ‘the one who showed him mercy.’
If you are in desperate need you don’t care who helps you, who treats you as a neighbour, so why should you seek to limit who your neighbour is, when it comes to the command, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ The ‘neighbour’ must be anyone you come across, no matter what their culture, race or religion, even your enemy.
Go and do likewise
Jesus finishes by telling the man, ‘Go and do likewise.’ In other words, don’t limit who you show love to when you come across someone in need, show them the same kind of generosity and care that the Compassionate Samaritan showed to the man left for dead. No matter what sacrifice that may entail.
- In fact, ask yourself, who would I not want to be included as a ‘neighbour’ in the command , ‘love your neighbour’? Is there a type of person or a particular person that you would not want to love as yourself? It’s easy to appreciate Jesus’s great ethical teaching, but are we really willing to follow him?
I suspect that the Lawyer, who could not even name the hero of the story as a Samaritan was willing to go and do likewise as Jesus commanded. In fact, when we go back to the start of the story, we discover that the Lawyer does not really want to join in with Jesus’s agenda.
‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’
The Lawyer actually starts with a different question. He asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Now this is a great question to ask, but Luke tells us that the Lawyer is actually ‘testing Jesus’. He wasn’t really interested in what Jesus thought, but was challenging Jesus.
So, what was he challenging Jesus about?
Jesus’s followers have eternal life:
This passage follows on from a speech Jesus gives to his disciples after they return from travelling around telling people about Jesus.
He celebrates the success of their mission and in particular that they like Jesus seem to have power over demons and says,
“However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:20)
The implication is that those who have joined up with Jesus and are following his agenda for life, trusting that he truly is God’s saviour and king, can be confident of eternal life.
That is a bold statement, especially when you remember that these disciples did not fully measure up to Jesus’s standards – after all they are the ones that wanted to burn down the Samaritan village! Yet, Jesus implies that choosing to join up with him is enough to gain eternal life.
He then in verse 21 says, that these things are hidden from the ‘wise and learned.’
What about the Lawyer?
Now, the Lawyer, who may well have been listening to this speech of Jesus, may well have heard these words and no doubt been upset by them. When we read his question about eternal life in the context, we can see that he is saying something like:
“You claim that your followers, who are not trained in the Law, can be confident of having eternal life, what about me, how do you think that I an expert on the Law than them, can have eternal life?”
Jesus’s response is to turn the question around:
“You’re an expert in the Law, what do you think the Law actually says.”
The Lawyer responds with the two great commands: Love God and love your neighbour and Jesus says, ‘You have answered correctly.’
But then he says, ‘Do this…’ In other words: you need to take these Laws to heart and live them, not just understand them intellectually.
Yet rather than expressing a desire to do that, the Lawyer asks about a detail of the Laws: “Who is my neighbour?” Luke says the Lawyer was wanting to ‘justify himself’. In other words, show that he was measuring up to the Law. As long as the definition of ‘neighbour’ was limited to the right kind of people, then the Lawyer could be confident he measured up to the Law.
Yet, this desire to ‘measure up’ rather than a desire to join up with Jesus, was still missing the point. Thinking that we can measure up without joining up, is actually to fail to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.
Will you join up with Jesus?
We still face the same question today. Too many people today, like the Lawyer, think that measuring up is what counts. It may be that they are trying to measure up to the changing standard of the culture around them, or the imagined expectations of someone or some group they respect and want to impress.
It may be that when they think about God and eternal life, they think that they will be alright, because they think they measure up, they’ve lived a better life than most. Yet does anyone really measure up fully with the two great commands to love God and love our neighbour as ourselves – especially when the neighbour could be anyone? I’m not sure even the Queen, despite her dedication and service would fully measure up. However, I do know that the Queen often spoke about her faith and trust in Jesus. She had joined up with Him and God’s mission and purposes.
What matters is not measuring up but joining up. It means committing ourselves to Jesus as our Lord and Saviour. Trusting the incredibly Good News, that although in a sense our mortality means that without God, like the man attacked by bandits in the story, we are as good as dead, but that like the Good Samaritan, Jesus has come with compassion and care to sacrifice himself on the cross, so that our sins can be forgiven, we can be reconciled with God and so have eternal life, when we join up with him. Not only that, when we join up with Jesus, we increasingly want to live like Jesus and mirror, the compassion that he shows us in compassion for all we come across, to love our neighbours as ourselves.
So, will you join up with Jesus?