I have had a little opportunity to “spy” on this country in the past few weeks. One of the things I have found out through the internet is that some New Zealanders are not happy with the flag. I think the chief complaint is that the flag is not distinctive enough, because it is similar to so many other flags. Some of the suggested alternatives feature the color black prominently, or a large while stripe to represent a cloud, or a kiwi bird, or a silver fern, or some maori design.
I’m not suggesting that you should change your flag, but I can understand the need to identify yourselves clearly among the nations of the world. The Bible says that the way Christians identify themselves is by obeying Christ’s commands:
NIV 1 John 2:3 We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands.
This message is part of a series of “how-to” messages built around the three most important commands of scripture: the commands that I call the foundations of life and ministry.
The first command is what Jesus called the greatest commandment: that we should love God with all of who we are: our heart and soul and might. This command is found in Deuteronomy 6:5.
Deuteronomy 6:5 You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.
The command is repeated by Jesus in Matthew 22:37-38.
Matthew 22:37-38 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.
This command motivates our relationship with the LORD, and our ministry to Him, including personal and corporate Bible study, prayer, and worship.
The second command is what Jesus called the second greatest commandment, that we should love our neighbors in the same way as we love ourselves. This command motivates our relationship with our neighbors. Neighbors as the Bible defines them include everyone on the planet, especially those that need our love, and those whose path we cross so that we have opportunity to express God’s love to them. This command is found in Leviticus 19:18.
Leviticus 19:18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.
It is repeated by Jesus in Matthew 22:39.
Matthew 22:39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
But the best place to study just what it means to love our neighbors is the story Jesus told to answer that question. It is the parable of the Good Samaritan.
Luke 10:30-37 ESV
30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. 34 He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”
Excuses That Keep us from Loving our Neighbors.
The first thing that came to my mind when I studied this passage is how unusual this story is. It seems that Jesus went out of his way to make this story as unbelievable as possible. The main character in the story is a Samaritan. In Jesus’ day, the Samaritans were not known for being loving. The Jews avoided the Samaritans, and the Samaritans probably avoided the Jews in return. If anybody in the story were expected to be compassionate to the hurting, it would have been the priest or the Levite. So one of the things that this story communicates is that there are a number of excuses that can prevent us from loving our neighbors.
First, there is the excuse of jurisdiction. Imagine being in a restaurant, ordering a nice bowl of soup, then the waiter leaves before you realize that you haven’t got a spoon. After several minutes of waiting for your waiter to reappear, you finally spot another waiter. You ask for a spoon, but the waiter just says, “Sorry, not my table.”
I call this the excuse of jurisdiction because, when it comes to acts of love and compassion, we often create artificial limits. We narrow down the places where and the people to whom we choose to manifest God’s love. I read a book many years ago called “The Pursuit of Loneliness” which claimed that most of us spend our lives separating ourselves from other people.
It would have been very easy for the Samaritan to use the “not my table” excuse. After all, he was literally a stranger. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho is not in Samaria – not even close. Surely someone else would have an easier time giving the wounded man medical help.
The reason Jesus told this story in the first place is that somebody was trying to use the excuse of jurisdiction to get away with being unloving. Luke tells us that a lawyer, ‘desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” ‘ (10:29). He probably thought that this question would put Jesus in his place. After all, we can’t be expected to extend a helping hand to everyone, can we? Jesus made it clear that true love finds a need and fills it… it looks outside the box.
The second excuse the Samaritan could have used is the excuse of ethnic priority. Jesus clearly implied that the man who had been robbed and beaten was not a Samaritan. The Samaritan could have looked at the victim, assessed that he was in need, but turned away because he was “not one of my people.” He might even have reasoned with himself that if he wasted his resources and time on this stranger, what if there’s a wounded Samaritan just a few minutes up the road?
But Jesus’ story is just that more significant because the Samaritan chose to love someone who was different. His love was based on something inside of him, not something he saw in the object of his compassion. In that respect, it mirrors God’s love, because he loved us and sent his Son to die for us while we did nothing to deserve that love.
That is the kind of love that Jesus commands us to give – an impartial love that seeks out those who need it the most, whoever they are. James said “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors” (James 2:8-9). If our love is limited to “people like us” it does not even qualify as love. It is sin!
The third excuse the Samaritan could have used is the excuse of busyness. He could have looked at the need before him, and then at his watch (ok, I know he didn’t have a watch, but you know what I mean), and then walked away.
It is very easy to let your own busyness trap you into a routine that effectively keeps you from loving your neighbors. The priest and Levite were both probably guilty of this. The impression we get in the story is that both of these guys had some important “ministries” that would have been delayed if they stopped to render aid to the mugging victim. Or, maybe they were coming home from a long hard day at the office in Jerusalem. Either way, each man assessed that the problem before him was “not worth my time.”
Committed Christians can really get caught up in this trap as well. We want to do all we can for the Lord, and so often can fill up our schedule to such an extent that when these opportunities present themselves, we cannot seem to make room for them. Churches struggle to keep a balance between all three foundational commandments, and sometimes lose sight of this one entirely. When that happens, the churches might have great worship, devotional, and evangelism programs, but fail to reach out to the needy all around them.
The only way to avoid the busyness excuse is to make sure acts of love and compassion are built into our daily business. I’ll talk more about how to do that in a few minutes.
A fourth excuse the Samaritan could have used is the excuse of selfishness. Loving that mugging victim cost the Samaritan not only time, but also money. He would have been tempted to say, “not my stuff.” I can hear him say to himself, “Look, I’m away from home; I do not have many provisions to begin with, and if I use them up on this stranger, what’s going to happen if I need them?
We Christians are also tempted to use this excuse, but we label it stewardship. We are more comfortable thinking that our money is being reserved for “the Lord’s work.” But often that is just an excuse for holding on to what’s in our wallets.
Principles that Enable us to Love our Neighbors.
Let me briefly share a few principles implied in this text. I’m pretty sure that keeping these principles in mind will enable us as individuals and as churches to love our neighbors like this Samaritan did.
First, the principle of providence. Of all the characters in the story, it was only the Samaritan who saw the mugging victim as an opportunity instead of a liability. He was not a bystander that day. He was an emergency medical technician, and his donkey was an ambulance.
We Christians operate under the principle of providence when they see life’s trajedies and unfortunate events as opportunities for us to manifest God’s love.
Secondly, the principle of preparation. Of all the characters in the story, it was only the Samaritan who was prepared to treat and transport the man who had the need for it.
We Christians need to look for ways to love those who are being overlooked. We need to think outside the box of our own needs and plans, and anticipate the needs of others.
Our churches need to develop programs that reach out to those people that our society has forgotten. To make sure that acts of love and compassion are built into our daily business, we need to plan for them. That means providing for means of loving our neighbors when we set our annual budgets, and when we hire our church workers.
Thirdly, the principle of partnership. Of all the characters in the story, it was only the Samaritan who worked together with someone else to make sure the hurting man had a chance to recover. The innkeeper became a partner in the Samaritan’s act of kindness.
Like him, we Christians should seek ways to network with those who can help us to manifest God’s love. Those potential partners are everywhere: the government, non-government organizations, charities, hospitals, rehab centers, … everywhere that somebody is doing something for someone else.