“No act of virtue can be great if it is not followed by advantage for others. So, no matter how much time you spend fasting, no matter how much you sleep on a hard floor and eat ashes and sigh continually, if you do no good to others, you do nothing great.” — John Chrysostom
Scripture context: Luke 10:29-37
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him.The next day he took out two denarii[e] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
Question: Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers? (Luke 10:36)
An “expert in the law” has from Jesus here a simple multiple-choice question. In fact, the man has set himself up with Hebrew scripture that answers his own trick question for Jesus about what to “do to inherit eternal life.” The Bible commands us, the scholar correctly recites: Love God with all your heart and soul and strength and mind and “your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus agrees: “Do this and you will live.” But the legalist isn’t going to let go a chance to embarrass Jesus in public, so he presses the teacher again, “And who is my neighbor?”
We know Jesus’ story of the non-Jew, a Samaritan, whose “heart went out” (Message) to the victim of robbers who’d left him for dead by the road. It is no accident it’s a priest (surely a wise and learned cleric) and a Levite (an “expert in the law” just like Jesus’ questioner) who cannot be bothered to tend to a broken body blocking their path to do important business in Jericho, to meet with other busy people. It’s someone who in Jewish eyes is totally wrong about God and religion who acts like a kind neighbor to the victim.
Lately, I find it powerful that Pastor Ryan pushes us to “not read one verse” or passage to figure out what’s going on in the Bible. Just before this story in Luke, Jesus prays to the Father in delight and “full of joy through the Holy Spirit” at news from two-by-two teams back from short missions designed to bless people with miracles in Jesus’ name. He praises the Father because “you have hidden these things from the wise and learned and revealed them to little children” (Luke 10:17-24). With the story of the good Samaritan, Jesus illustrates his earlier prayer in answer to one of the supposedly wise and learned with a story about two guys who should be wise and learned. But they aren’t.
How could this be—this weird, dull ignorance on the part of folks who know better? Well, like other big lessons in my life, I found out through a classroom situation divinely set up to teach me.
“Pick a student who’s bugging you right now—and write about your classroom from this kid’s perspective.” Through a 10 minute in-service writing exercise, this “love your neighbor as yourself” thing came home to me. I was teaching ninth graders at Crescent Valley H.S., and I thought of Wendy. Yes, in God’s masterful stroke of irony, her name really was Wendy. She came to class late. She distracted everyone, of course, and often as not she knocked all her books, papers, pens, and backpack to the floor. We lost class time every day when I’d repeat instructions just for her. Writing this one paragraph about her, I realized what the teenager really needed was attention. Late, dumping books, a teacher’s focused energy to get class directions—these put her in a spotlight she probably got almost nowhere else. I talked with a truly wonderful Christian vice principal about Wendy, and it came out she’d been spending lunchtimes with this woman. So coming to class late meant this student had torn herself away from perhaps the single person in her life who treated her kindly. In a flash, I knew that I had not. Being irritated with her, I had missed completely the Wendy who needed to be loved “as myself.” In another lightning bolt of God’s perfect irony, somehow it made sense that Wendy actually was my neighbor, living in an apartment directly across Garfield Street from the church parsonage. Soon after I finally came to my senses in that writing exercise, I managed to cross the street to the other Wendy’s place with a plate of chocolate chip cookies. We had a good visit. And my heart and attitude were different the next time Wendy was late to class.
O Lord—in our ambition to do things just right, please open our eyes to see our neighbors. Let us see that by our response in Jesus’ name to their needs we can “do this and live,” finding your eternal life right now.