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Proving that you love God

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topic Scripture: Luke 10:25-37

Thesis: We extend the Kingdom of God when we show his compassion

to our hurting neighbor.

The first microwave oven was sold in America in 1952. It has changed our lives so much that sociologists now call us the “microwave society.”

I’m old enough to remember when popping popcorn meant getting out the popper, putting in the oil, stirring in the seeds, and waiting five or ten minutes. Then the world discovered “Jiffy-Pop,” popcorn and oil inside foil, ready to shake over a stove. When was the last time you saw “Jiffy-Pop”? It takes too long. Today popcorn comes in microwave bags—and we get impatient that it takes two minutes to cook.

The greatest threat to our relationships and society today is the microwave. Not the one in our kitchen—the one in our hearts.

Restaurants have entire rooms for cell-phone users, so people can eat and work and thus save time. “Sink Eaters Anonymous” is an actual support group for people who are so busy they eat their meals standing over the kitchen sink. John P. Robinson, director of the Americans’ Use of Time project at the University of Maryland, says that the value of time has clearly surpassed the value of money in our society.

As we continue learning about the Kingdom of God from the parables of Jesus, today we come squarely against the issue of time, priorities, and values. Which comes first: people or projects? Relationships or responsibilities? Souls or success?

Seeking life

The most famous story in all of literature begins with the central question of ancient Judaism: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10.25). On this occasion, however, the question said more about the man who asked it than the one who would answer it.

Jesus is six months from the cross. His enemies are gathering strength and conviction in their strategies against him. And so “an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus” (v. 25). This “expert” would be a Jewish scribe, a professional religious scholar. Luke used the term “lawyer,” which would be more intelligible to his Gentile audience (Gilmore 192).

Perhaps the setting was a synagogue, where scholars were sitting together in discussion of the Scriptures (Bruce 542). This was not a typical teaching situation, in which the rabbi sat as his listeners stood (cf. Matthew 5.1); here the scribe “stood up” to ask a question, gaining the hearing of those in the circle.

The scribe asked his question to “test” Jesus. The word meant to expose weakness or heresy. Jesus used this word against Satan: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (Luke 4.12). This man asked Jesus his question “probably in the hope of showing his own superiority, and possibly with the expectation of trapping him in his reply” (Bliss 187).

His question revealed his heart: “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” The aorist tense of the Greek text indicates that the lawyer thought there is something which can be done once and for all to guarantee inheritance in heaven (Geldenhuys 313). “Do” here is emphatic: “By having done what shall I inherit?” (Bliss 187).

Jews in Jesus’ day thought they could observe the law, keep the commandments, do the rituals, and thus deserve a place in God’s Kingdom. Most Americans agree. Only 2% in our country are afraid they might go to hell. Most of us think that so long as we live “good” lives and believe in God, we will go to heaven. We see church and morality as things to “do” to earn a place in paradise. We’re wrong.

Jesus exposed the man’s heart. He replied to his question with his own: “What is written in the Law?” (v. 26). He would show the man that neither he nor anyone else could keep the Law sufficiently to inherit eternal life. And he would begin with whatever part of the Law the lawyer affirmed first.

So he then asked, “How do you read it?” This was a technical question in a rabbinic discussion; we would paraphrase it, “May I hear your authorities with exposition?” (Rienecker 170). Jesus knew what was written in the phylactery on the man’s wrist (Barclay 140). He expected him to recite the verses contained in that tiny box of Scripture. And he was right.

The lawyer quoted Deuteronomy 6.5: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” Then he added Leviticus 19.18: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus commended his answer: “Do this and you shall live” (v. 28). But the problem is, we can’t do it. We cannot keep these commandments; “to slip once is to fail” (Robertson 152).

Somehow the scholar knew he could not meet this standard. So, “wanting to justify himself,” he asked Jesus a second question (v. 29). The man wanted to “declare himself righteous,” as a lawyer would vindicate himself legally (Rienecker 170). He knew he could not love God with all his heart, soul, and strength. So he seized on the second of his commandments: “And who is my neighbor?”

Pity this man. He has devoted his entire life to studying the Scriptures, hoping to do enough to earn eternal life. He wants the right thing—eternity in heaven. Unlike most Americans, he knows he cannot assume that he will inherit it. He wants desperately to do enough to go there. He is seeking eternal life. So should we all.

Keeping life

All available evidence indicates that ancient Jewish religious leaders regarded only their fellow countrymen as their neighbors (Geldenhuys 313). The Jews hated Gentiles, so much so that some considered it illegal to help a Gentile woman in childbirth, for this would merely bring another Gentile into the world (Barclay 140). Undoubtedly our scribe has been seeking to love his Jewish neighbors. Now Jesus shows him that he has only begun to love all his neighbors.

You have heard Jesus’ story all your life. I’ll add a few historical details, so we can hear it as Jesus’ first audience did. A “man” was “going down” from Jerusalem to Jericho. Jesus doesn’t specify that he was a Jew, though the fact he was leaving Jerusalem leads us to assume that he was. The road went “down” quickly—Jerusalem is 2,500 feet above sea level, while Jericho sits 770 feet below it. The road drops 3,300 feet in just 18 miles (Nolland 593; Fitsmyer 886).

On the road he was assaulted by robbers who took his possessions and clothes, beat him, and left him. Such was a common experience on this road. Its many turns, crags, and rocky shadows make it an ideal place for bandits to hide. Herod the Great dismissed 40,000 men who had been employed in building the Temple in Jerusalem (Josephus, Antiquities 15.7); many turned to highway robbery, and many of them to this very highway.

Jerome said that the road was still called the “Red, or Bloody Way” in the fifth century after Christ (Barclay 139). Even in the medieval era it was a dangerous road, so that the famous Order of Knights Templar was created to guard those who traveled it (Bliss 189). I’ve traveled it twice, in a tour bus during the day. Both times, our tour guides were relieved to do so successfully. We stopped at the ruins of one of the medieval inns created by the Knights Templar on the road, and shopped at a tourist stop along the way.

It was no surprise to Jesus’ audience that robbers would assault a man on this road. But those who would help him, and those who would not, would be a surprise indeed.

First came a priest. Jericho was preeminently a city of priests (Geldenhuys), home to no less than 12,000 priests and Levites (Barnes 68). About half of the priestly orders in Israel lived in Jericho (Ellis 161). This man was on his way to his religious responsibilities in Jerusalem, or returning from them (Jesus didn’t specify which way the man was traveling).

The priest saw the injured man but “passed by on the other side” (v. 31). He literally “stepped over to the opposite side of the road” (Robertson 153). Why did he not stop to help?

He may have had a religious motive. Numbers 19.11 specifies, “Whoever touches the dead body of anyone will be unclean for seven days.” If this priest were on his way to his Temple responsibilities, and touched this apparently dead person, he could not do his duty. Robertson calls this “a vivid and powerful picture of the vice of Jewish ceremonial cleanliness at the cost of moral principle and duty” (153).

And he likely had a personal motive as well. Robbers would often make one of their number lie alongside the road as though injured; when a traveler stopped to help, the other robbers would attack him. This could be a ploy, and a sign that other robbers are in the immediate area. Whether from religious or personal motives, the practical consequence was that the dying man is left to die.

But all was not lost: a Levite came along next. Levites were non-Aaronic descendants of the tribe of Levi, Joseph’s third son by Leah. By Jesus’ day they had assumed secondary roles in the worship and life of the Jewish people (Nolland 594). This man “saw him,” perhaps indicating that he drew even closer than did the priest. But with the same result: he “passed by on the other side” (v. 32).

We easily condemn these men for their lack of compassion. But are we so different? Do we put the needs of people ahead of our own? What will we risk to serve? I read years ago about an interesting experiment. An ethics professor at Princeton Seminary asked for volunteers for an extra assignment. At 2:00 PM, fifteen students gathered at Speer Library. The professor divided the students into three groups of five each, and gave each group an envelope.

The first group’s instructions said to proceed immediately across the campus to Stewart Hall, and gave the students fifteen minutes to arrive; if they were late, their grade would be affected. The second group was given 45 minutes to complete the task. The third was given three hours.

Unknown to the students, the professor had arranged three students from the drama department to meet the ethics students along the way, acting as people in need. One would be covering his head with his hands, moaning in great pain. The second lay on the steps of the chapel as though unconscious. The third, on the steps of Stewart Hall, acted out a seizure.

How many ethics students stopped to help? Of the first group, not one. Of the second, only two. Of the third, all five.

In which group are you? Do you see your friend, colleague, or family member lost without Jesus, dying spiritually? Assaulted by life, laying on the side of the road to Jericho, needing your help and heart? When was the last time you gave time you didn’t have? Helped a person you didn’t hurt? Stopped to care at a great cost?

Sharing life

Now comes our hero, the “Good Samaritan.” No one in Jesus’ day would have called any person by this oxymoron. It was ironic that a foreigner, a man not included in the Jewish legal definition of a neighbor, would show himself neighbor to this hurting man (Rienecker 171). And it was even more ironic that the foreigner was a Samaritan.

When Assyria captured the ten northern tribes of Israel in 722 B.C., they left some Israelites behind in the land. Some of those who were left intermarried with Gentiles, making a race of “half breeds” in Jewish eyes. They settled in the area of Samaria, between Galilee to the north and Judah to the south. When the southern kingdom of Judah returned from their Babylonian captivity (ca. 586-522 B.C.), they refused Samaritan help in rebuilding their temple.

The result was bitter enmity of the worst kind. One rabbi said, “He that eats the bread of the Samaritans is like one that eats the flesh of swine” (m. Sab. 8.10, quoted in Nolland 594). When Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well she was surprised, because “Jews do not associate with Samaritans” (John 9.4).

No Jew traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho would expect help from this cursed person. When he “came where the man was” (v. 32), Jesus’ audience assumed he would finish the job started by the bandits. But no: “he took pity on him.” The Greek says that he was “filled with pity,” the compassion which “causes us so to identify with another’s situation such that we are prepared to act for his or her benefit” (Nolland 594). Perhaps the priest or Levite felt similar pity, but the injured man never knew it. The hurting are not helped by our attitude, only by our actions.

So the Samaritan “went to him,” risking injury to himself. Perhaps the robbers were still in the area. He “bandaged his wounds,” risking religious uncleanness. The Samaritan Pentateuch contained the same regulations regarding defilement from contact with a dead body (Fitzmyer 884). He literally “bound up” his wounds, a technical medical term (Liefeld 544) for wrapping a physical injury (Rienecker 171). He probably had to use his own clothing to make these bandages, as the injured man was stripped naked by the robbers and the Samaritan would have no reason to bring bandages on his journey.

The Samaritan “poured on” (a technical medical term for treating the injury; Bruce 544, Rienecker 171) oil and wine. The oil softened the wound (cf. Isaiah 1.6), while the wine acted as an antiseptic (Nolland 595). This was typical medical treatment; Hippocrates made just such a prescription for ulcers: “Bind with soft wool, and sprinkle with wine and oil” (Robertson 153).

Then he placed the man on his own donkey, exposing himself further to assault by bandits. He brought him to an “inn,” a large place for receiving travelers on this busy road (Bruce 544, Rienecker 171). He “took care of him” personally (v. 34). The next day he gave the innkeeper “two silver coins” (v. 35), two denarii. Food and lodging was 1/32 of a denarius per day; the Samaritan paid for two months’ lodging and care for this man (Lenski 607). And he promised to pay any further debts the man incurred (indicating that the innkeeper knew and trusted him).

Now came the question to which Jesus had been leading his audience all along: “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” (v. 36). Which of these three “loved his neighbor as himself”? Which did enough to “inherit eternal life”? The lawyer could not bring himself to say that it was a Samaritan (Bruce 544): “The one who had mercy on him” (v. 37).

Now we find Jesus’ twin commandments: “Go and do likewise.” Go—don’t wait for hurting souls to find you. Do—care for them. Prove your faith by your works. Prove you love God by loving your neighbor. Only if you do this perfectly can you “inherit eternal life.”

No one can, of course. Romans 3.20 is plain: “No one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.” So on one level Jesus’ famous story serves to discourage us: we cannot do enough to inherit eternal life. We cannot be good neighbor to enough hurting people. We cannot help and care perfectly enough to warrant inclusion in God’s perfect heaven. We must appeal to the grace of the one who helps our hurting souls, for we can never earn his mercy. Eternal life must be given, or it will never be received.

But on another level, Jesus’ story challenges us. Once we have received the grace of God, we must give it. To grow in faith, we must share the faith. We must breathe out to breathe in. We must empty our hands to fill them.

The Parable of the Good Samaritan does not tell us how to enter the Kingdom—it was not meant to. Rather, it tells us how to live once we’re there, when we have received our “adoption as sons” and are now the children of God (Galatians 3.36-39). The parable teaches us how to help people follow Jesus—the purpose for which our church exists. It shows us not how to earn grace, but how to share it. G. Campbell Morgan’s father was right: “The difference between Law and Grace is this: the Law says, ‘Do this, and live.’ Grace says, ‘Live and do this'” (201).

In the Kingdom of God, people come first. Only they will live eternally. Only in serving people do we serve a purpose which is significant. Only by loving our neighbor can we fully love our Father.

Robert McFarlane was President Reagan’s National Security Advisor, a twenty-year veteran of the Marine Corp., and an architect of the Iran-Contra plan. When his plan failed, Mr. McFarlane resigned his position and later attempted suicide.

I heard him speak a few years ago at a National Prayer Breakfast. He described the incredible power he had achieved, the ladder to success he had climbed. But then Bud McFarlane told us with tears in his eyes that it was nothing. He got to the top, but there was nothing there. Only after he fell off that ladder did he discover that it was leaning against the wrong wall—that life consists of loving God and loving people. Nothing else.

Have you made this discovery yet? You cannot get to heaven by helping people. But if you are going there, you must help others join you. This is the only proof that we love Jesus: when we love each other (John 13.35). Only when we love our neighbor do we truly love our Lord.

On your road to Jericho today, you’ll meet someone who has been robbed and beaten by life. You’ll have many reasons to pass by on the other side. And only one to stop.

Choose wisely.