The One Needing Help
Scriptures: Luke 10:25-37; Luke 18:18-27
Who is my neighbor? When the Bible says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” whom does that include?
The rabbis in Jesus’ time had some interesting answers to that question. In a commentary on the Old Testament book of Ruth, one rabbi wrote, “The gentiles, amongst whom and us there is no war, and so those that are keepers of sheep amongst the Israelites, and the like, we are not to contrive their death; but if they be in danger of death, we are not bound to deliver them; e. g., if any of them fall into the sea you shall not need to take them out: for it is said, ‘Thou shalt not rise up against the blood of thy neighbor,’ but such a one is not thy neighbor” (quoted by Ken Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes, p. 40). That is part of the argument the rabbis had over who qualifies as a neighbor. Who belongs to the category of people we should love like we love ourselves?
In answer Jesus tells a story about a mugging. Did you notice the details in this story? It is surprisingly graphic: “They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away leaving him half dead.” These details because they are crucial to the story. In the ancient Middle East, and even today, the way you tell a person’s nationality or ethnicity is 1) by how they speak and 2) by how they dress. But this person is 1) naked, and 2) unconscious, which means there is no way to tell his nationality or ethnicity or even his religion. For all we know he could be a priest, or a tax collector, or Roman citizen, or drug dealer. We don’t know. We know absolutely nothing about the man, except he needs help. And for Jesus that qualifies him as a neighbor.
While we know nothing about the ethnicity of the injured man, Jesus is quite clear about the ethnicity of the one who helped him. He’s a Samaritan, which meant he belonged to an ethnic group despised by the Jews. For Jesus to tell this story about an injured traveler saved by a Samaritan would be like me telling a story about an injured driver passed up by a pastor and a social worker, and saved by an illegal Mexican immigrant. For Jesus’ listeners the Samaritan is an uncomfortable hero. He is an unwelcome foreigner whom Jesus uses to show what it means to be a neighbor.
Who is our neighbor? Let me speak here from my heart. It is I know this is a difficult question for our country right now. And I get why it is difficult. I think any of us would be willing to help an immigrant or refugee from another country. The problem is when there are millions of them. According to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees over 4 million people have fled Syria during that country’s civil war. How do we manage that many people needing help? And when we are talking about that many people, how do we screen them? I understand the problem. Caring for the needs of people from other countries seems overwhelming.
But you can’t read the Bible and conclude that God is concerned only about Americans. Our government may be concerned primarily about Americans, but as Christians we don’t have that luxury. When Jesus said to go and make disciples of all nations, he did meant all nations. When the Bible says that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, it means the world. You can’t read the Bible and conclude that God is concerned only about Americans. So if we are going to restrict the number of refugees coming to our country, then we need to double or even triple the amount we are giving this year to the One Great Hour of Sharing—the special Presbyterian offering we receive each year during Lent for refugees and victims of disaster and famine in other countries as well as our own. According to Jesus these are our neighbors. Our neighbor is the one who needs help.
But wow—that’s overwhelming. Isn’t it? If that is what it means to love our neighbor as ourselves, how will any of us ever measure up?
That’s what lawyer is asking. The lawyer starts out asking Jesus, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He wants to know the entrance requirements for heaven. Jesus says, “You know the requirements: love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself. Do that, and you will live.”
But the lawyer wants to justify himself, meaning he wants to establish the limits of how much he has to do. He wants to narrow the range of people considered neighbors, so it isn’t so overwhelming.
Can you blame him? If we are commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves, and the neighbor includes anyone from anywhere that needs help—wow—how can we fulfill a command like that? How can any of us ever earn eternal life?
Did you notice how similar how second scripture reading was to our first scripture reading? In both readings Jesus is asked the same identical question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” In both cases Jesus answers by quoting the commandments from the Bible, and in both cases the questioners try to “justify” themselves, meaning they try to defend their righteousness. The ruler in our first scripture reading says to Jesus, “I have kept all these since my youth.” But Jesus says, “That is not enough. Go, sell all you possessions, and distribute the money to the poor.” In the second scripture the lawyer tries to defend himself by limiting the number of people he has to treat like a neighbor.
But in both cases Jesus shows them the neighbor they have not yet loved, the one in need whom they have not yet helped. Despite their best efforts neither of them have earned eternal life.
Which brings me to a new way of looking at the parable of the Good Samaritan. Normally, when people read this parable, I think they identify themselves with one of the three people going by. Either they see themselves as the priest or the Levite, in which case they feel guilty? Or they see themselves as the Good Samaritan, in which case they feel proud?
But there is another way to look at this parable. What if you are not the priest, the Levite, or the Samaritan, but the injured traveler? What if you are the one needing help?
In that light, the parable of the Good Samaritan takes on a whole new meaning. You are not saved by how religious you are—that would be the priest. You are not saved by how many offerings you bring—that would be the Levite. You are not saved by how many commandments you obey or good works you do—that would be the lawyer or the rich young ruler. You are saved by the Samaritan. You are saved by the outsider who comes to your rescue, someone who at great personal cost has come to you, and put you on his back, and paid the price for your healing. And that someone is Jesus.
Who is your neighbor? The one who needs help. And who are you? The one who needs help. Remember that, and it might be easier to help others.