What’s the first thing that comes to mind when I say, “Good Neighbor”? Better yet, if I said, “Like a good neighbor…” It wouldn’t be a longshot that maybe 85% of you are thinking, “…State Farm is there,” maybe even singing as the jingle goes. Or you’re thinking of “Jake, from State Farm.” And, if you believe those commercials, your State Farm rep is the neighbor you want. Jake is there – in the middle of the night when you’re in your sweats on the phone with a leak in the basement – he’s in the office, ready to answer in his khakis and red polo. Ready with help day or night – one phone call away – like a good neighbor.
But, this is not a State Farm commercial. This is real life – and church – where we’re concerned with what Jesus means when he talks about a “good neighbor”. You can bet it’s not Jake in khakis and a red polo. Instead, of course, by “good neighbor”, Jesus means someone a little closer to home – you. Today, Jesus makes us good neighbors. In fact, let’s go a step farther and help define what a good neighbor is. Today, Jesus makes us loving neighbors.
He does that first by teaching us what a loving neighbor is. And it comes by that familiar story of the Good Samaritan. In fact, the concept of this story is familiar even in our unbelieving world where we’ve recognized the value of having goodwill toward others. We even have laws that protect those that help others in dire circumstances – CPR on someone dying, etc. Our world recognizes the value of doing the right thing even for those you don’t know. But today, Jesus uses this story of the Good Samaritan to teach us much more. And as you heard in our reading, he’s actually using the story to answer a question.
The lawyer asked, “What do I have to do?” And our hearts ask the same question – as students trying to figure out how to get the passing grade or employees seeking out the next raise, or spouses trying to ease the tension — our hearts ask, “What do I have to do?”
Of course, the lawyer’s question was a test. And Jesus’ response begins to test our hearts and his. He makes clear that the answer is easy. Do the right thing. God has given pages and pages of his law. It’s pretty simple. Just do it. And the lawyer realizes that. He understands what the law says. I mean, look at his answer. Even Jesus says it’s a great one. Verse 27: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
But notice what happens when Jesus agrees to that. The lawyer feels he needs to justify himself. Do you understand where he’s coming from? God says it’s simple: love. And we say, “Yeah, but, what about …” and then you finish that sentence with 100 different things. “Yeah God, I know I’m supposed to love you, but what about when that’s not really convenient? What about when my life is so packed and my budget so tight, that I really have to take care of myself first?” Or “Yeah, God, I know I’m supposed to love my neighbor, but what about when they’re not that lovable? What about when I don’t feel like they love me?” It’s too hard – too broad – that would mean “everyone”! Which is why the lawyer asked further: “Yeah, I hear you saying love my neighbor, but … who is my neighbor?”
That’s when Jesus tells the story. He had to. You see, our sinful pride has an infinite ability to rationalize and excuse and be selfish. We even try to do it with the law. We make the law about me: What do I have to do? What’s in it for me? What’s my reward? Jesus knew that we’d try to reason it; and that instead, we had to see it: that it’s not about us at all. Those are the wrong questions. The answer is that it’s about God (why I do it), it’s about love (what I do), it’s about others (who I do it for—not for me). And until I see that, I will be seeking to do the right thing for the wrong reasons and making even the right things wrong.
You know it from regular, old life. Isn’t it like this? Getting good grades? It’s not really about memorizing data – it’s when a student learns to study all the material and learn that he or she grows – and grades come. At work, it’s not about having the list of 10 things to catch the boss’s eye – it’s about going all-in on being a good receptionist or nurse or lawyer – and the promotions and other things come. In a marriage, it’s not a checklist but a way of life – with sacrifice, kindness, love – not for yourself but to show love. And that generates love and respect even more.
The proper question isn’t, “who is my neighbor?’ It’s “am I a good neighbor?” And that isn’t limited to those I like, or those like me, to those it’s convenient or even painless to be a neighbor to. Being a loving neighbor hurts sometimes. It takes sacrifice. Which Jesus shows us…
The priest in the story wasn’t willing to sacrifice to help. And there were laws. If the man died, the priest would have been unclean and unable to do his job. He had his excuses. But I don’t think anyone would say the priest did the right thing, do you?
The Levite—he passed by too. Maybe he was following his leader, that priest. Of course, you want to please those human representatives of authority. But, I don’t think anyone would say the Levite did the right thing either.
It was the Samaritan—the Jews’ natural enemy–think of that Palestine-Israel hostility today. It was the Samaritan—the one who you would least expect to be “good” to that Jew. He didn’t consider all the reasons he had not to help. He asked no questions. He just loved. He sacrificed. He went out of his way to help that man who would’ve run away from him if he could’ve. The Samaritan used all his resources, his own effort and time until the man was safe – and he even followed through – promising to come back and pay more. Those aren’t the kind of things you do when the law is all about me. Not what you do when you’re asking questions like, “What do I have to do?” or “How much is enough?”
Can you do this? Love God and love others, and not love them for benefit of yourself? Only when Jesus makes us loving neighbors. He teaches, like here, to make us see our way isn’t the way. But first, he shows us the way. In the story, it was the Samaritan that gave and loved. In real life, Jesus saw us injured and wounded. For all the times we’ve been selfish in our view of the law … For all the times, we’ve made excuses instead of loved … For all the times we’ve tried to rationalize away God’s expectations—in other words, for all the times we’ve sinned—we are as spiritually helpless as that beaten man on the side of the road. And Jesus saw us. From all eternity, he saw us, and he set aside the pleasures of heaven for a time, he gave up prestige and glory and honor. He came here to go without a place to lay his head so that he could prepare our place; to go without food himself so that he could give us the bread of life; to die so we can live. “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28).
Jesus was love. He was the loving neighbor who did for us. And he succeeded. He made us what we weren’t. By paying our price and substituting his perfection, Jesus makes us loving neighbors. That’s how he can close our text how he does. Verse 37: “Go and do likewise.”
Be a loving neighbor. In a thousand ways… And if you’re looking for some ways to do that, if you have some specifics to help you think—check out your commitment cards. You should have received one with your bulletin. If not, there are some more on the information table. There are some great ways to show love there—both individually and working together as a congregation. Things you might choose and try for yourself. No matter what you choose or find or experience, really—it all comes down to this: Being a loving neighbor is doing everything out of love – just as it’s been done for us. May God grant you grace to see that love in Jesus and live the God-lived life, serving others. Amen.