Today, I’m talking about the intersection of love and service. Though this is not, technically, a Mother’s Day message, I can’t think of any better examples of love-motivated service than mothers. No offense intended toward the Dads! But, let’s be honest – Moms, for the most part, put us to shame! So, thanks to the Moms for modeling today’s message!
Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?
One day, Jesus was approached by an expert in Jewish law. In Jesus’ day, the Jews had 613 laws – some biblical, and many that were made to support the biblical laws. For instance, the Bible said to “keep the Sabbath.” But, there were also laws about how to keep the Sabbath, which were not in the Bible. So, to keep all 613 laws straight, there were “lawyers” – or experts in the Jewish law – to keep them al straight.
Jesus did not get along with the lawyers, because Jesus didn’t keep all of their laws. Jesus certainly kept the biblical laws – and knew their intent. But, there were numerous laws that he violated, which undermined the authority of the Jewish leaders, whose jobs were to enforce the laws.
You can be sure that any question a Jewish lawyer would ask Jesus had ulterior motives. The man asked, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?
Notice two things. One, he asked, “What must I do?” This implies that salvation is not just about believing. In the lawyers mind it was about keep the 613 laws. We’ll come back to that. Notice, he also asked about eternal life. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” In other words, “How do I get to heaven, and what could keep me out?” His question implies that our actions, not just our beliefs, have eternal consequence – and he is, partially, correct.
Jesus answered the question with a question, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?”
The expert answered, “‘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.’”
We know these words as the Great Commandment. But, it should be noted that Jesus didn’t invent the Great Commandment. It was generally understood by all of the Jewish teachers that the purpose of all of the biblical laws and commands were to love God and neighbor. The problem was, for Jesus, that the religious leaders seemed to forget the intent of the Great Commandment – focusing more on rigid enforcement of the 600+ other laws and less on love.
Jesus simply responded, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.” What more is there to say?
Setting Reasonable Parameters…
But, the expert didn’t leave it there. He asked, “Who is my neighbor?”
In other words, “If I’m expected to love my neighbors, what are the rules? I need to know who my neighbors are. In essence, if I must love my neighbor, what are the reasonable parameters I can keep in place so that I know who I must love, and who I don’t have to love. With whom, can I be allowed to NOT love – and maybe even not like, not care about, and maybe even hate; maybe even judge, or be prejudiced against? Who can I talk about behind their backs? Who can I condemn? Who can avoid? Who is NOT my neighbor?”
“Are my neighbors only the people who live on my street – in my neighborhood? Is it the people I’m related to? Is it the people who are my color, and speak my language? Is it the people who have the same citizenship documents I have? Is it the people who are my socio-economic level? Is it the people who are as educated as me? Is it the people who are the same political party as me? Is it just the people I like?”
“Surely, my neighbor can’t be “THOSE” kinds of people!”
A Priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan…
To answer the expert’s question, Jesus told a story…. “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 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.’
The road from Jerusalem, down to Jericho, passes through a deep valley, known as the Valley of The Shadows. It’s likely the setting for 23rd Psalm. It was a dangerous place, where robbers hid behind rocks, and waited for their victims. Any of Jesus’ listeners would have known the dangers of the road to Jericho.
In the story, just such a traveler was attacked, beaten, robbed, and left to die.
Sometime later, a Jewish priest came walking along the same way. When he saw the man, he just kept walking. That seems like a heartless thing to do. But, those listening to Jesus would not have been surprised. After all, the thieves might have still been close. This could have been a trap. And, some of the 613 Jewish laws had to do with being ritually clean. If the man was dead, contact with a dead person would make the priest unclean. A priest had a job to do, in the Temple, and couldn’t do it if he is unclean. He really didn’t have a choice. He had to keep on going.
The next to come along was a Levite, who also could have been in danger and who also had duties to perform in the Temple. So, he likewise, had good excuses for not stopping.
The third to come upon the man was a Samaritan. To a Jew, no one was more despicable than a Samaritan. Jews hated Samaritans. To a Jewish leader, like this legal expert, no one could be worse than a Samaritan.
But, Jesus said that this Samaritan stopped to help. The Samaritan had excuses too. This man was a Jew – why help him? And, remember, the same thieves could have still been lurking behind a rock. But, the Samaritan bandaged the man’s wounds, loaded him on his donkey, took him to an inn, and cared for him.
Three men. Two – religious leaders – had reasonable excuses for not helping. One – a Samaritan – stopped and served.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “The first question which the priest and the Levite asked was: “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But the good Samaritan reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”
Excuses, excuses, excuses…
The question this passage raises, is “What’s my personal responsibility to act, when there is a person in need?” And, a second question, “What are reasonable, acceptable excuses for not helping that person?”
On one level, it is about the excuses we make to not to love and serve….
- Like the story – “it might not be safe.”
- Like the Priest and the Levi – “I serve God in other ways.”
- “I’m busy. I don’t have time.”
- “I wouldn’t know what to do.”
- “I’m not feeling it.”
I suspect all of us have plenty of excuses. I know I do. But, the issue isn’t just about making excuses. The issue is really about the condition of our hearts. Remember, Jesus told this story to answer the question, “Who is my neighbor? – Who do I have to love? Who can I make excuses not to love?”
Mother Theresa said, “If you can’t do great things, do little things with great love. If you can’t do them with great love, do them with a little love. If you can’t do them with a little love, do them anyway. Love grows when people serve.”
The question is not the legitimacy of our excuses. The question is whether or not we love our neighbors, particularly those who are in need.
Jesus asked the religious expert, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” (Luke 10:36)
He replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” (Luke 10:37) He couldn’t even make himself say, “The Samaritan.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
Notice what Jesus is saying, “Go and do.” “How do I love my neighbor?” – by putting love into action. In other words, love serves.
John Wesley once said, “One of the principal rules of religion is, to lose no occasion of serving God. And, since he is invisible to our eyes, we are to serve him in our neighbor; which he receives as if done to himself in person, standing visibly before us.”
When I’m in the market, in Guatemala, I’m frequently asked for money. Through the years, I’ve been very generous with my friends in Guatemala. But, as a rule, I’ve not handed out money to strangers, and I’ve discouraged others from doing it. Once you start, word gets around the market pretty quickly!
But, one year, one of my students challenged me on that. He felt like we should be ready to help anyone we could. He convicted me. Honestly, I felt like the religious expert, with too many excuses for not loving my neighbor.
There was a particular woman, in a wheelchair, that I had refused to help many times. I decided that the next time I saw her, I would offer whatever help I could. But, I didn’t see her. I had seen her dozens of times before. I actually searched for her, and couldn’t find her.
I did encounter another woman in the market, also asking for help and also in a wheel chair. I knew that she wasn’t the same woman, but I felt compelled to help her instead – mostly to just to assuage my guilt.
Her name is Anastasia. She can’t speak very well, and she only speaks a Mayan language – which limits our communication. She can’t move her limbs very much. She is totally confined to her wheel chair, and has to be rolled into the street by someone – probably a family member – to beg. Over the last seven years, she and I have become friends. She lights up when she sees me. And, frankly, I light up when I see her. I look for her every time I’m in the market. I love her, and everyone in the market knows it. I always fear that she might not be there the next time I go back.
The point is that I never would have looked at Anastasia, if my student hadn’t challenged me.
There’s more to the story. There was still the other woman in the wheel chair.
A couple of weeks later, I was making a quick trip through the market one night. I was in a hurry, as everything was closing, and I needed something. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the woman in the wheel chair. But, I didn’t have time to stop.
I found what I needed, bought it, and ran back to where I’d seen her. She was gone – which is impossible. She has a rickety wheel chair. She’s tiny and frail. The streets are rough. There was nowhere for her to go that quickly. I started to wonder if she wasn’t real, and that perhaps God had sent an angel to torment me!
Sometime later, I found her. And, she’s no angel. Her name is Thomasa. I now help her, too, every time I see her. I give her money, and sometimes I help push her wheel chair. She always tells me that I don’t give her enough money. Anastasia just smiles at me, and I love her. And, the truth is, while I love Anastasia more, I love Thomasa too. Guatemala wouldn’t be the same for me without her. God used her to torment me, and teach me about love.
Thomasa and Anastasia are my neighbors.
Who are your neighbors?