Letters From a Jericho Ditch: God, Neighbor and the Questions We Ask
Most celebrities are known to carry with them very specific requests in their contract riders used for public appearances. These requests are there to protect them from things they want to avoid. But contract riders are not limited to celebrities only. We all have our own contract riders, don’t we? We all have those kinds of questions that we ask where the purpose is not really to gain information. Instead, they are the kinds of questions that protect.
This is the very thing that is going on in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). Jesus is being cross- examined by a lawyer, a lawyer with his own implicit contract rider. Most of us are familiar with this story. Though we call it the story of “The Good Samaritan,” the story really isn’t about a Samaritan at all. The story is really about the lawyer. It’s about the one who stood up to ask the questions. And beyond that it’s about God, it’s about neighbor and it’s about the kinds of questions we ask to protect ourselves from God.
While this account most certainly begins with the lawyer coming to Jesus with questions, the teaching ends with Jesus turning back to the lawyer asking, “Which one of these do you suppose proved to be a neighbor?” With a lump of conviction in his throat, the lawyer couldn’t bring himself to confess the Samaritan in the parable to have been the true and loving neighbor. Instead he simply replied, “The one who showed mercy.” And there’s a good reason why. The Samaritans were absolute off-scourings in the minds of the Jews. The disciples, after all, wanted to vaporize them (Luke 9:54). And yet, Jesus at this point not only casts the Samaritan as a good figure, he says, “You go and act like a Samaritan (Luke 10:37).” That would have sounded to this lawyer like it would sound to you if Jesus were saying, “You go and act like a post-op transvestite,” “You go and act like a crack-addicted drug dealer,” or “You go and act like a porn star.” These things are difficult enough to imagine, let alone hear and receive.
Through this parable, Jesus is ultimately speaking about his mission. The mission of Jesus does not start in the pastoral epistles, and mission does not start in Matthew 28, with the giving of the Great Commission. In this commission, Jesus takes a mission that he had already been carrying out, and he then gives that very mission to his disciples by saying, “All of this authority that is given to me, I now give to you. You go to the nations. You make disciples. You baptize. You teach. You move forward with the mission that belongs to me.” And it is a mission that speaks to people in every aspect of human life: spiritual, physical, emotional, relational.
Now, there are always going to be those people who want to turn the mission simply into the physical maintenance of peoples and cultures. On the other hand, there are also going to be those people who want to turn to the hyper-spiritual and to say, “Let’s not be concerned with what people eat. Let’s not be concerned with the shelter that people have. Let’s not be concerned with their cultures and with their communities. Let’s simply be concerned with individual transport from earth to heaven.” Jesus allows us no such thing. You are to love God and you are to love neighbor as self. That means every aspect of human existence is being addressed here by the gospel.
Carl F.H. Henry, once spoke of the evangelical tendency to speak only of the spiritual aspect of mission — only speaking directly to evangelism and not speaking to the mercy that people need. This mercy asks the simple question, “If I am to love my neighbor as myself, do you minister to yourself in only that way?”
Do you refuse to feed yourself because you have the gospel? Do you refuse to clothe yourself because you have the gospel? Do you refuse to learn how to disciple your children because you have the gospel? No. You love God and you love neighbor.
Jesus is ultimately speaking about his mission.
The gospel demands that we give explicit verbal witness to the call to faith and repentance. And the gospel also changes our lives such that we purify water systems in famine-wrecked communities, mentor that homeless prostitute, sift through the rubble with tsunami victims and visit the prisoner long forgotten behind bars. We love and we show mercy because the gospel is true and because life is better than death.
This mission of Jesus is personal. It isn’t about humanity in the abstract sense. It is instead about individual persons. It’s easy to love causes. It’s easy to become identified with causes. All you have to do is get the wrist-band for Sudan, wear the t-shirt or write down a prayer request. But Jesus shows us that there is something deeper happening in his mission. There is a providential bringing together of the neighbor with the one who needs the neighbor, and it exposes the reality of the Christ-life or the lack thereof.
There are people in your life, providentially placed there, who you will either encounter or you will pass by. There are all kinds of labels that people will want to affix to them in order to say, “This is not really your neighbor.” They might say, “This is just an embryo, this is an orphan, this is a victim of sex trafficking or this is an AIDS patient.”
Whatever the language is, whatever the label is, there will be all sorts of neighbors in your life — that unwed mother without health insurance pouring your coffee this morning; that man who is shaking because he is coming off of drugs and out of prison who shoots you that obscene gesture on the road; that atheist, nihilist college professor in your community who ridicules you to your own church members, but who is deeply scared of death.
Jesus says those people are going to be in your life, and the question is whether you will carry out the mission of Jesus, whether you will be moved with compassion. Will you be moved with mercy? Who cares if all you have is an ossified orthodoxy, if all that means is that you know how to say, “Be warmed and filled,” in perfect koine Greek. That is not the way the Christ-life lives. Jesus turns the question around, “Are you the neighbor?”
The Christian church has often said that we need to see Jesus as the Samaritan, and indeed he is. But even more than that, Jesus is the beaten man. He will go to Jerusalem. He will go outside the camp. He will fall among thieves and be stripped and beaten, and the priests and the Levites and the businessmen and even the Samaritans will walk along the road. Many of them will point to their children as they see this man drowning in his own blood and will say simply, “You don’t want to end up like that. Let’s go over this way.” The crucified one shows up mysteriously, he tells us, “In the least of these, my brothers,” and the question is, when you encounter them, do you see his face?
Russell D. Moore is President of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.