Beware when you ask a question of Jesus and He answers with a question. It usually means He wants to change something--most likely, you.
Jesus loved to ask questions, especially with the Law guys. The Book tells the story (Luke 10:25) of an expert of one of the most conservative, religious, and legalistic parties of the day who asked Jesus the question of the ages, still debated today, "Tell me, Teacher, how do you get eternal life?"
Jesus didn't debate him. Instead He fired right back, "You're the expert. You know the Law. What do you think?" The legalist quickly responded, "This one is easy. I know the Book well. I've studied it all my life. To get eternal life it takes one thing and one thing only--love God with all." Then he quickly added, perhaps muttering, "And love your neighbor as yourself."
It's a wonderful thing to be an expert and know, even do, all those "righteous things" associated with loving God. Deep down, I believe even the most legalistic of men trying to follow hundreds of laws to earn God's love yearns to believe that there is a God who is Unconditional Love. He wants to receive God's love and somehow give love back to Him. If only eternal life was solely about man's relationship with God.
The impossibility of Part Two
But the expert knew there was Part Two of the equation. Declaring before Jesus the second half of the God-given truth had to be difficult. Loving God was inextricably tied to how he loved his neighbor. And to love man was no easy task. In fact, as a legal expert, he would have known it was impossible to love man without a supernatural event taking place in one's life.
Jesus told another so-called expert: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments" (Matthew 22:37-40). Easy to claim to love God, but the proof statement is in the question, "Do you love your neighbor?"
Expert Number One was so excited that he got both parts to the eternal life question correct. He should have quit while he was ahead, before he figured out that a question to Jesus would require a change in him. He had to justify himself and his assurance of eternal life by asking the next stumbling block of a question, "And just who is my neighbor?"
It was the perfect set-up for Jesus. He was ready to throw a wrench into the theology of the day and change the focus of the measuring rod of true religion. And He would do it with a story about a despised traveler from Samaria who chose to become a compassionate caretaker to a Jew ignored by his own people.
Jesus' story picks up a complexity of life revolving around the love of the Father, the grace and mercy of the Son, and the depth of love of both toward those most despised by the legalists of any day. Could God love the so-called worthless losers of today's society as much as he did then? Does He love those we so quickly write off because they see life differently, or are on a different journey to discovering His faithfulness, mercy, grace, slowness to anger, compassion, forgiveness, and truth of love, agape. According to Jesus' story, YES!
Daring to be a neighbor
Would He dare instruct us to love a neighbor, especially if that neighbor was despised and had a different belief system? Especially so! Our neighbor may be considered scum, like the Samaritan, to those in our church circle. He or she might be living across the street with his or her same sex partner; might be the call girl in our apartment complex; or the abortionist, the divorced, the adulterer, or an illegal alien. The Samaritan of our neighborhood might be Baptist, Catholic or Charismatic, maybe Buddhist or Muslim. Our neighbor might be trying to find a supernatural God in a New Age movement. Our most despised may be the homeless man we try not to notice on the street.
Our neighbors may not be the ones we want to love or care for; they may not be the ones we want to invest our time and dollars in. Rarely are "Samaritan" neighbors in our lives for us to change, but for us to discover the darkness in our own hearts toward those God loves.
In the end, the legal expert answered his own question well. A neighbor is one who shows mercy. Jesus' story allowed him to recognize that the greater question was not who is my neighbor, but am I a neighbor.
Are we trying to be a neighbor only when it agrees with our lifestyle and comfort zone? Or are we willing to become a neighbor to whomever God brings into our path? The expert got the right answer, but it couldn't bring him closer to fulfilling the greatest commandments, the only ones that matter, if he didn't obey Jesus and go and do likewise. Nor will it make much of a difference in our lives. Do we dare ask anew, "How do I get eternal life?" Only if we want to be changed so that we learn how to love God with all and love our neighbor like we love ourselves.
How do we love our neighbor? Like the Samaritan, show mercy where and when mercy is needed. And if we are going to show mercy, why not express the full depth of His love and be compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, and demonstrate truth, covenantal faithfulness and forgiveness. Just like the Father graciously shows us.
Who is my neighbor? Don't ask Jesus unless you really want to know and be changed into a lover.
David VanCronkhite firstname.lastname@example.org