Knowing and Loving God Through Loving Your Neighbor (Part 2)
A sermon on Luke 10:25-37 by Coty Pinckney, Desiring God Community Church, Charlotte, NC, 1/23/2005
Why don’t you love your neighbor?
We just read the familiar story of the Good Samaritan. A man is attacked by robbers as he walks down several thousand feet from Jerusalem to Jericho. They strip him, beat him, and leave him half-dead beside the road. A priest and a Levite – respected members of society – pass by on the other side of the road. Why?
Let’s put that story in a modern context. Suppose you’re on a lonely stretch of road. You see a person lying on the shoulder. You have no cell phone with you. What do you do?
If you loved your neighbor as yourself – if you do unto others as you would have them do unto you – it is clear that you would have to help this person, or get help for him.
But many of us wouldn’t. Probably all of us can imagine circumstances when we would not. What might keep you from stopping? What might lead you to swerve, to pass by on the other side – like the priest and the Levite?
Whatever would keep you from helping such a person is a barrier to loving your neighbor. This morning we want to consider such barriers, and how to break them down, so that we might truly love our neighbor.
This is the last sermon in the series on the Great Commandment: Knowing and Loving God. We’ve considered how to know and love God through the incarnation, through prayer, and through His Word (first, second sermon). Last week we began to investigate the link between the Great Command and the second command, love your neighbor as you love yourself. We saw that the two are intimately related. Indeed, loving God leads us to loving our neighbor. The Bible goes so far as to say that we cannot love our neighbor unless we love God. Furthermore, we saw that as we love our neighbor we increase our love for God.
As we consider today how to break down the barriers to loving our neighbor, we’ll first look at the story itself. We’ll then ask the question: What kept the lawyer, the one asking Jesus the question, from fulfilling the second command? Then, in the story itself, what kept the priest and the Levite from fulfilling the second command? Finally, we consider how these same barriers that affected the lawyer, the priest, and the Levite affect us, and how we can break them down.
And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, "Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" Luke 10:25
What is the motivation for this lawyer? Why does he ask Jesus this question?
Luke tells us. He is testing Jesus. He is trying to set a trap to catch Jesus in His words. He hopes that Jesus will either give an answer that violates Scripture – in which case he can show that to the crowds - or give an answer that shows He is not different from the religious leaders of the day. In either case, the lawyer hopes that Jesus’ popularity will diminish as a result.
So the lawyer asks the fundamental question: What shall I do to inherit eternal life?
How would you answer that question? Perhaps with Acts 16:31: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.” When we answer the question with those words, we see that the lawyer’s question contains an incorrect presumption: he must do something in order to inherit eternal life. He must earn it. Elsewhere, Jesus was faced with a similar question:
“What must we do to do the works God requires?” Jesus answered, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent." John 6:28-29
He could have answered with similar words here. He could have said, “Believe in Me!” But He doesn’t. Instead, He moves to the common ground between Him and the lawyer. Both of them believe that the way to eternal life is taught in the Scriptures. So Jesus goes there, asking:
“What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” Luke 10:26
The lawyer answers by summarizing the Law in exactly the same way Jesus would! He gives the two great commandments: Love God with all your being, and love your neighbor as yourself
Jesus can agree wholeheartedly with this summary, so He replies simply:
“You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.” Luke 10:28
As we have seen, these commands are radical. There is no way that any of us can live up to them. So it is interesting that Jesus doesn’t tell him, “Yes, that’s right, but you won’t be able to do it! You must trust me to fulfill those commands for you.”
But consider: The man had asked, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus had asked him what the Law said. The man answered correctly. So Jesus just says, “That’s right.”
This contains an important lesson for us. When we believers are speaking to unbelievers, we don’t need to quote a whole chapter of Grudem’s Systematic Theology when they ask us questions. Jesus didn’t explain all the details to everyone. He didn’t even tell His disciples everything over the course of three years together (John 16:12-13). In this case, Jesus knows that either this man will walk away – in which case he and the crowd will know the right answer to the question, and the conviction that they cannot live up to that Law will come later – or the man will ask a question about the meaning of those commands, in which case Jesus will show their radical nature. We need such confidence ourselves.
The man does the latter. Look at his reply in verse 29:
But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"
Why did the lawyer ask this question? He wanted to justify himself. He wanted to declare himself righteous. He wants to define the commandment in such a way that he could show everyone that he is already fulfilling it.
For the lawyer, the commands to love God and to love our neighbor are do-able. This lawyer thought the command to love God with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength meant that he must fulfill a checklist: “OK, to love God means I fast twice week, I attend prayers, I hear Scripture read in the synagogue, I attend the annual feasts, I do no work on the Sabbath, I avoid unclean foods, I don’t bow down to an idol. If I do those things, I will have fulfilled the command to love God.”
And, indeed, how can you tell if someone else loves God with all his heart? What we see are the externals. And this man undoubtedly was doing pretty well with the externals.
However, loving your neighbor is more visible – since your neighbor is visible! So this man is thinking: “Love your neighbor as yourself” means, “I need to check off several activities: I give some money to help the poor. I don’t steal, I don’t commit adultery, I honor my parents, I don’t bear false witness.”
This is fundamentally wrongheaded. This type of attitude displays a complete misunderstanding of the purpose of the law. Someone with this attitude could never say with the psalmist, “Oh, how I love your law!” (Psalm 119:97). The Law is not a set of hoops that we must jump through in order to establish a relationship with God. Instead, the Law displays the character of God. The Law shows us what God is like.
So we could paraphrase the two great commandments: “Love God! Love God’s character – and than take on God’s character! Become like God: Love your neighbor, since He is love!” And the command to become like God clearly is one that we can never check off.
So this lawyer, wanting a command that he can use to declare himself righteous, asks, “Who is my neighbor?” What does he want Jesus to say? What kind of neighbors does he want?
He wants Jesus to give a well-defined obligation that he can check off as having completed. So he wants Jesus to say, “These are your neighbors: Jews who live within a mile of your home.” The lawyer is saying, “Jesus, just give me a list of the poor people I’m supposed to take care of, and I’ll do it! I’ll earn eternal life! Give me a check list!”
The lawyer wants salvation to be like a grade you earn in the classroom. He wants to be able to go to the teacher and say, “Tell me what I have to do to earn an A. What books do I have to read? What do I have to know for the midterm? How many papers do I have to write? I’m a good student! I’ll get an A! Just tell me what to do!”
But Jesus demolishes such conceptions of neighbor and of salvation with the story we summarized earlier. A man is traveling on the dangerous road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Jesus doesn’t tell us the man’s nationality, but most travelers on that road would be Jewish. He is beaten and robbed. A Jewish priest and a Levite see him, but pass by on the other side. But then a Samaritan comes along. The Samaritans descended from mixed marriages between Israelites and others. Thus, the Jews despised them as half-breeds, the offspring of improper marriages. Furthermore, the Samaritans’ religion was also a mixture of elements of Judaism with other religions. Jews and Samaritans thus had little to do with each other.
But the Samaritan sees this dying man and feels compassion for him. He cleans the wounds, covers them, puts him on his own donkey, takes him to an inn, and gives the innkeeper $100 to take care of him. Furthermore, he promises the innkeeper that he will return and pay whatever excess is required.
Jesus then asks the lawyer:
Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?" He said, "The one who showed him mercy." And Jesus said to him, "You go, and do likewise." Luke 10:36, 37
Do you see how this story shatters the lawyer’s conception of “neighbor”?
The lawyer wanted “neighbor” to refer to a well-defined group, with limited needs. He wanted his obligation to be clear, so he could fulfill it, and so that others would know that he had fulfilled it.
Instead, Jesus say, “Your neighbor is whoever you run into, of whatever ethnicity – even those you despise. And your obligation to each person is unlimited. Give whatever is needed.”
Do you understand what kept the lawyer from loving his neighbor? He tried to use the command as a means of justification. Whenever you do that, you always vitiate God’s commands of their radical nature. You always redefine God’s commands in such a way that they are do-able.
Are you guilty of that? Have you made Christianity into a set of requirements? Are you trying to earn an “A” from God?
The Law is NOT the means by which we establish a relationship with God. Instead the Law pictures the character of God. The Law shows how those who are ALREADY God’s people must live. Indeed, the Law displays the goal of God’s transformation of our character.
This is fundamental: However we interpret this story, however we apply it to our lives, we must not fall into this trap.
One modern day variant of this error is the Social Gospel. Tell me what’s wrong with this statement:
“Yes, We must love our neighbor! All the law is summarized by this command! So we must work to help the poor, the downtrodden. As James 1:27 says, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” So forget all that doctrinal stuff. Forget preaching and teaching. Those just distract us from true religion, from the true Gospel! Let’s go help the poor, the oppressed!”
Many people speak like this. Indeed, whole denominations lean strongly in this direction. They confuse loving our neighbor with the Gospel itself.
Now, don’t get me wrong:
But, friends, this is NOT the gospel! The blood of Jesus saves us from a lot more than earthly poverty and prison and disease. The blood of Jesus saves us from an eternity of suffering in hell for our rejection of God.
So, the story of the Good Samaritan is not about making ourselves righteous before God. The story of the Good Samaritan fundamentally is not about helping people.
Instead, this story is a radical call for us to take on the character of God. And as we saw last week, that only comes about by knowing and loving God.
So must avoid legalism and it’s cousin, do-goodism.
Why didn’t the priest and Levite stop to help the dying man? As I reflected on this, I came up with a long list, but they seemed to coalesce under four headings:
1) Fear for their personal safety
Like us, they probably had heard stories of robbers who use a seemingly injured person as bait. Then, when someone stops to help, the robbers jump out from hiding and attack him. Loving your neighbor can be dangerous. And our fears for that danger keep us from obeying the command.
2) Feeling you have nothing to give
The priest and Levite may have thought, “Oh, this man needs help. But I know nothing about wound care! And I’m almost broke – I barely have enough money now to take care of my needs, and the needs of my family. Indeed, I need someone to help me! How can I give anything? I’ll leave him here until someone with more to give comes along.”
Alternately, these two may have thought, “I’m an important man. I can’t get my cloak bloody – how would that look in the synagogue? Furthermore, my job is to teach the people – not to clean out wounds. I’ll leave him here until someone less important comes along to help.”
4) Selfish ambition
Finally, the priest and Levite may have thought, “I’ve got places to go, people to see! If I’m going to become move up in this world, I can’t waste my time helping men like this. There are a whole lot of people with less to do – let one of the them take care of him!”
You might say, “Coty, isn’t this just busyness? Why did you label it selfish ambition?”
This barrier is always accompanied by busyness – selfish ambition always leads to a lot of activity. But everyone busy. No one has the time to stop, dress wounds, and take a man to an inn or hospital. The difference between the busy person who stops and the busy person who doesn’t stop is this: The one who doesn’t stop thinks what he is doing is more important than helping his neighbor. And that is the core of selfish ambition.
Are those barriers familiar to you? Have such concerns stopped you from loving your neighbor practically?
These barriers are at the root of many evils in this world. Let’s briefly consider two such evils:
Abortion: Yesterday was the 32nd anniversary of the Roe v Wade decision, prohibiting states from putting virtually any limits on abortion. Since then, tens of millions of babies have been aborted in this country.
Why does a mother choose to kill the baby growing inside her? Most often the answer is selfish ambition (see this sermon: “The False Life of Selfish Ambition: Abortion and Other Ways of Rejecting God”). We think, “I’m too busy to carry a baby for months, and then to raise a child! I have important things to do in my life! It would be awkward to get married, or to give up my job, or to delay schooling, or to step back from my career path!”
All those statements are true. I have six children – I know carrying a baby is awkward. Certainly raising a child is never convenient.
Stopping beside the road and helping a beaten, dying man is awkward. It is inconvenient. But it is right. It is God-honoring. It is the natural result of loving God.
Just so, having the baby is right. Having the baby is God-honoring. Having the baby is the natural result of loving God.
Racism and Ethnic Prejudice: Prejudice is thinking that people like you are better than those who aren’t like you. The story of the Good Samaritan is specifically about ethnic prejudice. This story tells us that those despised by your ethnic group are your neighbors. You are to love THEM as you love yourself. You are to love all those who are different from yourself - even those who you think are inferior or dangerous – as you love yourself.
What keeps you from loving across racial and ethnic differences? The same barriers that kept the priest and Levite from helping the man beside the road. Fear. Pride. Selfish ambition
We’ve got to break down these barriers if we are to love our neighbor. How can we do this?
We’ve already seen two false solutions.
First, the solution is not: “Get your act together and start loving! Just do it!” Indeed, that’s what the lawyer thought he would do: Jesus would tell him what was required, and then he would do it.
We must see that the command to love our neighbor is the command to take on the character of God. It is impossible, radical, beyond us – apart from the miracle of the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
Second, the solution is not for us to say, “Amen! The church has missed out on this. The Gospel consists of doing good deeds. So we need to go love people. We need to work to stop abortions. We need to work to stop racism. We need to work to help the tsunami victims. Forget about all this doctrine and preaching. Let’s be practical!”
If both of these solutions are false, what is the true solution?
We’ve already seen them in the last several weeks: We must know and love God! That’s the only way we will love our neighbor. And we know and love God through the incarnation, through prayer, through God’s Word.
Far from being a distraction from loving our neighbor, doctrine, the Word, rightly understood leads us to love God and thus to love our neighbor.
Let’s consider these four barriers in turn:
a) Through the Word
This is what we learn through the Word. Through right doctrine. And such doctrine kills pride and racism.
b) Through the incarnation
Jesus – the only person who ever lived who had a right to be proud – lived a life void of racism. Jesus loves these despised Samaritans – as we see in John 4, the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well, in addition to this story. Furthermore, Jesus humbled Himself before others: Washing the feet of His disciples, then supremely in undergoing mocking, scourging, stripping, beating, and crucifixion – for us.
Contemplating Jesus’ life and death kills pride and racism.
c) Through prayer
Paul tells us that the fruit of the Spirit is love. Love comes through God’s work within us. So we must pray for the Spirit to bear such fruit, saying, “Lord, apart from Your work within me, I will despise others, I will hate, I will think I’m better than others. Such attitudes are so deeply-ingrained. So change me into Your likeness!”
Such prayers kills pride and racism.
a) Through the Word and the Incarnation
Jesus tells us:
Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. John 14:12-13
And Paul says,
And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. 2 Corinthians 9:8
You on your own have nothing to give. But these Scriptures tell us that God will provide all that we need so that we can give! We can do greater works than Jesus did during His time on earth! Indeed, we only truly give when we admit that on our own we have nothing to give.
b) Through prayer
These Scriptures lead us to pray: “Lord, on my own I am poor. On my own I can do nothing that has any lasting value for anyone. Give me the words of comfort to say. Help me to intervene practically. Show Your love through me.”
a) Through the Word and Prayer
Again and again and again, the Word tells us “Fear not!”
Isaiah 41:10: Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
Psalm 56:3-4 When I am afraid, I will trust in you. In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I will not be afraid. What can mortal man do to me?
We could quote hundreds of Scriptures to this effect. God is almighty. God is faithful. He is loving. Those who would harm us have limited power. So there is no reason to fear.
Furthermore, note that Psalm 56 is a prayer. We must join in that prayer to fight fear.
b) Through the Incarnation
Jesus lived a life without fear. He was confident in His mission; He knew that God had sent Him. He was confident in God’s power and love. And He tells us not to fear:
Luke 12:7 Don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.
Luke 12:32 Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.
How can we kill Selfish Ambition?
a) Through the Word:
The Word changes our priorities, helping us to put value on what is most important. Indeed, the two great commandments themselves work to this effect in our lives: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Furthermore, the Word teaches us to be confident in all that God is giving us in Christ Jesus. When we have Him, we have everything. So why should we pursue honor and riches and attainment in this world if that means turning our back on God? As Paul says:
Romans 8:32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?
b) Through the incarnation
Mark 8:34-35 If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it.
Jesus lived that out. He denied Himself. He sacrificed Himself – yet He did all this “for the joy set before Him.” (Hebrews 12:2). Jesus loved us sacrificially – yet at the same time pursued His greatest joy. We too need that confidence. If we try to hold on to what we think we need in this life, we don’t find joy – we lose joy. Joy comes in following Jesus, and in sacrificing what is of lesser value for what is of greatest value.
c) Through prayer
So we pray: “Lord, help me now to hold as highly valuable what is most important. Help to have a proper perspective on the attainments and accomplishments of this life. Forgive me for focusing on what I don’t have in this life. Give me confidence of all that I have in you. Help me to look to you, Lord Jesus, to see one who gave up all in this life to pursue His greatest joy.”
Prayer. The incarnation. The Word. These are the sledgehammer we can use to break down the barriers that keep us from loving our neighbors.
My friends: The purpose of your creation is to glorify God in this world and throughout eternity. If you belong to Jesus, the purpose of your salvation is to enjoy God forever in worship.
What does this have to do with loving your neighbor? Loving others is worship! As Paul writes,
Romans 12:1 I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
When you present your bodies as a living sacrifice, you are putting away selfish ambition. You are dying to yourself. You are losing life for Jesus’ sake. You are showing that He is worth far more than all else you might give up. This is worship indeed.
Jesus says, “You are Mine! You are My bride! As I am so also are you in this world. Therefore, you have something to give – my love! My spirit! You have nothing to be proud of – so humble yourself! You have nothing to fear: even to die is gain for you! There is no attainment, no accomplishment greater than the one I give you: to be as I am in this world, to be used by me to fill the earth with My glory as the waters cover the sea. So seek your greatest joy, your greatest accomplishment through me!”
May we step out in faith, loving and serving others – via the Word, via prayer, via looking to the incarnation.
And you know what?
In the process of loving and serving others, these truths will become more real for you.
So may we break down these barriers. Love your neighbor. Love God. Worship Him always, in heart and in deed.
This sermon was preached at Desiring God Community Church in Charlotte, NC on 1/23/05.
Copyright © 2005, Thomas C. Pinckney. This data file is the sole property of Thomas C. Pinckney. Please feel free to copy it in written form, but only in its entirety for circulation freely without charge. All copies of this data file must contain the above copyright notice.
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