There is a particular temptation that many churches in America face today. Like the priest and the Levite in the story of the Good Samaritan, we’re all into religious duties—reading the Bible, tithing (or something close to tithing), volunteering, going to small group. But for many of us, when we look at our lives, there’s very little giving away of ourselves.
Jesus referred to this in Matthew 23:23 when he said, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (ESV).
When we emphasize the marginal but neglect the essential—loving people—we have become the Pharisees.
In the same story, Jesus gave us an example for how we should love our neighbors. That example was the Samaritan, a man who showed us the “who,” “when,” and “how much” of loving our neighbors.
1. Who is our neighbor?
Anyone we see in need.
The Samaritan and the Jew could not have had less in common. Culturally and socially, Samaritans and Jews were bitter enemies. In order to meet the need before him, the Samaritan had to cross an incredible social barrier.
It’s natural for us to help those with whom we identify. But Jesus taught that we are to help those—especially those—with whom we have little in common, even those who might have wronged us. This could include:
- The person we barely know.
- Someone on the other side of the political aisle from us.
- Those we feel are suffering because of mistakes that they made.
- The boss who has taken advantage of us.
- Muslims fleeing Mosul.
- The undocumented immigrant who broke the law to get here.
I’m not saying that we wink at injustice. Nor am I implying that the laws of the land mean nothing. The government has questions of wisdom to ask, and I pray they answer them well. But regardless of what the government is supposed to do, I know exactly what I’m supposed to do as a follower of Jesus. When I see people made in the image of God in need, I don’t ask questions about how they got there or whether they’ve made the mess they’re in. I just try to love them the way Jesus loves me.
Your neighbor is anybody in need.
2. When should we help our neighbor?
Whenever we see a need.
The Samaritan would have had plenty of reasons to believe the Jew deserved his suffering. Jews were cruel to Samaritans and often downright racist. He might have thought, “This is what happens when you foster a culture of racial superiority.”
Yet, the Samaritan reached out in mercy.
When we look at others who are suffering, it’s easy to assume that they deserve their pain. Most of us won’t say it so boldly, but we’ve all entertained the thought. Like Job’s friends, we shield ourselves from extending mercy by creating reasons that the sufferer doesn’t really deserve it.
But we need to remember that we didn’t really do much to create most of our good circumstances.
The fact that my sister and I were born into a family that loved us, with parents that read to us every night and taught us that if we applied ourselves we could succeed—that was due to nothing on our part. It was a gift of grace. Kids born into families of abuse or neglect did not ask to be born there, either.
We ought to do what we can to help the people we see in need and not isolate ourselves from them. That doesn’t mean we should be careless in how we help—in a way that teaches dependency or ignores the family structure—but the point is that we have to do something. We can’t just pass by.
Proverbs 3:27 says, “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to act” (NIV).
If we have the opportunity to act, we have the responsibility to act.
3. How much should we help our neighbor?
In a way that takes that person’s burden onto ourselves.
In order to help, the Samaritan put himself at great personal risk, used his own money, and even opened up a line of credit at the inn to which he took the Jew. He took on the man’s burden as his own.
When it comes to how much of our time or money we give to those in need, there’s no magic number. But there is one thing we can be sure of: When we are following Jesus in this area, it will feel like we are shouldering some of the burden of others.
C.S. Lewis said that the only safe rule when it comes to giving is to give more than you think you can spare—to give until it pains you and scares you.
The weightiest part of the law is to love your neighbor as yourself. If you want to evaluate your walk with Jesus, just ask yourself: How much of your resources and time is poured out for others?
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