One day a lawyer asked Jesus how to be saved. Now, understand that by lawyer we aren’t referring to what we know as a lawyer, but rather as one who was an expert in the Old Testament law. This man was a scholar of the Hebrew Bible, and prided himself on his knowledge of the Law. Jesus gives him an opportunity to show off, and let’s the man answer his own question, "What is written in the law? What do you read there?” And the lawyer responds correctly: love God with everything your are, and love your neighbor too. Love God, love others. Our answer wouldn’t be much different. But then Jesus challenges him.
He says, “You obviously know the right answer. Now, do it, and you shall have eternal life.” Do you hear the challenge? Which is easier, to know the right answers, or to do them? This man thought he was better than everyone else because he knew more than they did; Jesus points out that as important as it is to know what is right, that’s nothing if you don’t do what is right. What good is it for a man to say he knows he is supposed to love his wife if in fact he never demonstrates his love for her?
Well, it’s obvious the man fails this test, because we are told that he felt the need to justify himself—to make himself look better. He knew that how he measured up against the second command to love your neighbor depended on how you defined neighbor. He was asking, Who and how much do I have to love?
We are often like the lawyer in that we try to reduce God’s commands to something we can live with. We would like to believe that loving my neighbor means loving people who love me, or at least loving people who are lovable. Loving my neighbor thereby comes to mean doing nice things for people who will probably do nice things back to me. That is probably what the scholar thought too. His original question was, “What do I have to do to get in?”
But Jesus’ answer is to tell him what someone who is already in looks like. He tells a story of a man who was mugged and left unconscious by the side of the road. Two religious leaders, a priest and a Levite, saw him and did nothing. A priest was considered the holiest person there was among the Jews. He was knew the Scriptures. He was entrusted with offering sacrifices for the sin of the people. He was allowed to go further into the Temple than regular people were. If anyone was going to reflect the character of God, it would be the priest. A Levite served in the Temple. He was on staff. He was a Reverend. He knew better. Both of these men saw a need, but did nothing, perhaps because of the perceived worth of the victim. Maybe they figured he was partially to blame—there must be some sin in his life for something bad like this to happen to him. Maybe they thought nothing like this. But this much is clear, he wasn’t worth the time, effort and expense. People die all the time; you can’t save all of them.
They saw the need but did not do any thing about it. Both of these men saw the man but ignored the need. These two religious professionals, were caught up in a life-less religion. They played at church, but it didn’t affect the way they lived. Not in any way that it mattered. Luckily, they weren’t the only ones traveling down that road that day.
Another man, an outsider and outcast to the Israelite religion, saw the beaten man. The passage says that when he saw him, he had compassion, the Greek word used here for compassion is a very vivid one. It comes from a word that refers to the intestines, or bowels. But it’s the equivalent of what we mean when we talk about a gut feeling. A gut feeling is one that comes from the deepest part of who we are. The Samaritan saw the same pitiful man lying in agony beside the road and his heart churned within him so that he could not pass by without helping. That’s the way compassion affects us. It stirs us; it troubles us, it keeps us awake at night until we do something. Compassion feels something.
But compassion is more than a feeling; compassion also does something. Which is what the Samaritan did. It cost him time and money, which reminds us that compassion is costly. But there is one other thing about compassion: It reveals who God is and what our relationship to him is all about. It’s not about being right, but doing right. It’s not about being the strongest and mightiest, but the most compassionate. It’s seeing a need, and doing something about it. That’s what God did for each of us. He saw our need for forgiveness, and he sent his son to save us. Not based on our worthiness or righteousness, but on his worthiness and righteousness and our overwhelming need.
That’s who God is, and that’s what God does. As his followers, that who we are to be, and what we are to do.
It’s really quite simple when you think about it.