I can’t remember a more contentious cultural climate in my lifetime. Followers of Christ are wondering how to make a difference in an often unfriendly environment. I think a parable related by Jesus might be the best strategy.
One day an expert in religious law stood up to test Jesus by asking him this question: “Teacher, what should I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus replied, “What does the law of Moses say? How do you read it?” The man answered, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.’ And, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
“Right!” Jesus told him. “Do this and you will live!”
The religious “expert” should have quit right there. Instead he did what many of us try to do when Jesus tweaks our hearts. We look for the loopholes.
The man wanted to justify his actions, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
He was hoping to put boundaries on his personal responsibility. The Greek and Hebrew definition of neighbor would have been someone nearby or that they associate with. That clarification would have eliminated Samaritans, Gentiles, and foreigners. That was the answer the scholar was hoping for when Jesus blew the lid off his hope.
Jesus replied with a story: “A Jewish man was traveling from Jerusalem down to Jericho, and he was attacked by bandits. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him up, and left him half dead beside the road.
“By chance a priest came along. But when he saw the man lying there, he crossed to the other side of the road and passed him by. A Temple assistant walked over and looked at him lying there, but he also passed by on the other side.
“Then a despised Samaritan came along, and when he saw the man, he felt compassion for him. Going over to him, the Samaritan soothed his wounds with olive oil and wine and bandaged them. Then he put the man on his own donkey and took him to an inn, where he took care of him. The next day he handed the innkeeper two silver coins, telling him, ‘Take care of this man. If his bill runs higher than this, I’ll pay you the next time I’m here.’
Jesus always looks on the heart. He knew exactly what the man was doing so He presented a scenario that had no nuance. The man was robbed and stripped so he could not be identified by his garments. He was simply a man in need. A priest would have known the law of love in God’s teaching. He chose to not get involved. A Levite or Temple assistant also walked by without helping. To be fair to both of them the path that Jesus described was a dangerous road and stopping to help could have put the Priest or Levite in personal danger. They chose to look away and walk away. The one who stopped and risked everything was reviled in that culture as an unclean sinner. The Samaritan not only put himself at personal risk but also gave unselfishly from his own resources to make sure the victim would be cared for. His gesture was an extraordinary example of compassion and kindness. The kind of mercy that turns heads. And then Jesus asked the uncomfortable question.
“Now which of these three would you say was a neighbor to the man who was attacked by bandits?” Jesus asked.
The man replied, “The one who showed him mercy.”
Then Jesus said, “Yes, now go and do the same.”
The religious expert couldn’t even bring himself to call the man who was a good neighbor a Samaritan. He simply called him the “one who showed mercy”. Jesus drove home that there is no one outside of the mercy and compassion of God and therefore there should be none outside of our own.
The parable Jesus told is a vital one for Christians in our contentious society. Followers of Jesus need to show kindness and compassion to the neighbors we are comfortable and especially to those we are are uncomfortable with. We can not look away when we encounter any person in need no matter what their color, status, beliefs, or behaviors might be. We are called to compassion and only that kind of faith will cause change. How did the followers of Jesus literally impact the entire world? I wrote about that in my book “When Bad Christians Happen to Good People.”
The early church championed the concept of community responsibility. Unbelievers were often attracted to the faith because of the tangible benefits provided by the charitable, care-giving Christians. Early Christian scribe Tertullian wrote late in the second century that pagan temples spent their donations on “feasts and drinking bouts.” Donations of the Christians were used to “support and bury poor people, to supply the wants of boys and girls destitute of means and parents, and of old persons confined to the house.” The pagan emperor Julian was amazed and even cynical when he noted, “The impious Galileans support not only their poor, but ours as well.” That’s quite a shot across the bow, isn’t it? They act Christian at home and away! How dare they!
Professor E. Glenn Hinson writes, “The early Christians impressed the culture with high moral standards and their practice of charity for all, regardless of social status” (emphasis added). Today’s church could earn a doctorate in cultural impact just by integrating those two qualities into the fabric of daily life.
That is the kind of faith that makes a difference. We are past the point of legislating, arguing, and litigating change. How can you risk loving and having compassion for those who oppose you? By remembering the gift of grace that you received from a merciful, loving, and exceedingly patient God. Two-thousand years later we still describe those who go above and beyond as Good Samaritans. We need God to raise up an army of those selfless servants to impact this culture.