Whose Neighbor Can I Be

Background Passages: Luke 10:25-37; Mark 12:28-34; Matthew 7:12

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

The question, shouted by an expert in the law, quieted the intimate conversation Jesus was having with the small crowd that gathered around the Galilean teacher. Heads turned toward the booming voice coming from the edge of the crowd. The man hiked up his flowing robe, pushed himself away from the large rock he leaned against, moving forward until he towered over Jesus who was sitting on a cedar log.

Jesus had noticed him skirting the periphery of the crowd for the past three days. Listening without hearing. Rolling his eyes. Biting his tongue. Biding his time. He was among a small group of Pharisees tracking Jesus from Jericho on his way to Jerusalem. They weren’t there to understand Jesus and his teaching. They were there to find fault in his words in an effort to discredit him in the eyes of the people.

Though the scribe asked a good question, it lacked in sincerity. Uttered by one who loved to hear his own voice. Seeking a specific answer. Hoping for something heretical. Jesus looked at the man for a moment and smiled. “What does the law say? How do you read it?” giving the man his moment in the spotlight.

The scribe turned to the crowd and confidently proclaimed, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’” With a self-satisfied grin, he turned back to face Jesus, challenging him to disagree.

“You’re absolutely right,” Jesus answered. “Do this and you will have eternal life.” Jesus sat silently, his eyes never wavering from the eyes of the Pharisee. As the silence deepened, the scribe shuffled his feet. He did not get the answer he was expecting from the teacher. His eyes flashed as he fell back on his legal training, focusing his attack from a different angle. “Ahh, and just who is my neighbor?”

Jesus’ lips tightened and he let out a slow breath through his nostrils. For all he understood of God’s greatest commandments to his people, the lawyer limited its universal truth by qualify its spirit.

What Jesus speaks next is perhaps one of the most well-known parables he ever shared. The parable of the Good Samaritan transcends religious conversation, working its way into a secular context. Good Samaritan laws protect those who lend assistance in life-threatening situations. Those who go out of their way to help another are called good Samaritans.”

Here’s the gist of the story Jesus told.

A man traveling alone from Jerusalem to Jericho was attacked by robbers who beat him senseless and took his clothes and his money. They threw him in the ditch next to the road, bleeding , broken and near death. At separate times, a Jewish priest and a temple administrator happened upon the scene of the crime. They pretended not to see the man lying in the ditch. They averted their eyes, shuffled to the other side of the road and quickened their pace, ignoring the man in distress. Out of sight. Out of mind.

Later, a Samaritan on his way to Jericho came across the bleeding man. Compassion ruled the moment and the Samaritan jumped into the ditch to render aid. He cleaned the man’s cuts and bruises with his oil and wine and tore the hem of his garment to bandage the man’s wounds. He lifted the injured man onto his own donkey and walked him miles into the city. He took the man to an inn, nursing his needs throughout the night. The next morning, the Samaritan paid the innkeeper to watch over the man, promising to cover any additional costs the innkeeper incurred when the Samaritan returned.

Jesus told the story to the crowd gathered around him. He looked into the faces of every person around him. Finally, his eyes bore into the eyes of the scribe still standing in the middle. Jesus’ eyes narrowed and his voice lowered an octave. His next question landed like a heavy weight upon the man’s chest, crushing the breath from his lungs. “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell in to the hands of the robbers?”

I picture the man opening and closing his mouth like a fish out of water, fully aware that he had been outfoxed by the master teacher. His brain flashed in overdrive as he tried to think of a snappy comeback. Unable to give credit to a hated Samaritan, he answered in little more than a grudging whisper. “The one who showed mercy on him.”

The lengthy conversation between Jesus and the scribe must have inspired those who sat around and watched it unfold. The parable shared by Jesus subtly suggesting that faith is best demonstrated, not by grand theological arguments, but by the things we do for others. And, it is a message that echoes loudly today. A lesson I still need to learn at times.

Here’s the thing. The scribe asked a great question in the beginning. It is the fundamental question all of us who long for meaning in life should ask. “How do I find eternal life?” Ironically, he gave the same answer that Jesus gave to another group of Pharisees who questioned him about God’s greatest commandments (Mark 12:28-34). Had the man stopped to consider the meaning and spirit of the words he spoke, the whole conversation might have taken a different and better turn.

His second question, however, reveals an exclusionary faith. “Who is my neighbor?” is a question that seeks to limit our compassion…creating boundaries that give us an out. “Who is my neighbor?” suggests that some groups or some individuals are unworthy of my time and effort.

The scribe practiced a ritualized religion based on man-made rules that identified peoples that the law considered unclean and unworthy of God’s love. The Pharisees and scribes knew Jesus frequently associated with tax collectors, Samaritans, Gentiles, lepers, outcasts and outlaws. When the scribe asked his question, I suspect he hoped Jesus might identify as a neighbor one among this group of the unclean which Jewish law excluded from fellowship.

We often fall into the same trap as the scribe. Surely my “neighbor” only includes those people with whom I have a relationship…those who look like me…those who live in my social circle…my own racial subset, those for whom I can give money, but not get my hands dirty…those whose needs do not inconvenience me.

Jesus rejects that view. In Jesus’ parable, the Samaritan showed compassion and mercy to the injured man even though society considered the Samaritan an outcast and unworthy of God’s love. So, from Jesus’ standpoint, the question is not “Who is my neighbor,” but rather, “Whose neighbor can I be?”

It’s not a matter of identifying the person I wish to help. It’s a matter of looking for the unfolding opportunities God places before me where I can serve my God and my fellow man. Determining whose neighbor I can be demands that I step outside my comfort zone…insists that I engage with those whose backgrounds and cultures differ significantly from mine…mandates that I move past the safety of simple charitable giving to immerse myself in the gritty world of need in which others live.

Jesus defined our “neighbor” when he addressed the Pharisees in Mark. “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Find the definition also encompassed in the Golden Rule. “Do unto others (your neighbor) as you would have others do unto you.” Both verses suggest an empathy that allows us to see ourselves in the circumstances experienced by someone else. Except for the grace of God we could find ourselves in similar circumstances. That realization should compel us to provide the help and assistance to another in need that we desire in our most desperate times.

In essence Jesus asked the scribe to abandon the smooth road ritualized religion and live in the dirty ditch of practical and powerful faith. Forget about qualifying those we choose to help. Look instead for the chance to change the course of another’s life.

It’s a good question.

Whose neighbor can you be?


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Favor With God

Background Passages: Luke 1:26-38; James 4:6; John 3:16

The young woman bent low in the knees and ducked through the doorway of her father’s home a tall jar of water upon her shoulder. As she turned to place the vessel on the table she stared in fear at the angel standing near the fireplace.

“Greetings, you who are highly favored. The Lord is with you.”

As the jar of water crashed to the floor, Mary back away toward the door in fear and confusion. Quickly, the angel spoke, his voice comforting and concerned, “Do not be afraid. Mary, you have found favor with God.”

As the angel laid out God’s plan for Mary’s life, I cannot fathom the whirlwind of emotions she experienced. Her world turned upside down.

Through God’s great gift of Christmas, the final piece of creation’s puzzle fell in place, planned before time…perfected through the life, death and resurrection to come. Mary heard the words of the angel and struggled to understand the heady revelation that she, an ordinary young woman from an inconsequential village in Galilee, would be the vessel through whom God chose to present himself to the world.

As profound as those words might have been, had I been Mary, I might have wrestled as much with the beginning of the angel’s message…

“You have found favor with God.”

In the world’s language, to show favoritism is to show exceptional kindness to someone, especially in comparison to the treatment of others. Preferential treatment. In the first century, people believed that wealth, health and blessing were signs of God’s favor upon you. That you had done something to earn his favor.

Consider Mary’s life following the angel’s announcement. It hardly speaks to preferential treatment. Her life spun out of control almost immediately.

Joseph had every right to disown her and discredit her publicly. Though he embraced a similar angelic message, others would be less understanding. A few months later, she faced an arduous and uncomfortable journey to Bethlehem in her last trimester. Upon their arrival, the only place available to them was an unholy stable among the animals. She gave birth far from family and friends who might celebrate with her.

A short time later, she fled to a foreign land ahead of a king’s murderous soldiers who were intent upon killing her son. She later watched in dread as her son’s message of God’s forgiveness was met with scorn and hatred by the religious leaders of the day. She heard a bloodthirsty crowd call for his crucifixion. She watched from a distance and felt the echo of each hammer driving nails through the hands and feet of her beloved son. She wept at his feet as blood and life drained from his body.

If she thought at all of the angel’s announcement as she stood near the cross, I doubt she felt favored. This was hardly a life of preferential treatment. What, then, did it mean for Mary to find favor with God?

Nothing in scripture indicates that God’s favor falls upon people simply for their own enjoyment. We find those on whom God’s favor rests given great responsibility so the lives of others may be changed. So God might be glorified. Moses. Abraham. Job. These were men who found God’s favor. Nothing about their lives was easy. All carried the burden of life heavily on their shoulders.

You see, I often thought God chose Mary because of something uniquely righteous within her. That her faith was deeper and her life purer than any other…by extension, deeper and purer than my own life. Seeing Mary in those terms diminishes God’s work of grace. In many ways it cheapens the miracle of Christmas.

Bible scholars tell us that the word in Luke 1:30 which most Bible’s translate as “favor” is the same Greek word from which we get our word for “grace.”

“Mary, you have found God’s grace.”

Mary wasn’t chosen to be the mother of Jesus because her goodness outshone any other. Rather, God extended an offer of grace to Mary to be used by God for something which carried enormous responsibility. The angel’s declaration came, not because she deserved it. It came as a gift. Undeserved. Unmerited.

Mary could have rejected God’s offer. She could have said, “Not me. Find someone else.” Yet, she considered all the angel said and declared, “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.”

With those words, Mary, as a young teenage girl, accepted God’s grace gift and all that it would entail without fully understanding the implications for her own life.

James 4:6 proclaims that “God opposes the proud, but shows favor (grace) to the humble.” It is this thought I had not considered in the Christmas story. That Mary found favor with God had little to do with her goodness and everything to do with her humble spirit. Her desire to be open to the possibilities God presented to her. That idea has implications for my life I had not considered.

I stand today a recipient of God’s favor, his unmerited grace. The offer to accept Jesus Christ as savior came through the conviction of the Holy Spirit, not because I deserved it, but as a gift undeserved. It came as an offer I could have refused. Yet, I considered all the spirit said to me and said in essence, “I am your servant.” With those words, as a nine-year-old boy, I accepted God’s grace gift and all it would entail without fully understanding the implications for my own life.

For any of us to embrace God’s gift of his son, there comes a point when we must humble ourselves before him, recognizing that it is not our goodness that merits his favor. It is through his unfailing love for us that his grace flows.

For those of us who have placed our faith and trust in Jesus, Christmas is a joyous reminder that God so loved the world that he sent his only son to be to be his grace gift to the world.

Mary humbly embraced the role God asked her to play and bore the burden of responsibility it carried with it. Like Mary, in response to God’s grace, may we, in all humility, be open to the possibilities God presents to us.


Peace on Earth

Background Passages: Luke 2:1-14; John 14:27

The young man leaned against a boulder, resting his head upon his arms as his calloused hands gripped the shepherd’s staff held in front of him. The quiet of the night interrupted by the soft bleating of a ewe calling for his lamb. The nearby campfires set around the hillside illuminated the measured steps of his friends standing watch around the flock. He found comfort in their presence.

Without warning, an angel in radiant garments, appeared among them, night’s shadows chased away by the brilliance of God’s glory. Stricken with fear, the shepherds dropped to the ground. “Do not be afraid,” the angel said with a voice calm and clear. “I bring you tidings of great joy for all the people. Today, in the city of David, a Savior is born to you. He is the Messiah, the Lord.”

As soon as he made his announcement, a great host of angels surrounded them, singing praises to God of his unsurpassed greatness and declaring “peace to all on earth on whom God’s favor rests.”

From the moment the angel declared the birth of God’s own Son, we have longed for the promised peace. When we look past the tinsel and trappings of the season into the world around us, the angel’s words of good cheer and peace seem elusive at best. The fault lies not with the angel’s pronouncement, nor with God’s promise. Rather, the failure lies in our definition of peace.

Jesus’ birth did not usher in a time of peace. The savior was born in a region consumed by strife for hundreds of years. The Roman conquerors, just the latest in a long line of foreign rulers, kept a heavy hand upon Judea. Herod, the appointed king of Judea, feared any and every rival, eventually calling for the death of every child under the age of two. Jesus’ parents fled to Egypt. No, Jesus’ world was hardly a place of peace.

Throughout his life and ministry Jesus encountered suspicion and hatred, ultimately leading to his death on a cross and the persecution of his followers. Upon hearing of the declaration to the shepherds, the casual observer might ask, “Where is the promised peace?”

Nineteen centuries later, the world watched as the United States of America tore itself apart in a ugly Civil War, fought to end the enslavement of one people by another. During this brutal time, the eldest son of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the famed American poet, enlisted in the Union army without his father’s permission. Young Wadsworth suffered a severe wound at a battle in Virginia.

As a result, our poet wrote Christmas Bells, a poem later put to music and renamed, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. It begins with a declaration of the popular seasonal sentiment of peace on earth before decrying the reality of war and violence. The sullen lyrics proclaim, “And in despair, I bowed my head; ‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said; ‘For hate is strong, and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.’” The casual reader might hear the song and ask, “Where is the promised peace?”

Understand clearly, Jesus’ birth remains one of earth’s most amazing events and marks the beginning of the final expression of God’s plan for bringing salvation to the world. It did not then, and does not now, end the disharmony among men. Turn on the television and listen to the divisive conversations. See the reports of warfare and violence across the globe. The casual observer might ask, “Where is the promised peace?”

God calls us to live in harmony today with one another, to love our neighbors and our enemies, but this is not the peace of Christmas. God’s promised peace is not found in our external relationships. God’s perfect peace is internal…in the heart of every believer…and it is eternal…in the life everlasting he promised through his son, Jesus Christ.

As he prepared for his death on the cross, Jesus comforted his disciples. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives.” Then, he echoed the words of the angels to the shepherds, “Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

While the world’s discord ought to concern us and our lives ought to be about bridging those damaged and fragile relationships, we tend to live in fear of the anger that exists among us. God reminds us often in scripture, “Do not be afraid.” Fear is overcome by living as God desires us to live.

God loves it when we live obedient to his will. It pleases him. We find the peace and contentment he promised while here on earth only when living in the light of his will for our lives. It is not the absence of conflict as the best peace given by the world. It is the peace he gives us as his spirit lives within our hearts in the here and now.

The baby God sent to lie in the manger in Bethlehem, the one the angels proclaimed as the Messiah, brought God’s gift of grace and salvation to a hateful world so that those who would place faith and trust in him would find true peace…not just in the present day, but for all eternity.

In the end, Wordsworth’s expressed pessimism yielded to the promise of the baby in the manger. His last stanza declares our greatest hope. Where is the peace? It is found in these words.

Then rang the bells more loud and deep.
God is not dead, nor doth He sleep.
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men.

Then ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day.
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

Listen to my favorite rendition of this Christmas classic by Casting Crowns.

God is still in control and his victory over all that is wrong is assured. In Christmas we catch a glimpse of what we can be. In Christmas we bury that which divides us to find a brief respite from the rancor that rules the year. In Christmas we find peace that only a life committed to Christ can find. Because of Christmas we rest in God’s promise of eternal peace.

This is my prayer for you this Christmas.