Please take a moment and look at this picture. Several things are taking place at once. Some branches are vibrant. There is plenty of room for them to keep growing. Another branch is dying. One tree is completely dead. The dying and dead branches need to be removed if this cluster of trees is going to be as healthy as possible. Dead trees attract insects and diseases which can eventually spread to the heathy ones.
Our faith walk with Jesus is like this cluster of trees. Some areas are healthy and thriving because we can see how God is working in our lives. Other areas are dying because doubt has crept in after years of struggle. Perhaps there’s an area that’s completely dead because God didn’t answer our prayers the way we wanted him to answer them. Now this area of wrong thinking needs removed before it starts affecting other branches of our faith.
It’s fairly easy to recognize areas where we’re growing. Increasing faith allows us to trust God in new ways. Jesus slowly changes us from the inside out into the people he wants us to be. We open our eyes to the needs around us and respond as the Lord leads us to do so.
Identifying the areas of our faith where we’re dying or are already dead is much harder. Most people don’t like to take a close look at themselves because they’re afraid of what they may see. It’s much easier, and more comfortable, to point out the struggles we see in other people’s lives. We need help to see the areas of our faith that need pruned away. This happens when the Holy Spirit convicts us. Perhaps other people will tell us because they see them when we can’t. One great way we can recognize them is to read the Bible and then compare how it says we should live with the way we’re actually living.
The Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) show Jesus talked about our salvation but he seemed more concerned with how we are living our lives once we call him “Lord.” How we live here on earth comes before how we will live in heaven.
This is emphasized in the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37. It says, “25On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
27 He answered, “‘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.’”
28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
An expert in the Old Testament law approached Jesus and asked him what he must do to inherit eternal life. This man understands eternal life isn’t automatically given to everyone because they’re a good person. Jesus responds by taking them man to what he knows. “What’s written in the Law?”, Jesus asks him. The expert said loving God and others is the most important thing. Jesus told him to do this and he would have eternal life.
The expert should have stopped there. But he didn’t. He wanted to justify how he lived on earth so he asked, “And who is my neighbor?”
He’s asking, “How far do I have to take this?” The answer to this question would reveal who he had to love and who he could exclude from his list of neighbors. If they weren’t his neighbors, he didn’t have to love them. After centuries of oppressive treatment by the Greeks and Romans, this was a very common question in Israel at the time. Non-Israelites were automatically excluded. Pharisees excluded non-Pharisees. Another popular teaching allowed people to exclude personal enemies.
“30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead.”
The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was only seventeen miles long but it was difficult, dangerous and remote. Bandits often robbed travelers, especially those who travelled alone. This man did that. And he was attacked. Since he was left naked and half dead, his clothes and speech couldn’t identify his nationality. He was just a man in need.
“31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.”
There were 24 rotations of priests who served two weeks each in temple at Jerusalem every year. The Levites did the clerical work in the temple. According to the Old Testament law, both priests and Levites would be considered unclean for service in the temple if they touched any dead body that wasn’t an immediate relative. No one listening to Jesus would have judged the priest or the Levite for ignoring the unconscious man on the road. After all, they were just doing their religious duty.
At this point, those listening to Jesus might have expected him to mention a third person, perhaps a Jewish person without religious credentials. Jesus surprises them by mentioning someone they despised. He said, ”33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’”
Samaritans were part of an ethnic group living north of Jerusalem. Once Jewish soldiers destroyed the Samaritan temple. The Samaritans returned the favor by defiling the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. They stopped worship at Passover by spreading human bones all over the floor.
Needless to say, the expert in the law wouldn’t have wanted Jesus to use an enemy as the hero. But he was. The Samaritan did what the religious people wouldn’t do. He stopped what he was doing, attended the wounded man and then paid for his care. Two denarii would have paid for 24 nights stay at an inn.
Jesus finishes with a question. 36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
Jesus told this parable after the expert in the law asked, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus is trying to prune some dead wood from this man’s understanding of God. Jesus is saying, “Instead of asking, ‘Who is my neighbor?’, you should be asking, ‘Am I being a neighbor to others?’” In his book, Jesus, The Middle-Eastern Story Teller, author Gary Burge says that at this point, Jesus is asking “whether he behaves with love rather than builds a world that sorts those whom he will or will not love.”
The Samaritan was willing to give up his time and money to help someone that society said he could ignore. Please take a moment and think about the people you know society says you could consider to be “enemies” or “unclean.” How do you treat them? Like the Samaritan or the teacher of the law?
There are many Christians who group illegal aliens into these categories. While most people agree people should enter this country legally, we need to remember that illegal aliens aren’t just numbers be used for a particular viewpoint. They are people. People Jesus loves. And died for.
It amazes -and saddens- me to see how many Christians feel superior to anyone who is from a different race or ethnic group. I have a relative who would attend Sunday worship on a regular basis and then tell offensive racist jokes. Some Christians today refuse to be a neighbor to anyone who doesn’t vote the same way they do. There are Christians who attend the same congregation yet won’t speak to each other because of past disagreements. Some people who appear very spiritual have disowned family members who didn’t do what they wanted them to do.
If we’re like the teacher of the law that’s more concerned about who we can exclude as our neighbors than we are about being good neighbors ourselves, we have some dead areas of our faith that needs to be cut away. The truth is we can struggle with this. We all know of people we’d like to ignore if we could. However, this isn’t what Jesus calls us to do. The more we allow Jesus into our hearts and the more we desire to be obedient to his teachings, the more we’ll cross the road to be neighbors to others. Even to those we don’t like.
Once there was an Israeli soldier who was dying of AIDS in a Jerusalem hospital. His father was a famous rabbi who, along with the whole family, had disowned the soldier because of his gay lifestyle. Even the nursing staff ignored the soldier’s room as much as possible. Everyone was simply waiting for the soldier to die alone – and in shame.
This soldier had been part of a regiment that patrolled the Occupied West Bank. His unit was known for it’s fighting skills and ferocity. They were merciless and cruel. Those living under their supervision hated them.
One evening alarms sounded when the soldier went into cardiac arrest. The hospital staff didn’t respond. They looked the other way.
Another man was working in the hospital that evening. A janitor who happened to be a Palestinian Christian. He was from one of the villages that was attacked by this soldier’s unit. When he saw that no one else was responding to the alarms, he dropped his broom, entered the soldier’s room and performed CPR.
This is what it means to cross the road and be a neighbor.