In his book, God Without Religion, Andrew Farley writes about Christians’ relationship with the law. He says:
One day, while visiting the local Mennonite town, my wife and I witnessed a scene we’ll never forget. A horse drawing a carriage was trotting through the middle of downtown…towing a bright yellow speedboat!
We laughed and laughed at the hypocrisy of it all. Yes, the Mennonite man was obeying the letter of Mennonite law. But he had found a loophole of sorts that enabled him to enjoy just a bit of weekend “freedom.”[i]
In Luke 10, Jesus meets another such person who was always looking for loopholes. As a lawyer, he is good at finding legal exemptions and ways of following the letter of the law without necessarily obeying its spirit. He comes to Jesus with a question about what he needs to do to inherit eternal life. Knowing the man’s relationship with the law, Jesus meets him where he is. “What does the law say?” he asks.
“Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, and strength,” replies the lawyer. We think that’s pretty easy. We love God because He loves us. But the next is a bit harder: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This is more difficult because not all our neighbors are lovable. Yet we can get by with the letter of the law if we realize that technically this only calls for a selfish kind of love, a self-serving care. If I love my neighbor as I love myself, then I’m only loving him for the way it benefits me. See—even following the letter of the law, we can do so with the wrong spirit. But, in a sense, we can get by—sort of.
Following the letter of the law is okay, Jesus says. If that’s all you’re after. Shrugging, he says, “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.” But then the lawyer looks for a loophole, a way that he can meet the legal obligation without having to really love his neighbor, even with a selfish love. He figures he can limit the number of people that his love should apply to. So he asks, “Who is my neighbor?” What he really means is, “Who can I get out of treating like a neighbor?” In response, Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan:
“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among robbers, and they stripped him and beat him, and went away leaving him half dead. And by chance a priest was going down on that road, and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite also, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, who was on a journey, came upon him; and when he saw him, he felt compassion, and came to him and bandaged up his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them; and he put him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn and took care of him. On the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper and said, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I return I will repay you.’ Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the robbers’ hands?” And he said, “The one who showed mercy toward him.” Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do the same (Luke 10:30-37 NASB).”
Jesus’ point is that there are no loopholes when it comes to love. Eternal life is loving God with all your heart, soul, and strength. It’s loving your neighbor. Our problem is that, like the lawyer, we like to look for loopholes, exemptions, and excuses for following the letter of the law and not the spirit that God intended. We’d like to just barely get by with the minimum that’s expected. Following the law seems like enough for us. But getting to the spirit of it—that just seems too hard!
The priest and the Levite in Jesus’ story thought that they had loopholes that exempted them from helping someone in need. First, since they were on their way to sacred duty in the temple, and since touching blood would make them ceremonially unclean, they believed it was their spiritual duty to not help the man in the ditch. Second, they rationalized that if the bandits had assaulted the man then stopping to help him might make them vulnerable as well. Third, it’s ironic that the Samaritan could have avoided the Jewish victim because of racial stereotypes. We might expect this, but the Samaritan is blind to ethnic differences.
We are guilty of the same kinds of justifications, looking for loopholes in the law that might allow us to get out of loving our neighbor. We depict ourselves as spiritually superior, afraid that, like the Samaritan’s blood, something about “those people” might rub off on us and make us unclean. We let our fear of vulnerability keep us from reaching out to those in need, all the while claiming to be righteous yet never displaying the love of Christ. And unlike the Samaritan, we allow our racial and religious bigotry to paint people according to our stereotypes. We look for loopholes. We ask, “Who is my neighbor, anyway?” We hope that Jesus never points to our worst fear and says, “Here’s your neighbor.”
The parable of the Good Samaritan is given to us in the context of Jesus’ conversation with a lawyer. We can be pretty good lawyers ourselves, trying to find loopholes, trying to get away with following the letter and not the spirit of the law. But those of us who are in Christ are not bound by the Jewish law anyway—we are under a new covenant of grace and love. Jesus no longer expects us to love our neighbors as ourselves (which is selfish love). In John 13:34 (NASB), Jesus says, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” Loving people as Christ loves us—now that changes everything! This is a higher path even than the Golden Rule – doing to others what we would want done to ourselves. Suddenly our motivation is no longer selfish, but divine. And it’s with divine, not selfish love, that Jesus wants us to love our neighbor. “Who is my neighbor?” the lawyer asked. It’s everyone—no exceptions, no loopholes, no excuses.