The other day I asked someone if he was a Christian. “More or less,” he replied. I asked him if it was more “more” or more “less.” He admitted he was more less than more more.
I am trying to be more, more like Jesus. My guess is that you are too. So, what does that look like? How would we know if we’re very much or very little like him? Would we know by how seldom we cuss or drink too much or how many Sundays of the month we go to church? Maybe, but if you ask me, there are more reliable criteria by which we can assess our Christlikeness.
Remember the guy, who, in an attempt to trap Jesus, asked him how he could get eternal life? As he often did Jesus turned the question back on the so-called expert in biblical law, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” The man knew the standard distillation – love God more than anything else and neighbors as much as yourself – but like many believers well versed in the Bible’s essentials he wondered where he might locate a loophole of some kind. With wry smile he replied, “Yeah, but who exactly are these neighbors I have to love?” In other words, how can I do as little as possible to clear the Limbo bar?
So Jesus the story teller responded with a with one of his most well-known parables. I’ve never been entirely convinced it wasn’t an actual account of real people, the cast of which consists of a mugging victim, a priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan. Whether fiction or factual, Jesus wanted to illustrate how he showed his love for God and people. “If you really want to know how to love, this is how I do it. I advise you to do likewise.”
You know the story, where the pariah helps the pitiful. The least likely guy inconveniences himself for the sake of a desperate man, who on better days wouldn’t wanted him to touch him, let alone tend his wounds and pay his medical bills. The message is that the best way to show your love for God and people is to find someone that’s hurting and serve them! The model of love that Jesus proposed is compassionate action for the disadvantaged. He didn’t say, “The thing you should do is stop worshipping the wrong thing, develop a better theology, go to church, and pray a lot.” Those are important too, but when Jesus wanted to distill the essential elements of loving God and humans, he distilled it down to serving hurting people.
I’ve said tongue-in-cheek, “I love the Lord; it’s just people I can’t stand!” The problem is these are inseparable – loving God and serving people are symbiotic. When you love God, you’ll recognize even in the most derelict, his image in the people he crafted. Whether or not I approve of someone’s lifestyle, culture, or politics, s/he is a divine image bearer, and I have to (get to) love him/her. The irrefutable evidence that we love God is when we love and serve his people, and in particular, the ones who need it most!
Pretty much all of us agree on this conceptually. No problem so far. Problem is, people aren’t a concept. Neither they nor their needs are abstractions. Anybody can say, “I love everybody” but love isn’t defined by warm and fuzzy feelings for all humanity. The priest and the Levite might have possessed such feelings for humanity as they walked past this particular man. They might have even said a prayer for him – of the drive-by sort. But it was someone else who hefted him on his own donkey and walked the rest of the way to town.
And then, as a punch line, Jesus’ said, “Go and do likewise.” Get out there and actually do something! If you want to love God and people, that’s the only way. Go and do! Reminds me of my life verse: He that knows his God shall be strong and take action. Daniel 11:32
Interesting, don’t you think, how familiar the term, “Good Samaritan” has become even in secular conversations? Hospitals and homes for the elderly are named after this guy. Someone stops to help a victim on the street and the crawler on the bottom of the Nightly News screen reads: “Good Samaritan rescues . . .” We usually reserve this title for heroic exceptions to the norm, special people doing special things, individuals who serve above and beyond the call of duty.
I propose that acts of compassion shouldn’t be singled out as uniquely heroic. There is a “call of duty” that all Christians signed up for at their induction for God’s service, a duty that isn’t “above and beyond” anything, it’s just part of the call itself. We shouldn’t think of helping needy people as something spectacular. Like the fireman, who pulled someone out of a burning building, says, “Just doin’ my job!” I don’t think Jesus intended his story to depict heroism; he was simply telling us how we should love God and people as much as we love ourselves.
I believe that Jesus is teaching here that social concern is at the core of the life that God requires. It seems to me that in Evangelical circles we tend to think that though it’s nice to serve the needy, it’s sort of optional. It’s what real good Christians do, but we’re not all called to such exceptional spirituality. I mean, we should all worship, we should all tithe, we should all evangelize; but serving the underserved is sort of an elective.
Don’t get me wrong, social work doesn’t buy anyone a ticket to heaven, rather, as Jesus’ half-brother James taught, it’s an indispensable sign of genuine saving faith. Our attitude and actions toward the disadvantaged reveals the reality or lack of a truly born again nature.
In subsequent posts I’ll share some thoughts about the “Ideal Samaritan” (you know who that is, right?), “Inadequate Samaritans” (those other people), and “Improving Samaritans” (hopefully that’s us). Stay posted. Get it?