Mercy (Luke 10)

The following is an abbreviated interpretation of a conversation that Jesus had one day with a Religious Expert recorded in Luke 10.

Religious Expert: “Hey Teacher, what do I have to do to enjoy God’s blessings forever?”

Jesus: “You tell me. What does the Word of God say about that?”

R.E.: “Love God with everything you have and love your neighbor to the same degree that you love yourself.”

Jesus: “Yep.”

R.E.: “OK, but who exactly are the ‘neighbors’ that I have to love like that?

In response to the Religious Expert’s question, Jesus told a story about a Traveller who was attacked, robbed, stripped, beaten to a pulp, and left for dead. It happened that a Priest (someone who was supposed to bring you close to God) and a Levite (one of the highly regarded, well respected people in the religious community) came down the same road as the Traveller. They saw him and both chose to pass by on the other side without helping him. (I’m sure they had their reasons — maybe they were on important business, maybe they figured the guy deserved it, maybe they were afraid for their own safety if they got involved, maybe they had seen things like this so many times before that this one barely registered. Whatever the reasons may have been, not a great look for these two.)

Then a Samaritan (Samaritans were an ethnic group in sharp, long-term conflict with the Jews of that day) came upon the Traveller and helped him. The Samaritan’s care for this stranger is poignant and convicting. The details of the Samaritan’s actions are presented by Jesus to teach the Religious Expert (and all of us who would read this story later) about what it means to truly love our neighbors like God expects. (As an aside, learning to love others has never been more needful than now. I’m sure that’s been true in every time and place throughout history, but it is certainly true for us. Racial injustice, corporate and political corruption, domestic abuse, divorce, lying, theft, murder and countless other sin-plagues of society would be cured if we would all learn to obey the great command of loving God and loving our neighbors.) Here’s what the Samaritan teaches us about how to love. 

Don’t pass on pity.

The Samaritan\’s love began in his heart. “When he saw [the Traveller], he felt compassion” (Luke 10:33). This is the difference between the Samaritan versus the Priest and Levite. All three saw the Traveller but the first two merely passed by (Lu. 10:31, 32). The Samaritan took pity upon this troubled soul. I suppose the main reason that I don’t show love as I ought to at times is because their plight doesn’t touch me deep down and therefore I am not moved to action. And please understand that feeling pity, compassion does demand action. At the end of the story, Jesus asked the Religious Expert who did right in this story and he answered, “The one who showed mercy” (Lu. 10:37). In other words, compassion cannot merely remain a sentiment — it has to manifest as action. 

So I need to cultivate a spirit of mercy, pity, compassion on others. I have to get out of my own head, schedule, interests, and desires so that I won’t just see others but also allow the vision of their troubles to penetrate my heart and move me to do something on their behalf. Developing a compassionate spirit can be sort of challenging though. How do I start feeling compassion for others? Is this one of those things that some people just have and the rest of us don’t?

There are at least two ways to cultivate compassion. First, I should learn to see that the difficulties of others mirror difficulties I myself have had. When I see my own struggle in others it will help me to appreciate what they’re going through. (And if I can’t see a connection between them and me, then at least I could try to imagine what it would be like to go through what they are experiencing.) Second, I must reflect more frequently on the pity, compassion, mercy that the Lord has had on me. When I gratefully recollect his mercies toward me even when I was beaten, stripped, and left for dead (all because of my sinful, foolish choices), then compassionate, merciful, pity toward others will flow from my heart with ease. When you see others, don’t forget to see your own plight(s) and what the Lord has done for you, how he had mercy on you. Don’t pass on pity.

Love (always) requires sacrifice and investment.

What strikes me every time I read this story again is the incredible lengths that the Samaritan went to in caring for this stranger. Check it out: (Lu. 10:33-35)

  • He came to him…” – Risking potential danger of being jumped, robbed, and beaten himself.
  • Bandaged up his wounds...” – Which would have required getting his hands filthy with someone else’s body and blood, risking his physical health and besides all that he was dealing with the squeamishness that so often comes with dealing with bodily injuries. 
  • Pouring oil and wine…” – Neither of which would have been cheap or necessarily readily available. The Samaritan gave up some of the most crucial commodities he owned to help this stranger.
  • And he put him on his own beast…” – So now the Samaritan is walking for who knows how long, forsaking relative restful ease and comfort.
  • And brought him to an inn…” – Not free.
  • “\’Take care of him … I will repay\’” – And not only did he pay for the first night, he hands over two day’s wages and THEN ON TOP OF THAT offers to come back and pay whatever else the Traveller would cost!

Here’s the kicker to the whole story–the Samaritan does all this without any expectation of repayment, even in the form of gratitude or praise. He just did it because it was the good and right thing to do. 

Love caused the Samaritan to make numerous, risky, (seemingly) foolhardy sacrifices to help this helpless Traveller. Not only that but the Samaritan makes an ongoing commitment to invest as much as necessary in the well-being of this stranger. That’s the tough piece, in my opinion. I can grit my teeth and be sacrificially loving for a day or in isolated circumstances from time to time and make the sacrifices that love demands, but am I willing to invest on an ongoing basis with that self-sacrificing spirit? I hope so. I want to. And I believe Jesus told this story to tell me that I must.

Stop trying to figure out who your neighbors are. Just go be a neighbor.

Jesus was so slick. Not in that “This guy is sneaky and I’m not sure I trust him” sort of way, but in the “Wow, he’s thinking so many moves ahead of the rest of us, we just better shut up and listen” sort of way. Remember what the Religious Expert had asked? He said, “Who is my neighbor?” In other words, he wanted to know exactly just how large his neighborhood was, how much (or little) he had to do, which people he did (or didn’t) have to love in order to be in the clear with God. 

So at the end of the story of the Samaritan, Jesus flips the question around: “Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man?” Now that’s a totally different way of charting your course through the world. Jesus says that I shouldn’t be looking out to see who are my neighbors. Instead I should consider myself to have the responsibility of being a neighbor so that everywhere I go and everyone I meet is an opportunity (and obligation) to show love. This means no racial favoritism, all people are my neighbors. I can’t treat people differently because of economic class, we’re all in the same neighborhood in God’s eyes. It is wrong to speak disparagingly about those who disagree with me politically, I’m on the same side of the aisle as them.

Followers of Jesus are to be vessels of his mercy, conduits of his love, carrying his ‘neighborhood’ with us wherever we go. So stop asking, “Who is my neighbor?” Instead, with every person you life-path brings you upon, ask yourself, “How can I help this one, my neighbor?”

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