Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall 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 your neighbour as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’ But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’
We only feel the force of Jesus’ parable when we understand that his hearers expected the priest and Levite to “pass by on the other side”! That was how the two great commandments – the heart of the Law – were interpreted under the Purity System. If push came to shove, loving God (by remaining uncontaminated) took precedence over loving neighbour. And that meant that the priest and the Levite needed to keep clear of a man who was probably dead: they couldn’t come near enough to investigate if they were to be fit to do temple service. Tough for the mugging victim, but that’s what God demanded, and everyone understood that.
It’s all in the questions. The lawyer thought he knew what loving God meant; the only question was, “Who is my neighbour?” It’s a “statute of limitations” question: “how far does my love have to extend?” Jesus asks the lawyer, “Who was a neighbour to the man who fell among robbers?” “The one who had compassion on him!” was the reply. “Go and do likewise”, said Jesus.
Compassion is a visceral word. It means, “to be twisted up in the guts with empathy, so that we can’t rest until our neighbour’s suffering is alleviated”. Jesus wants us to understand that compassion mirrors God’s own heart. It is compassion, not purity, that shapes God’s own actions towards us. If holiness is “being like God”, then we are “holy” when we look at the world through compassionate eyes, and “love” when we respond to human need and suffering.
Jesus’ point is that we love God by meeting our neighbour’s need. The only question is, “How far does your compassion extend?” And that, according to Jesus, is the same question as, “What kind of God do you believe in and claim to love?”
Forgive my compassion fatigue, loving God. Help me to see the world through your eyes, hear its cries with your ears, and not rest until I have made a difference, for Christ’s sake. Amen.
Lawrence Moore, Mission & Discipleship consultant, Worsley Road URC