Twin brothers are hoping to enlist in the U.S. Air Force. The recruiting officer says to the first brother, “Any skills of a military nature?” The brother replied, “I’m the pilot.” The recruiter knew he struck gold. He stood up and shook the man’s hand and said, “Welcome to the Air Force. And what about you?” the officer asked the second brother. He replied, “I’m the wood chopper.” The recruiter said, “Sorry, we really don’t need any wood choppers.” “But you enlisted my brother!” “Yeah, well, he is a pilot.” The second brother shook his head, rolled his eyes and said, “Maybe so, but I have to chop the wood first before he can pile it!”
What does it mean? What does it really mean? It is important to really know what it means if we want to understand the message. Today our gospel is the parable of the Good Samaritan. This parable arises out of a discussion between Jesus and a lawyer. The stage is set by Luke with these words: “Behold a lawyer stood up to put him to the test.” Well, it’s not the first time and probably won’t be the last time that a lawyer phrased a trick question. It was the kind of question in which any kind of an answer would pose still further problems. “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus could tell that this man was an intelligent student of the law so he asked him: “What is written?” Both Jesus and the lawyer are operating with the basic assumption that God’s Law, God’s Word shows humanity the way to eternal life. Scriptures then are the foundation from which we understand and know who God is and know His ways.
The lawyer answered Jesus and said “You shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart and soul and mind and strength and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Note loving God with all one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength is the foundation; it is from here that everything else comes. These four areas describe the whole person: our will, that is, the heart, our emotions, that is, the soul, our physical actions—what we do, that is the strength, and our intelligence, that is our mind. These four parts work together to complete who we are as persons; and these four parts are to work together to complete our love for God. Notice that the depth of our love is not simply an emotional feeling, nor is it simply a matter of duty or obligation. There is instead a combination of commitment and intellect, actions as well as an emotional component. This love for God is a whole person, really a whole life sort of thing. And then from this foundation there is in addition loving one’s neighbor as oneself.
The question had been asked and the answer given. You would think that the man would be pleased and go home. But lawyers are rarely happy. A lawyer’s responsibility is to define the limits of liability. And indeed Scripture says, “But he, the lawyer, desiring to justify himself, asked ‘Who is my neighbor.’” In other words, where does my responsibility stop? Who exactly am I responsible to love as myself?”
And you know what; it is a really good question, isn’t it? You and I struggle with the same issue as this lawyer. What do we do when we pass by the people who stand at our intersections with signs saying, “Please help?” What do we do when we receive emails and solicitations from people who show us shocking needs and desperate conditions? We are constantly bombarded with images and situations. My sister and brother-in-law brought my parents into their home and later they told me that my parents received 6 to 10 inch thick stacks of mail almost every day from different places requesting money. Perhaps you receive mail like that too. My parents had given money to one ministry and then to another and since these places sell their donor lists; my mother now receives literally piles of mail. She is not the Lone Ranger. All of us are inundated with requests to help others. In that sense, the Samaritan had it easy, there was only one fellow to assist. For us today it seems that there are always people that clamor for help. So what do we do? None of us has enough wealth to help everyone. Even as a church we are unable to assist everyone who calls here for help. I have to say “No” to many people. So what is the answer? Who really is our neighbor?
The command to love our neighbors as ourselves follows the command to love God. Loving God is the primary issue; it is the foundation. Getting our hearts right in respect to Him is the first and main step. Loving God with our whole person sets us in the right perspective to understand how best to help those around us. Loving God with our whole person helps us to see others as people who are bearing the image of God just we are. As we see people like this, we are not seeing them as fellow Christians or non-Christians; we not seeing them as people who may hate us or who maybe like us; we are not seeing them as people having difficult personalities or as people we like to be around. Instead we simply are seeing them as people, as humans, who are like us made in God’s image. And if and as we love God with our whole persons, then we are able to love and care for our neighbors.
So that is how we love our neighbors and as to who these neighbors are—they are those God puts in our paths as we live our day to day lives. We don’t need to feel guilty about the whole world, just about those who God puts into our day today.
But now we need to step another step back. Before the command to love our neighbors as ourselves; and before we are to love God with all our hearts, our souls, our strength and our minds; the question was, ‘What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus told him at after his answer to do this and he will live. That is, love God completely and love your neighbor as you love yourself and you will inherit eternal life. You can earn your way to heaven if you just do this. Well, guess what? The lawyer realized he couldn’t do it which is why he wanted to justify himself. The fact is that neither you nor I can do it either. We cannot earn eternal life. I cannot love God with my whole person for more than short spurts at a time. Neither can you. I cannot love my neighbor as myself for more than short spurts at a time and you cannot either. The standard is too hard for us. We cannot do this anymore than we can jump across the Grand Canyon or lift one the Great Pyramids. We cannot earn eternal life; all we can earn is eternal death. And you and I have already earned that. You and I already have failed at keeping God’s minimum standards and Scripture tells us that the wages for sin, the wages for failure at keeping God’s law is death. This is why we needed someone to save us. This is why humanity has longed for a Messiah to come and save us. O come, O come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel. We are captives of death and sin. And this is what Jesus did for us. He died on the cross to ransom us; to pay for our failure to love God completely and our failure to love our neighbors as ourselves. And then he rose from the dead so that those who put their trust in Him can even inherit eternal life!
Does this mean that we don’t need to worry about loving God with our whole person anymore or to love our neighbors anymore; are we off the hook? No, God’s standards, His laws haven’t changed. They will never change; His standards are embedded into the fabric of the universe. Loving God with our whole being and loving others as ourselves is and will always be foundational throughout eternity! Jesus Himself has said that not even the least of God’s laws will ever pass away. The standards don’t change but God is changing us! Those of us who believe in Jesus and are committed to following Him, He has given us His Holy Spirit to help us, to live in us so that we will be able, so that we will want to keep His standards. So that we will be able to love God with all our hearts, our souls, our strength, and our minds and we will be able to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. So it is important to know what it means. We cannot earn our way to heaven; but as God changes us, He is making us so that we are fit and suitable for eternal life. Amen