“So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?”
And he said, “He who showed mercy on him.” Then Jesus said to him,
“Go and do likewise.”
One day, a lawyer came up to Jesus asking, “Teacher, what do I have to do to get eternal life?” Jesus looked at him, and instead of answering, He asked the lawyer a question of His own: “You’re an expert at the law. You tell me. What does God’s law say, and how do you interpret it?” Without hesitation, the lawyer rattled off: “Love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind. And love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
After commending the lawyer for his answer, Jesus told him he should go and do exactly that if he truly wanted eternal life. The lawyer had no problem with loving God, but he wanted clarification. So he continued to press Jesus further and asked: “And who is my neighbor?” In other words, he was saying: Tell me who I have to love and who I don’t have to love. Who do I have to accept, and who can I reject? Who do I have to reach out to, and who can I just ignore? Aren’t there some people deserving of love and others who aren’t?
Jesus refused to answer the man’s question yet again. Instead, He launched into a story. The scenario was almost comical: The lawyer asked, “Who is my neighbor?” and Jesus responded with: “There once was a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho ….” Can you imagine the lawyer’s frustration? All he wanted was a simple answer, and Jesus started telling a story about some man who set out on a journey from Jerusalem to Jericho. But it was much more than just a story. There was purpose, depth and detail in this story that Jesus specifically included in order to expose all of the excuses we use to keep from loving and connecting with the people around us.
Everyone listening to Jesus that day knew the road from Jerusalem to Jericho wound 18 miles through the mountains and descended about 3,300 feet. And it definitely wasn’t a path you wanted to take after dark, because it was a notoriously popular hideout for bandits.
Sure enough, the man was attacked by robbers, stripped naked, beaten unconscious and thrown into a ditch to die. Eventually, a priest came riding by. During this time in history, priests held the wealthiest, most powerful and most respected positions in all of Israel. As both political and spiritual leaders, they were the pinnacle of Jewish society. When this priest saw the man covered in dust and blood lying by the side of the road, he angled across to the other side of the road to avoid him and passed on by. The priest was followed by a Levite—another spiritual leader. Seeing that the man had been beaten up by bandits and fearing for his own life, he hurried by as quickly as possible.
Now this is where Jesus did something that was absolutely gutsy: He introduced a Samaritan as the hero of the story. And here’s why it was so revolutionary: The Jews didn’t just dislike the Samaritans; they despised them. There was such deep hatred towards Samaritans that the Jews actually sang songs in their synagogues about how stupid they were. There’s even evidence that some of the prayers prayed in synagogues during the first century included requests to God to make sure the Samaritans wouldn’t be allowed to partake in eternal life! Can you imagine their prayers? “God, I pray for my wife, my kids, my parents. Oh, and could You please not let any of the Samaritans into heaven? Thank You. Amen.”
Well-aware of the Jews’ deep-seated hatred for the Samaritans, Jesus’ purpose behind making a Samaritan the hero of His story was both deliberate and significant. When the Samaritan came upon the wounded man, he was moved with compassion. He cleaned the man’s wounds and gave him first aid. Then placing him on his own donkey, the Samaritan took the man into the next town (which was most likely a Jewish town) where he booked him a room at an inn and paid for it.
Wrapping up His story, Jesus turned to the lawyer and asked: “Who do you think was a neighbor to the man who got beaten up?” Looking down at the ground, the lawyer couldn’t even bring himself to say, “The Samaritan.” Instead, he mumbled, “The guy who showed mercy.” “That’s right,” Jesus replied. “Now go and do the same.”
So what’s the major difference between the priest, the Levite and the Samaritan? It all comes down to one word … compassion. When he saw the wounded man, the Samaritan didn’t say that the man “should have known better,” that anyone who was foolish enough to flirt with danger by traveling down the rugged path from Jerusalem to Jericho deserved to reap the consequences of their own poor choices. No, he picked him up and brought him to a place of healing.
Ask yourself today, “Who’s my neighbor?” It’s those who’ve been robbed by the thugs and bandits of the world—fear, despair, grief, pain, poverty, disease, hate, hopelessness, misery—then beaten up and left for dead. They’re around every corner we turn—from all walks of life. No one is exempt. No one is left untouched.
Do we keep our distance? Do we pretend not to see their pain and hurry on with our lives? Do we think to ourselves, “I’ll just pray for them” and then go on our way? Or will we allow our hearts to be moved with compassion? Will we stop what we’re doing—even if it’s something good, something spiritual—and kneel beside those who are hurting … those who are lost and alone … put our arms around them and carry them to a place where they can find life, hope and healing?
Ask God to soften your heart to those around you—towards your neighbors, your co-workers, those you come in contact with. Ask Him to stir up a love and compassion within you for them and their needs. Ask Him to give you the courage and wisdom to walk with them and offer them hope and life.
Compassion is the ability to see past the arrogance of sinful men and women and into the broken soul of human beings … into the heart that is desperately in need of the grace of God.