My eldest recently moved from the quiet and safety of Lookout Mountain, Tennessee to downtown Chattanooga. After a recent visit to see her new digs, Kristy and I took a back road as a short cut to a restaurant where we were going to meet my daughter and a friend for dinner.
It was an eye-opening experience, as just one block from her townhouse was the city’s free soup kitchen and next door — the community homeless shelter. A small crowd of men and women wearing tattered, unmatching clothes gathered by the entrance of the kitchen while several dozen others were lined up and down the street sleeping on broken-down cardboard boxes.
As we drove by, I tried not to stare.
My first emotion was fear — fear that my daughter lived so close to Chattanooga’s skid row.
My next emotion was deep sadness. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be homeless.
It dawned on me that the broken-down people lying on broken-down boxes didn’t want to be homeless. They would much rather sleep in a soft bed than a stiff box.
Many of us who have stable incomes and substantial savings have no idea what it is like to live month to month, trying to make ends meet, only to lose your job and not be able to pay rent for a few months.
Waiting for the eviction notice with nowhere to go.
Except to the homeless shelter.
These were not criminals who deserved contempt. They were fellow humans who needed compassion.
But I have never been homeless. I really don’t understand the plight. I’ve seen TV anchors go undercover, living on the streets to get a feel for it, but there is no way to really understand unless you have lived in those shoes.
While I have never been homeless, I did grow up the only child of a divorced single mother and have a special compassion for the unique challenges single moms face. I have experienced the death of a pre-born son. Knowing the pain of that loss, my heart breaks for those who endure the same grief. Having experienced the darkness of clinical depression, I have a soft spot for others who are in the grip of what Winston Churchill called his Black Dog.
What we are going see in Luke 10:25–37 is that being able to personally identify with someone else’s brokenness is what transforms contempt into compassion.
By the end of the message, I want us to be able to see that if Christians should be known for anything, we should be known not for contempt but for compassion.
As we seek to be known as a people of compassion, we begin our journey through the text in verse 25 with…
A Common Assumption
25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
As the text indicates, the question wasn’t asked to gain information. This expert in Jewish law is giving Jesus a theology exam. Even his body language gives away his true motive as he stands as if to take a position of authority from which he may look down upon Jesus.
You see, Jesus was known for being a friend of sinners and declaring forgiveness for even the most disreputable people in the community.
To the Jewish leaders, Jesus’s compassion was just a way of lowering the moral bar, making membership in the Kingdom of God more accessible.
The question about what it takes to “inherit eternal life” reveals a common religious assumption — that there is something I must do in order to earn the blessing of God now and into eternity.
Of course, those who are familiar with my posts know that the question posed to Jesus was fundamentally flawed because there is nothing we can do to earn the forgiveness that leads to eternal blessing and joy.
Yet rather than correct the question, Jesus answers the question with a question, showing the law expert that the moral bar for entrance into the Kingdom is far higher than he thinks.
In fact, verses 26–28 demonstrate that the moral standard God has established for those who would earn eternal life is…
An Impossible Standard
26 “What is written in the Law?” Jesus replied. “How do you read it?” 27 The man answered, “ ‘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, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ “ 28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
The standard is clear. In order to earn God’s favor, I must demonstrate moral perfection by perpetually and without fail manifesting undiluted love to God and neighbor.
In Psalm 15, David expresses the demand for perfection like this:
“1 LORD, who may dwell in your sacred tent? Who may live on your holy mountain? 2 The one whose walk is blameless, who does what is righteous.”
In Matthew 5:43–45, Jesus raises the bar even higher, saying,
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”
Thankfully, by the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, we will experience occasional success in loving God, neighbor, and even an enemy. But perfectly, and always, without fail? No way.
This is an impossible standard.
And the law expert knows it.
So, what does he do? What any of us would do. He attempts to qualify the standard, lowering it so that he meets the requirement.
You see, Jews defined the term neighbor very narrowly to exclude their enemies, which included Samaritans and non-Jews called Gentiles. Ironically, the law expert was accusing Jesus of lowering the moral bar when actually, it was the theologian who had lowered the bar.
It is this self-justification that we see in verse 29,
29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
In reply, Jesus tells…
A Challenging Story
30 In reply, Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
This is a parable of clear need and a specific opportunity. It is also a challenge. Remember, the theologian stood up to test Jesus. But now, Jesus is testing the theologian. Jesus is challenging the expert’s assumption that he meets the standard required by the law of God.
By challenging this man, Jesus is challenging us all to evaluate how well we have loved, not with our words but by our actions.
For context, we need to recognize that the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was notorious for violence, much like a dark alley in the inner city. In fact, that road was called the Bloody Pass because so many people had been attacked there by robbers.
This sets up the scene and the test, where two religious men who worked in the Jewish Temple, a Priest and a Levite, separately approach the wounded man, but neither shows compassion. Neither stops to help, but walk around and past the bloodied traveler.
Francis Schaeffer once said, “There is nothing more ugly than… orthodoxy without compassion.” Or we could say, theological accuracy without emotional empathy is spiritual hypocrisy.
Whatever their reasons for leaving the man to die, we know this: they were not willing to pay the cost required to love him well.
But this is exactly what the Samaritan does. By showing sacrificial kindness and mercy, he actually fulfills the demand of the law to love one’s neighbor as himself. At the risk of his own life on the Bloody Pass, and at the cost of his own wealth, the Samaritan singlehandedly rescues the man from death.
Jesus does not tell this story for theoretical purposes, but to expose…
A Personal Need
36“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” 37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
The lesson is impossible to miss. And the rebuke is not lost on the expert in theology, for even by acknowledging that it was the Samaritan who is the model neighbor by displaying the virtue of compassion, the religious expert calls him “the one who had mercy.” He just can’t say, “the Samaritan.” As a Jew, his hatred of Samaritans runs too deep.
Essentially, the encounter has come full circle.
The tester becomes the tested. The expert may have the right answers but has the wrong heart — a heart needing to be broken of self-justification.
Which is why the command to “go and do likewise” is not intended to be a self-salvation strategy, as if the man were able to love perfectly and merit eternal life. The command of Jesus shows him how far short he falls of the standard. And how far we all fall.
The irony Jesus weaves into the story is that the religious expert is the man in the story who needs to be rescued by a good Samaritan. While he doesn’t look wounded on the outside, this religious leader is spiritually and morally just as helpless as the man lying in the road.
Before he will ever be the one who loves well like the Samaritan, he needs to be the one who is loved well.
Here is the lesson. Before you or I can “go and do likewise” like a good Samaritan, we must be rescued by a Good Samaritan.
That Good Samaritan is Jesus.
- As the Good Samaritan, Jesus doesn’t just wrap our wounds but takes our place, not on a bloody pass but a bloody cross, where he doesn’t pour oil and wine on our wounds but pours out his own blood.
- And he doesn’t just pay a couple of days wages to care for us but gives us the totality of his life — securing the payment of all the extra costs we could possibly incur.
- Jesus takes us in our brokenness and makes us beautiful with his own righteousness. Broken and beautiful, with a purpose to help other broken men and women discover the beauty of God’s grace in Jesus.
Back to Skid Row
Remember the homeless shelter on skid row near my daughter’s townhouse in downtown Chattanooga?
I wonder how many of the staff who work at the soup kitchen are formerly members of the homeless community. Those who have known the despair and lostness, and the hopelessness of being alone, cold, dirty, and hungry. Those who remember the smell and feel of cardboard.
When we have experienced the impact of the fall and then have been the recipient of someone else’s compassion, it provides a personal motivation to give back — to show the same compassion to others. And yes, some are victims of their own poor decisions and willfully sinful behavior that often contributes to and exacerbates the pain and misery of our broken condition.
Nevertheless, for whatever reason, having been homeless would give you a greater appreciation for those who are presently homeless.
It is the same way with those who have received compassion from others when going through cancer treatments, marriage struggles, the lows of unemployment, alcohol addiction or any other unwanted valley.
Being able to personally identify with someone else’s brokenness is what transforms contempt into compassion.
We no longer look down upon the broken; we see ourselves in the broken.
But you don’t have to have to be on skid row to relate to the broken and helpless.
As a sinner, you share a condition with every other human on the planet — a condition that requires more than a meal from the soup kitchen. It is a condition that requires someone to take your place on the road and rescue you, not from the beating of robbers but from the suffering of hell. As sinners, we don’t need a meal; we need mercy.
That is what God gives us through the cross, where Jesus was beaten and suffered unto death — a death that now is the portal into eternal life.
Where my the brokenness of my sin and need is turned into the beauty of redemption and restoration.
This is how we “inherit” that life. Not by earning but by receiving the costly compassion of God in Christ.
It is when I become a self-identified recipient of God’s costly compassion toward me as a sinner that I will begin to show the same compassion to other sinners, knowing that the only thing that separates the condemned from the forgiven is the sheer mercy of God.
McKay Caston is a writer/pastor/professor/husband/dad whose passion is to help people come alive to the wonder, beauty, and transforming power of God’s grace in Jesus by living all of life in view of the cross.
Read this post on medium.com.