Who is a neighbor to you?

Luke 10:25-37 contains an interaction between Jesus and an expert in the law–the story famously called The Parable of the Good Samaritan. Until last year, I thought the main lesson was about the Christian definition of “neighbor”. After all, the parable comes in answer to the expert’s question, who is my neighbor?

However, with that perspective, the conclusion never sat quite right with me. The point was fine, but the logic of it seemed a little off. Strictly speaking, Jesus doesn’t answer the expert’s question. He doesn’t end the story by telling him who his neighbor was. Instead, he ends it by telling him who was a neighbor to him–and that’s a significant difference.

I love that Jesus gets to the root of our questions. If you read the entire story, from start to finish, you notice that who is my neighbor? is not the expert’s first question. By looking at the expert’s first question, you can get a handle on his primary concern. It’s something deeper. The expert’s first question is, what must I do to inherit eternal life?

In this context, the expert asks his next question about neighbors in order to clarify more precisely what he must do to inherit eternal life. He wants to be saved, and he wants to know exactly who he has to love in order to achieve that.

And this is where Jesus blows my mind.

Instead of indulging the expert’s craving for self-justification, Jesus changes the subject. After all, those in need of salvation can’t save themselves–that’s axiomatic. So instead of ignoring the axiom and pretending the expert can save himself by doing something (or loving someone), Jesus puts the expert in his true position: that of the beat-up man. At the beginning, the expert recognized he needed salvation. Now, Jesus tells a story about a man that needs salvation. The expert is the beat-up man.

With this in mind, Jesus isn’t pushing the expert to love Samaritans or to expand the boundaries of who he sees as neighbors. Jesus isn’t telling the expert what to do. Ignoring the expert’s second question, Jesus returns to the root question, reminds him of what he can do to be saved–nothing, just like the beat-up man–and in the process reminds him of how different Jesus is from people. Jesus is the Samaritan.

And instead of tactlessly pushing him to love people that he doesn’t naturally love, making him feel guilty or, worse, driving him to soothe his conscience by manufacturing some counterfeit love for people he really doesn’t love, Jesus gives him an opportunity to look at himself as the unlovable one that was loved by someone different than him, and from there, Jesus lets love do its work.

Don’t let compassion fatigue happen to you.

“If you have… any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose.” -Philippians 2:1-2

Sometimes I might sound harsh. I have been. Sometimes it seems that harshness is pervasive. Sometimes it seems unremarkable–necessary. But Paul and Timothy woke me up this morning.

Who would think that in Philippians, that uncompromising epistle that includes statements like “to live is Christ and to die is gain” and “whatever was to my profit I now consider loss,” the hardest thing for me to do would be sharing something? And sharing serious things, like a mind, a love, a spirit, and a purpose? And because of tenderness and compassion?

Really, it’s completely in line with what the rest of the letter describes.

In Philippians, tenderness and compassion (and encouragement and comfort and fellowship) are influential. These are the things, as gifts of the Spirit, through which the authors give up anything.

Once, at the end of a year of conference planning, I heard someone mention compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue is the indifference, the harshness, that can hit you when you see too many terrible things without any encouragement. It can relate to a single issue you’ve focused on, or to life as a whole. It can make the work you were once ready to die for mean nothing to you.

Since bad things make good news, and since news is so accessible, I think more people on this planet are closer to compassion fatigue than ever before–including Christians.

The only way we can be united is if we keep our compassion healthy. The only way to keep our compassion healthy is to spend more time focused on our source of encouragement than the source of our problems. As the church, both for our health, and our productivity, we have to focus more than ever before on Jesus, his grace, and what the Holy Spirit is doing.

“Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” -Philippians 1:2

Do you want to remove all doubt about your sincerity?

“And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” -Colossians 2:15

It seems that God likes removing doubt about sincerity. From Noah, to Job, to Abraham and Isaac, to Moses, to Jesus and the apostles, God brings people into situations that cannot be faked. Anyone without faith would give up. But when someone does not give up, then their value is made known. No one can call them insincere.

Some people think Christians are insincere. Since our faith is unbelievably good news, our motives have to be unbelievably sincere. That simultaneously puts us in a vulnerable and a powerful position. Vulnerable because anything we do that might be, or appear, insincere will draw flack. Powerful because, if we are able to remove all doubt about our sincerity, we have a hope and a joy that nothing can rival and that everyone wants. Showing our sincerity beyond all doubt is perhaps the most powerful way to bring people to belief.

We should not chase persecution, I think. But we should, absolutely, live according to the standards of justice and mercy found in the Bible without regard for negative consequences to ourselves. Rather, when we see something bad coming, we should rejoice, because God will be glorified in our suffering.

Twice this year, the choir I’m in has sung a song called “In Christ Alone” by Koch and Craig. One of the stanzas goes like this:

And now I seek no greater honor
Than just to know Him more
And to count my gains but losses
To the glory of my Lord

The last two lines have been running through my head a lot recently: “To count my gains but losses to the glory of my Lord.”

Have you ever thought that your gains–your successes, your comforts, the extended length of your life–might actually be losses to the glory of the Lord? I love that Adventists are healthy enough to live on average 10 years longer than the rest of the U.S. population. Our health can be a testament to God’s power and righteousness. But I wonder if the fact that we actually do live longer–that we take our gift of health and stay in safe places, instead of using our health to go work in the hardest places where we might die sooner–I wonder if the fact that we actually do live 10 years longer is a greater testament to God, or to human security.

Would you rather live a life without problems, or would you rather take every opportunity you can to show people that God is worth everything to you?

Jesus made a spectacle of the powers and authorities by revealing his allegiance beyond a doubt. He came in order to do that.

As Christians, why have we come? Why have you come? What will you do?

 

Did Jesus even care?

“You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” -Mark 10:42-45

What do we get when God becomes a man?

Hercules? King Solomon? President George Washington?

One of the most incredible things, to me, about Jesus’ life on earth, is how limited his impact was. He focused on just twelve people. Knowing his time was short, he didn’t even start teaching until he was thirty years old. He didn’t travel far or organize a campaign. He didn’t specifically target the change agents–the powerful or wealthy–in his society.

It’s almost as if he didn’t care.

But he cared. He cared so much he died.

When God becomes a man–or when God inspires a person–he is free to become a servant. Instead of focusing on impact, he focuses on people. Because heaven is really close–because the end is basically already here–the means are what matter. Since the results are already decided, the way of life takes precedent.

And so Jesus came and loved the people around him. He gave everything for them and lived a good life until he died. He is coming back soon, and because of that, we can be free now to live the way Jesus lived.

Repentance is perhaps not the best word for it.

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” -Matthew 3:2

Just like Jesus, John’s first message was “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”

What is it about this message that merited first place on their teaching agendas? Why did John use it to prepare people for Jesus’ coming, and why did Jesus not only teach it, but teach his disciples to teach it as well in Matthew 10?

If the gospel does not have very real implications for human life, then it cannot really be good news. And the close proximity of the kingdom of heaven is the most concrete fact of the gospel, if you believe it.

Why?

Because, if you recognize that the kingdom of heaven, or heaven itself, is near, that re-frames your entire perspective on life. If you’re going to heaven, you can live so much more generously on earth. Money doesn’t need to be hoarded. Safety does not have to be sought. And self-justification can be given up–an absolute necessity before accepting a Savior.

Re-framing your life perspective is the definition of “repentance”–metanoia in Greek–as used in these verses.

Meta- is the same root that you find in metanarrative or metacognition, used to describe something that is beyond, after, or of a higher order. For instance, a metanarrative is not a story, but a comprehensive account that appeals to universal truths; metacognition is not thought, but the awareness of thought processes–it could be considered thinking about the way you think.

-noia, from -noeo, is the same root you find in paranoia or hyponoia (which, honestly, I never heard of until I started looking for words for this post). Paranoia is kind of like having a double-mind–a second consciousness running in parallel with you. Hyponoia is to be in a state of dulled mental activity.

So metanoia, translated as repentance, is primarily about re-framing your entire perspective on life by setting your mind not on only your immediate circumstances, but on something beyond them, something that is coming, something like heaven. In psychology it’s a mental breakdown and rebuilding that results in a stronger mental state than before. In theology, it’s a complete change of understanding about life.

So what was John’s first message?

Think differently. Live your entire life in light of a heaven that will be here soon. The kingdom of heaven is near.