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.

It’s more important to love God today than tomorrow.

“’Well said, teacher,’ the man replied. ’You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” –Mark 12:32-33

Yesterday I identified, more clearly than before, my own personal tendency to love God more with my future plans than with my current life. I realized that I am more in love with God in my dreams than when I am awake.

I have often found myself occupied with determining the most powerful way I can serve God in the future—how I could plant churches or start programs or give my life for people—but alarmingly unconcerned about the implications of loving God today. It makes me think of the parable of the sower in Mark 4: “but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful.” Who knew the “other things” could include plans for future service?

So right now, I’m trying to change my perspective. Instead of worrying about how my convictions right now should shape my future life, I’ll be thinking and praying about how my convictions right now should shape my life right now. I’ll still look to the future to prepare for things—I still love to dream—but I’m going to try to love God right now, first.

How to fall in love with God.

“When can I go and meet with God?” -Psalm 42:2b

 

“On my bed I remember you; I think of you through the watches of the night.” -Psalm 63:6

 

“Who has the heart? With whom are our thoughts? Of whom do we love to converse? Who has our warmest affections and our best energies? If we are Christ’s, our thoughts are with Him, and our sweetest thoughts are of Him. All we have and are is consecrated to Him. We long to bear His image, breathe His spirit, do His will, and please Him in all things.” -Steps to Christ, Chapter 7

Do you love God? Do you live your Christian life because God attracts you?

This can happen. It does happen, often. I’ve met many people who are attracted to God.

Do you want to love God?

Take time as you read your Bible, going over the same passage again and again. Try to grasp every detail of the stories about Jesus. Imagine what it would be like if you were actually there.

Pray for a long time, by yourself, with a notebook. Whatever is weighing on you, try explaining it to God. Tell him every possible worst scenario, and tell him the best possible scenario. Get down to the bottom of it. What are you really afraid of? And then give it to God. Find something in the Bible that gives you confidence that God can take care of this. And I mean real confidence–not something that you think you should be confident about.

The only way to love God is to give him the chance to woo you. People don’t fall in love before the first date. So spend a lot of time with him. Read and re-read his letters, explain your problems to him, and celebrate with him every chance you get.

You can love God. He loves you, and that’s a great starting point.

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.

Do you have ardor for God? He has it for you.

“Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm; for love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave.” -Song of Songs 8:6a

In my Bible, there is a superscript “c” attached to the word jealousy above. In the footnotes, it reads “Or ardor“.

I had to look that word up.

Ardor means “intensity of emotion, especially strong desire, enthusiasm, or devotion.

Imagine that God has that for you.

How can you develop that for Him?

Today is your day to level the paths.

“Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. ‘Make level paths for your feet,’ so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed. Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.” -Hebrews 12:12-15

Some of you might remember my encounter with a not-so-level path. My scars aren’t so obvious now, and that beautiful bike I used was stolen four months ago, so I have very little to remind me of the incident nowadays.

But every time I think of going back, I remember that hole. I remember I’ll drive more carefully. I hope someone will have filled it in.

Today is your chance to level the paths. You can remove the bitter roots. If you don’t take advantage of it, people will be disabled–or at least scarred. The bitter roots will trip them up.

By the grace of God, you can exhibit holiness today. Jesus is the strength for your feeble arms and weak knees, and He gives you strength to act.

The clearest way to bear witness to the full extent of Christian love is to engage in close community life.

“We had a glorious mess that looks much more like God’s work in hindsight than it did in the moment.” -David Janzen

Today, after almost three years, I finally finished The Intentional Christian Community Handbook: For Idealists, Hypocrites, and Wannabe Disciples of Jesus, by David Janzen. It’s the fourth book I’ve read on the subject of Christian community, interrupted in the middle by Being Church, by John Alexander, and preceded by Life Together, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and The Irresistible Revolution, by Shane Claiborne.

Someone who dreams of living with lots of people, sharing almost everything, and worshiping and eating together, might seem like an idealist. But one of the strongest lessons from each of these books is that Christian community is never ideal. At least not in any Utopian sense.

Rather, Christian community is a glorious mess.

The goal of community is not better living conditions; although that can happen, in some ways, community also forces you to sacrifice. The purpose of life together is to build character. To grow up into the fullness of the stature of the body of Christ. To discipline each other and bear each other’s burdens. And to bear witness to the world the extent of Christian love–love through the mess.

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” -John 13:34, 35

Love–love into baptism.

Two understandings for this year:

“And the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.'” -Mark 12:32-33

  1. Loving God and loving the people around you is much more than any offering or sacrifice. Not only is it the greatest commandment–it is the greatest joy.

“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” -1 Corinthians 13:1-3

2. Love is the underlying value in every spiritual gift and righteous act. Check if you have it, and if you do, let it be your motivation.

With this in mind, my 2016 resolution is to engage as many people with the Good News as needed until one person decides to be baptized.

Would you like to try, too?

Please pray about this, for both of us.

Do good because it’s good.

A few weeks ago I flew from Myanmar back to Cambodia. On my layover in Bangkok, I got to talking with a girl from Brazil, living in France but spending 6 months of each year traveling Asia. She had just spent 11 days meditating, in silence, at a Buddhist monastery in India.

She described to me how she really liked Buddhism because it was about doing good, for goodness’ sake, instead of for a future reward, like heaven. Whether or not that’s an accurate description of Buddhism, I’m not sure. But it got me thinking.

Today I read this:

“‘If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free… I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin… So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.'” -John 8:31b-36

If there is one thing that pushes us to justify our sins, it is fear of judgment over sins we have so far been unable to stop. There can be no other reason for someone who loves the God for who’s identity the law is an expression. The person that loves God, loves his law as an image of him, as a path to meeting him in everyday life. The person that loves God would not honestly and knowledgeably try to change his law unless that person had given up believing it was possible to obey, and had started depending on themselves, rather than Christ, for their justification.

So if we love God, as expressed in his law, but we find ourselves excusing our sin for fear of judgment, it’s time to think further about Christ. It’s time to investigate if he really is love. Because doubt in his love is the root of our fear. If he is love, we have no reason to fear judgment, and therefore no reason to change the law.

So removing our doubts, we can recognize, fearlessly, that we are saved from sin. We can stop quelling our deepest hope–our knowledge, in fact–that even that sin can be overcome. And we can start fighting for good, against sin, with the Spirit. Not in order to win Jesus’ approval. Not in order to avoid judgment. Not because we’re supposed to.

But because we want to. Good is good. We know it, we love it, and when the Son sets us free, we can be free to do it, indeed.