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"And who is my neighbor?" Reflections on the Gospel and Racial Reconciliation

I recently preached a sermon from Luke 10:25–37. This is the familiar encounter Jesus has with an expert in the Mosaic law that leads to the Good Samaritan parable. The first part of this passage addresses the lawyer’s first question, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” The second part addresses the lawyer’s second question, “And who is my neighbor?”

“What shall I do to inherit eternal life?”

In the first part of the passage (Luke 10:25–28), Jesus responds to the lawyer’s initial question by pointing him back to the Torah: “What is written in the Law?” The lawyer then quotes from Deuteronomy 6:5 on one’s duty to love God and from Leviticus 19:18 on one’s duty to love his neighbor. Instead of rejecting the lawyer’s answer as legalism, Jesus actually affirms his answer and commands him, “Do this, and you will live.” In other words, Jesus affirms that one way to inherit eternal life is to keep the Law.
Of course, the key to understanding Jesus’ command is to realize that in order to inherit eternal life by keeping the law, you have to love God and your neighbor perfectly and continually. The fact is, none of us are able to do that. Thus, the 82nd question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism:
Q: Is any man able perfectly to keep the commandments of God?
A: No mere man, since the fall, is able in this life perfectly to keep the commandments of God, but doth daily break them in thought, word, and deed.
Because we are unable to keep God’s law perfectly and continually, we must humble ourselves and admit we are sinners who deserve eternal wrath instead of eternal life (Romans 3:23; 6:23). We must turn from our sin and place our faith and trust in the person and atoning work of Jesus Christ (Acts 2:38; 3:19). Not by keeping God’s law but by believing in God’s son—by grace through faith—can we receive everlasting life (John 3:16, Ephesians 2:8–9).
This is the gospel.

“And who is my neighbor?”

The expert in the law recognized he was unable to love his neighbor as the law required. However, instead of admitting he was a sinner who needed God’s grace and forgiveness, he sought to loosen the demands of the Law by narrowly defining who his neighbor was. “And who is my neighbor?” he asked Jesus. You see, rabbinical teaching during this time taught that one’s neighbor could be narrowly defined as a fellow observant Jew. Tax collectors, gentiles, and especially Samaritans were excluded.
By narrowing the definition of his neighbor, the lawyer sought to appear as though he was keeping God’s Law. That is why Luke prefaces the lawyer’s second question with the narratorial insight, “But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus…” (Luke 10:29a). We, like this first-century attorney, often respond to the imperatives of Scripture in the same way: “Jesus, what is the least I can do and still be a considered a ‘good Christian’?”
In response to the lawyer’s second question and his attempt to redefine who qualifies as his neighbor, Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29–37). Jesus makes it clear in this parable that our neighbor is anyone around us, regardless of their ethnic, religious, or socio-economic status. Further, Jesus highlights four actions that practically demonstrate love for our neighbor:
1. Acknowledge the reality and effect of sin on our neighbor.
First, Jesus highlights in verse 30 that loving our neighbor means we must acknowledge the realities of our broken, sin-cursed world and their effect on our neighbor. As Christians, we cannot stay cloistered in our rural or suburban bubbles and believe that our urban, poor, or minority neighbor experiences life like we do. We cannot pretend that the sins of past and present prejudice and racism don’t have generational impacts on our black, Latino, or Native American neighbor. We also need to recognize that our poor or black neighbor often has a different experience with the police and justice system than we do.
2. Expose the emptiness of religion that is apathetic toward our neighbor.
Second, Jesus highlights in verses 31–32 that loving our neighbor means we must expose the emptiness of religious belief that lacks practical love for others. Look, we can profess we believe the gospel, we can regularly go to church, and even evangelize the lost; but, Scripture is clear that all of that is just vanity and meaningless noise if we’re not living out the gospel by loving our neighbor in practical ways. When our neighbor is hurt, we need to bind her wounds. When our neighbor is hungry, we need to feed him and, where appropriate, teach him to feed himself. When our neighbor is oppressed or experiencing injustice, we need to seek justice and righteousness for our neighbor.
3. Reject the prejudice that exists against our neighbor.
Third, Jesus highlights in verse 33 that loving our neighbor means we must challenge and reject the prejudice that exists in our own hearts and in our society against our neighbor. In Jesus’ day, there was open animosity between Jews and Samaritans. Samaritans were half-breeds and religious compromisers. Samaritans were “unclean,” and Jews were forbidden to eat with them or step foot in their homes. In fact, many Jews who travelled in Palestine purposely avoided traveling through Samaria. When we think about our urban, poor, or minority neighbor, what immediately comes to mind? “They’re lazy.” “They lack personal responsibility.” “They’re just getting what they deserve.”
Or, worse.
Brothers and Sisters, Scripture tells us we need to challenge and reject this kind of thinking. To truly love our neighbor means we must believe the best about our neighbor and reject the stereotypes and generalizations that either we’ve been told or we believe about our neighbor.
4. Sacrifice our time, money, and convenience for the betterment of our neighbor.
Fourth, Jesus highlights in verses 34–35 that loving our neighbor means we must be willing to sacrifice our own time, money, and convenience for the betterment of the poor, helpless, and oppressed. If we are going to love our neighbor as ourselves, we need to get out our pocketbooks, get our hands dirty, and sacrifice some of the comforts of our suburban or rural life to meet the real needs of our urban, poor, or minority neighbor. As James writes, “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” (James 2:15–16) In other words, Christians are commanded to do more for our neighbor than offer cheap talk and well wishes.
These four actions demonstrate love and mercy to the helpless, poor, and oppressed, and they are practical ways we can love our neighbor as ourselves. With that, Jesus ends his teaching in verse 37 with an emphatic command: “You go, and do likewise.” Jesus didn’t give a vague command to a nameless throng of his disciples. Jesus commanded this specific lawyer to love his neighbor by showing mercy. By implication, each of us individually are commanded to love our neighbor. It’s a responsibility that each individual believer bears, not just the church in general.

The Implications of the Gospel and Racial Reconciliation

Church, this teaching shouldn’t be controversial with believers in our congregation. In fact, this teaching is found elsewhere in Scripture, both in the Old Testament and the New Testament. For example, Both James and John address the need for Christians to demonstrate love to their neighbors in practical ways (James 1:27; 2:15–17; 1 John 4:20–21). Both of these men even double down on their exhortation and state that professing Christians who fail to love their neighbor in practical ways are most likely not genuine believers.
Believing in the gospel should always lead to living out the gospel. When our lives don’t reflect the realities of the gospel, something is wrong. Based on what we read in Scripture, the gospel has tremendous implications for how we as Christians love our neighbor and respond to prejudice, oppression, and racial reconciliation in our current cultural context.
What this looks like will be different for each believer and congregation. There will be differences of opinion as to the strategies and tactics that each believer and church should employ to address these issues. In some cases, believers and churches should work to alleviate the hurt, that is, to treat the consequences of poverty, prejudice, racism, and oppression. This may involve volunteering, donating, tutoring, or leaning into hard conversations with our neighbor. In other cases, believers and churches should act to directly address poverty, prejudice, racism, and oppression. This may involve peaceful protesting, contacting politicians, mentoring, and confronting prejudice within our own circles. What we chose to do requires wisdom and discernment. But, do something we must.
This is the gospel.
**The views and opinions expressed by the author may not necessarily reflect the views of the elder board of Grace Bible Church or the official position of Grace Bible Church.

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