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  • Writer's pictureRev. Joel L. Tolbert

Love our Neighbor

The Greatest Commandment, Week 6 of 7 in a sermon series on the Greatest Commandment, preached Feb 12, 2023 at the 9:30am Worship service


This sermon series is called, “The Greatest Commandment.” It is taking us from the new year all the way to Lent. We are looking at 7 parts in the response to the question, what is the greatest commandment?… to love the Lord, to love with all our Heart, all our Soul, all our Mind, all our Strength, to love our neighbor, and to love ourselves… 7.

We’ve heard about the biggie, love the lord, and we’ve heard about loving with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Today, we turn to the surprise.

When Jesus said the greatest commandment was to love the Lord with everything we think, feel, want, and do, that matched what religious people had been taught. Then he said a second part was like the first, to love our neighbor as ourselves. We just heard Luke’s version of that. But in Luke, Jesus’ explanation continues because this second part was surprising.

Let’s pray, and listen for Loving our Neighbor from…

Scripture Luke 10:29-37

29 But wanting to vindicate himself, (the expert in the law) asked Jesus, “But who is my neighbor?”

30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and took off, leaving him half dead.

31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when (the priest) saw him, (the priest) passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, (the Levite) passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while traveling came upon him, and when he saw him (the Samaritan) was moved with compassion. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, treating them with oil and wine. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him, and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’

36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”

37 (The expert in the law) said, “The one who showed him mercy.”

Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

This is the word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God)

Sermon Love Our Neighbors

When Matthew remembers Jesus’ teaching about the greatest commandment, it is in the middle of an extended confrontation. First Sadducees try to trap Jesus with a question and he traps them instead. Then one of the Pharisees tries to trap Jesus with the question, “which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Right after, Jesus challenges all of them with his own question which they cannot answer.

Jesus’ reply in Matthew to their greatest commandment question bothers them. He says the first and greatest is to love the lord with all our heart, soul, and mind. Then Jesus adds a second commandment like the first, equal to the first, to love our neighbors as ourselves. Jesus goes on to say in Matthew that all the law and all the prophets, in other words, all of scripture, hang on those two commandments.

The Pharisees and Sadducees only exist because of debates and disagreements over all those other scriptures, the rest of torah, the law, the commandments. If Jesus is right, then their arguments, their rules, their rituals, their opinions, their divisions are pointless. Do they equally show love to God, neighbor, and self or not? In Matthew, Jesus is undermining their religion.

When Mark remembers Jesus’ teaching about the greatest commandment, a Scribe asks Jesus which is the greatest. The scribes were not religious professionals like the Sadducees and Pharisees. They were educated, could read and write, but were human copy machines. They knew the scriptures very well, since they hand-wrote them over and over again, day after day. But they weren’t in religious positions of power or authority. They didn’t make decisions on whether or not an action was holy or lawful.

The scribe in Mark hears the religious professionals disputing with one another again over scriptural issues and asks Jesus, “which is the greatest commandment?” Jesus responds as we have learned, “(The first) love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” The scribe gets excited, and says, “Right on, rabbi. These are much more important than all the burnt offerings and sacrifices,” meaning all the debates, rituals, traditions, and internal esoteric practices of their religious communities. And Jesus says to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

The reason Pharisees and Sadducees argue about the commandments is hoping their way gets them closer to God. Imagine all those religious professionals, debating what people must do to make an acceptable offering or a worthy sacrifice, and then this lowly scribe criticizes all those things as distractions, non-essentials, and sides with Jesus, and Jesus tells him, not them, “you are not far from the Kingdom of God.” I am guessing he got fired that afternoon.

Now, in Luke, today’s story, the one bringing the question is an “expert in the Law.” This expert has a different reason for asking the question. It isn’t to trap Jesus, or to buck religious traditions. This expert in the law wants bigger, fuller, better, never-ending life for himself. We often translate it as “eternal” life, but really, the term means boundless, abundant, full and whole life and it didn’t just mean life beyond death, in the future. It meant a better, happier, fuller life now as well.

Some have assumed this expert in the law had been studying the law trying to find the answer, the secret to better fuller life. “I’ve been studying and studying and studying, and I know the scriptures back and forth, but I’m still not happy. What am I missing?”

Jesus doesn’t answer the question in Luke. He spins it back on the one who asks. “What does the law say? How would you say the scriptures answer your own question?” And the expert responds, “Love the Lord with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind, and love our neighbor as ourself.” Jesus encourages him, “Yes, you’ve got the answer.” He’s got the answer. He knows what to think, feel, and want. So what’s missing? Jesus tells him, “Now, go do it.”

This next little phrase tells us so much about the expert in the law. Wanting to justify himself… Why did he study the law? He had a question, how do I… how do I inherit fullness, abundant, eternal life for myself? He had studied the scriptures of God to get something for himself. He studied hard enough to find the answer. Love the lord, with all we are, and love our neighbors as ourselves. He knows the answer with his mind. But his spirit, his soul, his will desires this gift of abundant boundless life for himself. He can understand loving God and loving self, but his heart is not open enough, not compassionate enough to want the same life for others, where he wants for them nothing less than he wants for himself. And his strength, his body, has not been putting love into effort on others’ behalf. That’s why Jesus says, “You have the answer… Now go DO it.”

Notice which part the expert in the law doesn’t yet understand or accept. He doesn’t challenge loving God. Sure, he can say he does that. He goes to worship, tithes, goes through all the religious rituals and traditions the Pharisees and Sadducees tell him show his love for God. And yeah, of course he loves himself. That’s why he’s so desperately seeking a bigger, fuller life for himself. The part he can’t yet feel or embody is the Love thy neighbor. “Seeking to justify himself, he asks, but who is MY neighbor?”

The story Jesus tells puts two people on the road passing the one who was beaten and robbed. The priest and the Levite represent religious leaders and people, the ones who are either responsible for knowing and leading others in loving God, neighbor, and self, or for obeying and practicing the religious traditions and rituals that teach us to love God, neighbor, and others. But Jesus points out how the religious teachings put the priest and the Levite in a place where to love God and protect themselves, they were unwilling to love neighbor.

The third person Jesus puts in the story is a Samaritan. The Samaritans were judged to have misunderstood the scriptures and to improperly practice the lessons of scripture. But what did the Samaritan have that the good religious folk didn’t? The Samaritan was “moved with compassion” for the stranger, and therefore gives his time, effort, and money to serve the stranger. The Samaritan has much of the same scripture, with most of the same laws abot blood or cleanliness that led the priest and Levite to walk around and protect themselves. The Samaritan has something better than scripture, compassion.

It's almost like Jesus is saying to this expert in the law, it doesn’t matter nearly as much what you think you know or believe about God or scripture as what you feel and do for your fellow human beings.

The question the expert in the law asked was, “who IS MY neighbor?” The question Jesus answers is, “who WAS a neighbor to him?” The expert wants to know something for himself, “who is my neighbor?” to justify himself, and to make sure he himself is right with God. Jesus wants him to DO something for others, “Who WAS a neighbor?” That’s why Jesus’ final commandment to him repeat the earlier lesson. Earlier Jesus said, you know the answer, now go do it. Here at the end of the Samaritan story, Jesus tell him, “Go and do likewise.”

In my 17 plus years as pastor, I’ve had more than a handful of people challenge and confront me on what they think and believe is the right way to worship God, or to read scripture. But this scripture moved me decades ago to look beyond what keeps me, personally, right with God. This scripture shows us it just might be less about what we believe about God as how we love our neighbor, how we ARE a neighbor to our fellow human beings. Let’s spend less time wondering who is our neighbor, and more time being the loving neighbor to anyone, everyone we meet.

Amen? Amen.



Now blessing, laughter, and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God, who names you and holds you as the earth turns and the flowers grow, be with you, this day, this night, this moment and forever more.

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