During the 5,000 meter qualifier for the 2016 Olympics in Rio on August 16, New Zealand racer Nikki Hamblin fell during the race while tripping another runner, Abbey D’Agostino from the United States. After recovering, it was expected that D’Agostino would continue running, but instead of doing the expected, she helped Hamblin recover instead. They started to run again, but D’Agostino fell down again in severe pain. Instead of continuing, Hamblin helped her fellow runner again. Upon continuing again, Hamblin and D’Agostino finished the race in 29th and 30th place, respectively. In short, the story happened like this: D’Agostino, a Christian, was tripped by Hamblin’s mistake and after recovering quickly, she helped Hamblin recover. The next time it occurred, this time D’Agostino fell because she was in pain, and Hamblin returned the favour. When questioned about why she helped her opponent, D’Agostino said, “I had to make this decision: what was I running for? …I felt like I didn’t want to run for other people anymore. I wanted to run for something that was secure, and that was God. Something so much greater than me and something I can’t control.”
D’Agostino’s actions are a modern day example of Jesus’ lesson in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Let’s look at the parable from Luke 10:25-37:
And behold, a lawyer stood up to put Him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall 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 your neighbour as yourself.” And He said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii [two days’ wages] and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbour to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”
Who’s Our Neighbour?
Two points need to be made about this parable. The first point, and it’s rather short, is that this is a lesson on who our neighbour is. Before I get to this, however, I need to briefly discuss some cultural things. Priests and Levites were considered to be in high social status in Jewish culture, and the Jewish despised the Samaritans just because they were non-Jewish people. In other words, the Jews were racist. In asking Jesus, “Who is my neighbour,” He essentially tells him not to discern who your neighbour is because every single person around you is your neighbour. Notice that when Jesus asks him which of the three proved to be a neighbour to the man, the lawyer doesn’t even say, “The Samaritan.” As a Jew who despises Samaritans, he couldn’t even say the ethnicity. Instead, perhaps shamefully, he says, “The one who showed him mercy.” Instead of doing the expected, which the priest and Levite did, the Samaritan helped the man. In this parable, Jesus taught that instead of trying to discern who your neighbour is, be neighbourly to all. Today, Christians are like the self-righteous priest and Levite when they refuse to give to the poor and say, “I don’t know what he’s gonna use it for. He’s probably going to use it for drugs and alcohol.” When we give such an excuse, we are attempting to justify ourselves, which brings me to my second point.
While it is true that this parable teaches us on who our neighbour is, at the core of this parable is justification by faith. Jesus tells the parable because, “desiring to justify himself, [he] said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?” The lawyer, knowing he hasn’t fully kept the commandment to love your neighbour (because how can we?), wanted to justify his actions, so he asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbour” in the hopes that Jesus would justify his actions. But Jesus doesn’t justify our actions. We are justified by faith merely because of the works of Christ (Romans 5:1; 3:24). When he asks Jesus, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life,” he makes the mistake that you have to do something to receive this inheritance. There’s nothing we can do to inherit eternal life. Inheritance is something that happens to you, not something you enact. When a son receives his father’s inheritance, it is not because he deserves it but because the father has chosen to give it to him. After all, before the father dies he can always decide to remove the inheritance because of the son’s indefatigable disobedience. Likewise, we do not deserve and we cannot earn the inheritance of eternal life; rather, God the Father decides to give it to us through Christ (Ephesians 1:11-14). God chose us for the inheritance and gives it to us freely through Christ; the inheritance is not based upon our works.
Like the lawyer, we are attempting to justify ourselves when we say, “I don’t know what the homeless person is going to use the money for, so I won’t give it to them.” Do we even realise the evil in our saying this? Because we’re not omniscient like God and cannot know the intentions of the homeless person’s heart, we choose not to show God’s love to them and refuse to be generous, merciful, and gracious. Our own words betray us. In our hearts, we know we have failed to keep the commandment to love our neighbour, so like the lawyer we justify our actions by saying, “Well I don’t know what he’s going to use it for, so it’s best I not give it to him.” What a wicked thing to say. D’Agostino, the lowly runner, could have easily decided to keep running. Instead, she decided to lower herself even more by helping her opponent because of her faith in Christ. The lowly Samaritan in the parable also could have kept walking, but instead he lowered himself even more by giving aid to the man and going the extra mile by paying for his healthcare. And here we are, claiming to be righteous Christians, and we refuse to give money to a poor man just because we don’t know what he’s going to use it for. What other excuses do we make to quench the Spirit and not show God’s love to people? It frightens me to even speculate.
Who is your neighbour? It is not only the person whose actions you trust; it is also the person whose actions you mistrust. God doesn’t call us to love and serve those we know and trust, but especially those we do not know and trust and even more those who are in need of God’s mercy and grace. Let us not justify ourselves with reasons to not be generous with God’s love. Love requires sacrifice. The greatest sacrifice of all was God’s love for us when He died for us on the cross while we were still enemies (Romans 5:8). Loving another human being, especially strangers, requires sacrificing our pride. In our pride, we refuse to be merciful and gracious to others and seek to justify ourselves. In our humility, we freely and joyfully give that grace and mercy to others, which comes from God. The love we show for one another is merely a foretaste of the love that will inhabit us at the return of Christ.