They asked Jesus a trick question. That was nothing unusual. It ranked alongside the common questions asked of believers today in order to discomfit them, such as, ‘When Cain slew Abel and took him a wife, where did the wife come from?’ Jesus was too smart to be caught out by smart-mouthed troublemakers that wanted him to say what was required of a person that wanted to be saved. It was an invitation to a contest of wits in which it was intended Jesus would come off as loser.
The no-win situation is characterised by the unfortunate man whose wife bought him two neckties for his birthday: a red one and a blue one. Thinking to please her, he took them to his bedroom and promptly donned the blue tie before presenting his smiling and grateful face to his donatrix for approval. Instead of sunshine, hearts, and flowers he got a scowl, as she-with-hands-on-hips demanded brusquely, “So, you don’t like the other one, eh?”
Jesus listened to the question and looked inside their hearts to read their intention. It was a talent he had. His answer anticipated what they believed would be game, set, and match, but he played them out of the court and into more reasonable frames of mind.
And, behold, a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted him, saying, “Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said unto him, “What is written in the law? How readest thou? And he answering said,
Thou shalt love the Lord thy God
with all thy heart, and with all thy soul,
and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind …
and thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”
That is true religion in a nutshell. Love God with everything you have and love your neighbour no less than you love yourself. It was the perfect counsel of perfection, for if men abided by its simple precepts they would offend neither God nor any man.
But, thought the questioner, there might be an escape clause that I could use if the term ‘neighbour’ was not too strictly defined. Surely, neighbour could not mean every other person in the world! So, the question to the answer that would change the world was asked in almost breathless anticipation of an answer that would provide leeway so that there could be some that this duty to treat as well as I treat myself does not apply!
“That’s alright, Master, but exactly whom do you say is my neighbour? And, I must ask you to be specific!” He beamed as he said this. He did not want Jesus to think he was trying to get away with anything.
There was a silence as the question settled in Jesus’ mind and he judged it for what it was – an attempt to excuse a religious person from being as religious as he ought to be. As with all questions that sought to tempt Jesus to furnish answers that were not too hard on those that would be his followers, if it wasn’t too hard, he weighed the consequences of what an inexact answer might yield to the heart and mind of one that was less than rigorous in his observances when it came to being wholehearted in spiritual life, in faith, and in obedience, and who was looking for ways in which he could ease himself out of the full duties and responsibilities that devolve onto those that take up their crosses and follow Jesus.
If there were any loopholes, and clever lawyers can always find something that looks like one, Jesus knew how to close them, so that he left no doubts as to his intentions, and not even the shadow of a hint of any excuse for non-compliance.
After some thought, Jesus nodded slightly and then smiled. Not such a large smile that he looked amused, but one that hinted that he had the answer, and that it was cast iron, watertight, bombproof, and incontrovertible, even for religious equivocators that had made it their life’s work to list all the ways of evading the responsibilities of the committed and faithful via little-known loopholes.
Jesus had a story that would close such escapeways as tight as a ships' portholes during a violent Biscay storm. He could have used an Englishman, a Scotsman, and an Irishman, the common characters of British schoolboy humour used to make disputable points about national characteristics, but Jesus did not. He used characters with which his hearers were familiar so that he would not have to explain himself when he had finished his instruction.
He went straight into the story about a victim, a man of Judah, robbed, wounded, stripped naked, and beaten close to death by assailants. The casualty lay in pools of his own blood by the side of the dusty road. Unless he was quickly cared for he would surely die.
To get the real point of Jesus’ story, readers should, from this point forward, identify themselves as the dying man by the side of a desert road, bleeding, thirsty, and likely to succumb to the heat of the sun, dehydration, or from blood loss. Just slip yourself into his skin and share his sufferings and fate, feeling everything that he felt, fearing everything that he feared. You will soon get the hang of it.
This frame of mind is known as empathy. It requires that your pain equals his pain, your distress feels exactly like his distress, and your level of hopeless despair matches his. When you can do for another, then you are doing what Christ did when he endured agony for our sakes.
You, dear reader, are now the dying man. The man in the story is now you. You need not become a Jew, just be yourself, a man or woman in desperate straits from which you cannot extricate yourself.
Out of the very depths of your tortured soul, you call for help. However, there is none to hear your urgent pleading. You despair. You pray. You faint, and then you rouse to the footfalls of a rider coming towards you. Hope rises in your breast.
You recognise the rider as a minister of your church and raise your feeble hands towards him in supplication. Surely, he will save you! He is a holy minister of your God. Your prayers are answered, and you bless the name of God and the servant He has sent to deliver you.
However, your deliverer, with a sneer of disdain, reins his steed to the other side of the road, and rides on!
Such confusion races through your exhausted mind as you try to grasp what happened, and why your priest ignored you. Your fear of immanent death intensifies as your hopes dip out of view. You pray. You plead. Surely, the Holy One of Israel will hear and answer. You faint away, weak, sick, despairing.
Footfalls awaken you as a church member approaches. His eyes meet your pleading gaze, but he too turns from you and hurries on. Again, hope dies and you become delirious, sure that God is being cruel to you allowing you to die seen by your co-religionists, but not acknowledged, evidently in urgent need of care, but not aided.
Your now silent prayers bounce back from the seemingly empty vault of heaven. You are sure that God has turned his ears from you - that your words no longer carry to his heart. You cannot find any other explanation to visit on your wretched situation, and you know that you will surely die on that spot.
After an interminable silence marked only by the sighing of a hot wind that pelts your face with biting grains of sand, you open your cracked eyelids and see another approaching.
Hope rises yet again, but weaker, yet hope it is and your spirit is stirred.
He reaches you, dismounts, and you feel cool water on your cracked lips, trickling into your parched mouth, channelling down your dry throat.
You are prepared to die, but the refreshment sweetens the moment of death, and, surprisingly, you open your eyes. Your vision is misty as if peering through a ringing blue haze at a face that is at once both strange and familiar.
An angel bends over you, cradling your sore head with his arm as he pours the sweetest water you have ever tasted onto your lips. A little lapping of your leathern tongue and though you are weak as if from a journey, your mouth revives as the refreshing liquid courses down your throat reviving your body somewhat and your confidence somewhat more.
You look again into the angel’s face and eyes.
There is a familiarity about his countenance. The mist clears a little revealing the angel’s features as you realise that you are not dead but alive.
Protest rises within you because you think you recognise the angel of your waking dream. In addition, the consolation that lifted your spirits dies as you see the clothing your seraph wears.
He cannot be a Christian! He has on a long white robe and his head is covered by a kufi that tells you he is a Muslim. A Muslim! A hated, untrustworthy, violent, murderous enemy of God. A Muslim!
Your head drops back onto the rocky roadside and your dull eyes close as you let out a long, low groan at the unspeakable cruelty of what you know are your last moments in mortality. Had you the energy you would laugh at the incongruity of your situation.
Your prayers brought two that could save you - but they did not, and now one that could save - but probably will not because he is your religious enemy. You hate Muslims! Muslims eat Christian children and drink their blood! Everyone knows that. God is playing games with you!
The irony bites your will and you are enveloped in the final despair of dying. You close your eyes and slip off towards unconsciousness knowing that you will never awaken for an even greater enemy than the thieves has you in his merciless clutches.
You have been raised to believe that this man and all his fellows held a false religion that was the enemy and subverter of God’s profound spiritual truths. From your earliest days, you have not heard any good thing about Muslims and their faith, Islam. It was told to you by those you loved and trusted, and, therefore, you believed it. Now you are at the mercy of a Muslim infidel!
Your mind swims in circles searching for answers. If he is your enemy, then why is he giving you water. Why has he not drawn his Khinjar and torn out your heart? Why is his voice angelic and comforting? Why is he not screaming at you like a jinni?
There is a serenity that descends on those about to pass through death’s portal that enables the dying to recognise greater truths than they have ever had the strength or generosity of spirit to know during the fever of their lives. That serenity enables you now to behold he whom you have always considered your deadly enemy as your liberator: the saver of your life.
This is odd. The situation is beyond your comprehension. You struggle to understand. Your enemy speaks softly. He does not strangle you, stab you, beat you about the head with a rock, but instead he gives you water. His courtly serene voice spreads calm through your soul that submerges your fears. His good will toward you is confirmed by the gentlest eyes you have ever seen watching you with the tenderness of a mother watching her newborn child.
He moves slowly, deliberately, offering more water, never raising his voice above a comforting whisper. His peace permeates your pain and you feel to trust the messenger of mercy. Your thirst slaked, he binds your open wounds with strips he tears from the silken cloth he carries on his pack beast. He places himself between the sun and you to shade you from its life sapping fire, all the while assuring you in his gentle voice as he nods in affirmation of goodwill, and carries on bandaging your broken flesh until you are rested, more awake, and your bleeding finally staunched.
He pours oil and wine on your wounds, soaking the bandaging well, to aid healing. Then, with what you regard as superhuman strength, he raises you from the ground in his arms and places you on the saddle of his beast, supporting you with his arm and shoulder.
The journey into the city is uncomfortable, but your life is saved. The stranger has not asked your name nor enquired into any aspect of your life, for he regards you only as a fellow man that was in need of relief, and knew himself as one directed by God to rescue the perishing wherever and whoever they were.
Those that could have helped but did not, asked themselves what might happen to them if they set about helping you.
Were the robbers hiding behind the rocks to jump out and get them, or were you part of an elaborate trick to lure them into a danger zone where they would become victims of your savage gang of thugs and robbers?
The one that is helping you asked only what would become of you if he did not help you. He risked his life to save yours.
Your rescuer raises his voice when he arrives at an inn, but only to summon aid. The innkeeper and a helper emerge. They see your condition, carry you inside, and lay you on a bed.
Your Muslim ally delivers you into their care, handing them two silver coins for your keep with the promise that he call at the inn when his journey is done, at which time he will pay whatever other fees might be due.
He does not ask for repayment, because the love in his heart is limitless, and he does good because it is right to do so, not because he might profit thereby.
You never learn his name, but you come to realise that his name is the least important thing about him.
Your body heals, but of greater moment is the healing that comes to your heart.
How can you continue to hate an enemy that saves your life, uses his costly goods to heal your wounds, and carries you to a place of safety, pays for your care, and promises to pay even more if need be?
As you heal at the inn, not knowing day from night, your mind is preoccupied with the events that led to your being there and the intervention of one whose behaviour you could not ignore, no more than you could ignore the hatred you had for him and his kind.
Your soul was elevated to a better and higher level of thinking as you recognised that prejudices involves untruths that might be the worst kind of lies because they remain lodged inside minds like unexploded bombs and are rarely, if ever, exposed to our critical examination.
Seeing a Samaritan in positive light was a shock to those listening to Jesus, although it was typical of his provocative style of teaching in which conventional expectations were turned on their heads.
Seeing the Muslim in a positive light, unless you either are a Muslim or not weighed down with the clutter of prejudice will have had the same effect on you. That is the intention.
Jesus made his hearers face their fears, prejudices, and the darkness that was inside them.
The Good Samaritan was the perfect way of showing them how far God wants them to move from the selfish and bigoted people they were so that they came to where they could receive eternal life.
This story brings you face to face your own fears, prejudices, and the darkness that is inside those that hate Muslims for no reason other than some Muslims have done some terrible things, and your darkness will not allow you to see the good done by the vast majority of good loving and kind Muslims.
It is certain that in turning from all Muslims your behaviour is the very same kind that Jesus found unacceptable in candidates for eternal life. Those that hold prejudice against all because of what a few of their number have done are of the same spirit as those that passed you by in your distress and left you to die.
The point of Jesus’ story is that such are denied eternal life.
The question of the legal expert asked was intended to show him how he could slither out of the moral cul-de-sac in which Jesus had him corralled and hog-tied by trying to find a way to exclude some from the category of his ‘Neighbour.’
He had asked what he must do to inherit eternal life. The answer to that question is not, “Jesus saves!”
The answer is an instruction that our failure to observe results in the loss of salvation.
The answer to the question “What must I do?” is not, “Jesus has your back, carry on,” but, “Go thou and do likewise.” The ‘likewise’ being to be positively and actively concerned for the welfare and care of others, regardless of their nationality or faith.
Jesus gave the wriggling worm of a man looking for a wormhole to crawl though and escape doing his duty to his neighbour the eternal principle enjoined in Leviticus 19:18,
“Thou shalt not avenge nor bear any grudge, but shall love thy neighbour as thyself.”
His question was, “What, Lord, even a Samaritan?”
To which Jesus answers exactly as he does to those today that ask, “What, Lord, even a Muslim?”
To which questions come his answer, ringing down the centuries, “Yes! Especially Muslims!”
“But, Lord,” you protest, “They are not Christians. How can you even ask me to love and respect them when they hate me?”
Jesus was ready for that objection. He took in a deep breath and looked at the questioner with a penetrating gaze, his face set like flint, to deliver a teaching that separates the wheat from the tares. He spoke intently, measuring his words and in a tone that was unmistakable. The Saviour lays out the rule that means eternal life to those that obey it, and, “Muslims do not hate you. Muslims, just as you do, try to live according to the divine light they have received. But, even if they did hate you, that would not be an excuse that would work for you.”
“But,” he objects, “It is not right to love those that hate you. It is contrary to human nature.”
“Human nature,” says Jesus, gently now, “is the enemy of God. Human nature turns men against God and makes humanity less than it was created to be. Overcoming the impulse to behave according to the flesh by yielding to the inspiration of the Spirit of God is essential if you would have eternal life.”
“But, Lord … ” Jesus interrupts him to press the teaching that this man must learn if he is to draw near to God, fulfil the measure of his creation, and become godly in all his dealings. Jesus continues,
“Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; for by so doing ye become the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. And if ye only love them that love you, what reward do you hope for? Even the ungodly do that. And if ye welcome and greet only your brethren, what do ye do that is more than others do? You have seen thieving tax collectors do that much.
“You say you want eternal life. If you really do want eternal life, then you must change your ways, your heart, your attitude, and your inner spirit, and become perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.”
“What, Lord, even Samaritans and Muslims?”
Jesus had given the only answer there was. It falls to men to hear and obey.
The history of God’s dealings with humanity is replete with instances of people that will not hear him and obey. To such cases, the prophet Zechariah wrote,
“They refused to listen, and turned their backs, and stopped their ears with their fingers that they might not hear.”
God's judgements against ancient Israel for refusing to be obedient to God provide stern warnings to today’s Christians that the duties God requires of them are not empty words and rituals, but doing justly and loving mercy, both of which move us to act for the welfare and peace of all, regardless of nation, colour, creed, or faith.
In the teachings of Jesus, ‘neighbours’ are not restricted to only Samaritans and Muslims.
Our neighbours in God’s eyes are those of all faiths, sects, and denominations whether we accept their version of religion or spirituality or not.
What? Could it mean that Pagans are my neighbours? What about Atheists? Are they my neighbours? Moreover, what about those that malign my sacred faith and tell me I am a child of the Devil? Are they also my neighbours to whom I owe the same duty of care that the Samaritan bestowed on the Jew?
Not one human being in the entire world can free him or herself from the sacred responsibility that Almighty God has laid on our heads to seek out and care for the needy, the naked, the hungry, the hurting, and the lost. There is no passage in all the holy books in the world that permits us to escape our administering that divinely imposed duty to all others with all the compassion, love, and strength we have.
The law of God lays restraints upon human hearts to do good to all, but the rebellious fill their minds with prejudices even against the word of God. Nothing is harder or more obdurate than the heart of an impudent and openly rebellious sinner who refuses to conform his or her life to the revealed will of God.
Wilful disobedience to God is a great sin that brings God’s sternest anger and judgement that cannot be withstood. Deliberate sin spoils the realisation of prayer. The Lord hears the cry of the broken-hearted penitent, but those who live impenitent and unbelieving should expect no remedy or salvation from tribulation through the intercession of the Redeemer because their rebellion and disobedience shows their scorn for him and God, and those that turn their back on God and his precepts and teachings also turn their back on the greatest gift that God gives to his children, which is eternal life.
If our hatreds and prejudices are stronger than our love for God and his promises, then we must not expect any reward from him we have rejected and despised.
We have the example of the Good Samaritan, the Good Shepherd, and now the Good Muslim as beacons in darkness, and must ‘go and do likewise’ if we would inherit eternal life.
There is no other way.