The Lawyer Who Wanted a Loophole: Christ Speaks to the Problem of Religious Hypocrisy

Luke 10:25-37

January 21, 2001 | Ray Pritchard

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It was just after 3:00 a.m. when the young woman pulled her red Fiat into a parking space near her apartment. She got out of the car, locked it, and began the 100-foot walk to her front door. She never made it. Spotting a man standing in her path, she veered away, heading for a police call box. She never made it to the call box either. The man grabbed her and stabbed her. Her frantic screams for help pierced the night. Lights began to go on as neighbors heard her cry out, “Oh my God, he stabbed me. Please help me!” When a man shouted from a window, “Let that woman go,” the assailant walked away and the woman began staggering toward her apartment house. She never made it because the attacker returned to finish his grisly work. “I’m dying!” she cried. The attacker got in a car, drove off, but soon returned. He found the woman sprawled in the front door of an apartment just a few doors from where she lived. This time he killed her.

Eventually someone called the police who arrived to find the body of a 28-year-old woman. Her name was Kitty Genovese. Detectives investigating the crime discovered that 38 different people had witnessed the crime, yet no one came to her aid and no one called the police until she was dead. It turned out that the one person to make a phone call to the police was a neighbor of Kitty Genovese, and he had only called after first talking it over with a friend. Why did he wait? “I didn’t want to get involved,” he said. That came as no surprise to the confessed killer, Winston Mosely, who said, “I knew they wouldn’t do anything—they never do.”

That brutal murder committed in 1964 came to be a symbol for the dark side of our national character. Psychologists and social scientists even coined a term—the Kitty Genovese Syndrome—to describe eyewitnesses to a tragedy who choose not to offer aid. “I didn’t want to get involved” seems to speak a truth no one wants to face head-on. It stands for all of us who are too indifferent or too self-absorbed or too scared or too busy to help the hurting people all around us.

What Law Did They Break?

There’s an interesting side note to this story. Winston Mosely was eventually sentenced to life imprisonment. But none of the 38 people who witnessed the crime were charged with anything. What law had they broken? There are plenty of laws that punish people for doing wrong, but how do you punish someone for not doing right? No one can force you to jump into the raging river to rescue a drowning child. No law can compel you to meet your new neighbor who doesn’t speak English. No one can require you to visit the sick or comfort the grieving or give food to the hungry or write a letter to a prisoner and no one can require you to share Christ with a coworker.

Laws are good and necessary but they cannot change the human heart. If we say, “I don’t want to get involved,” no law can make us act differently. To borrow the words of Jesus, we are always free to pass by on the other side if we want to.

Yesterday George W. Bush was inaugurated as the 43rd president of the United States. During his short speech after being sworn in, he discussed the ideals that have made America a great nation. When he was talking about compassion for the poor, he said that “some needs and hurts are so deep they will only respond to a mentor’s touch or a pastor’s prayer.” Then there was this remarkable paragraph: “Many in our country do not know the pain of poverty. But we can listen to those who do. And I can pledge our nation to a goal: When we see that wounded traveler on the road to Jericho, we will not pass to the other side.”

Where did he get that phrase—”the road to Jericho?” It comes from our text today—from the lips of Jesus, from the Parable of the Good Samaritan. It is a wonderful story and we know it well. And President Bush used it in precisely the right way. Every day we are on the “road to Jericho” and every day we cross paths with wounded travelers by the road. Will we pass by on the other side? Will we say, “I don’t want to get involved?”

The night Kitty Genovese died, 38 people had a chance to save her. No one dared or cared to get involved. If you had been there, would you have been different? Or would you have been Number 39?

While you are thinking about your answer, let’s turn to a lawyer who asked Jesus a question trying to trick him. Here is a conversation with Jesus that didn’t turn out the way the man expected.

I. The Question 25-29

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?” He answered: “‘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, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:25-29).

Many translations call the man who asked the question a “lawyer.” In Jesus’ day a lawyer was someone who knew the Old Testament, was trained in theology, and was gifted in public debate. The religious leaders probably sent him in order to trap Jesus into saying something foolish. When he stood up, he asked a very important question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He wanted to know how to go to heaven. This is the ultimate question of the human heart. All religions offer some kind of answer to that question. What will Jesus say? To the lawyer’s chagrin, he answers a question with a question: “You know the Bible backwards and forwards. What does it say?” The lawyer gave the right answer. If you want to go to heaven, you’ve got to love God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind. And while you’re at it, you’ve got to love your neighbor as yourself. That was not only the right answer; it was actually a quotation of two Old Testament passages (Deuteronomy 6:5 & Leviticus 19:18).

Jesus compliments the man: “You have answered rightly.” That’s good. Knowledge is indeed the first step on the road to heaven. Then Jesus threw him a curve ball when he said, “Do this and you will live.” Was Jesus teaching salvation by works? Not at all. He was merely pointing out that if you could truly love God and love others perfectly, you would have eternal life. God demands perfection. That means loving God always, every second of every day, with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, never deviating from that from the moment you are born until your final breath. And that also means loving other people perfectly all the time. That’s God’s standard. It’s perfection or nothing. Jesus is really telling the man, “You want to go to heaven? Great! Be perfect and you’ll make it.” But no one can do that. We’re all sinners. And God doesn’t grade on the curve. That’s why we need the gospel.

Now the lawyer is starting to sweat bullets. I’m sure he regrets ever saying anything. It’s like raising your hand to ask a question in class and then having the professor make you look like a fool. Jesus has turned this fellow into a pretzel, and he has done it in only 21 words. Not bad.

Loving Inside the Circle

Verse 29 says that the lawyer wanted to justify himself. That means Jesus had painted him into a corner and now he wants out. He knew he loved God. But what about the loving-my-neighbor part? So he asks one further question: “Who is my neighbor?” I don’t think he’s really sincere. It’s like asking what the definition of “is” is. In truth, the lawyer already had his own answer to this question. He read the command this way: “Love your Jewish neighbor as yourself.” His definition excluded Samaritans and Gentiles. He would be a neighbor to other Jews and no one else. He wants a definition so he’ll know who he has to help and who he can ignore. He wants Jesus to draw a circle. He’ll gladly love everyone in the circle but he doesn’t want to be bothered with anyone outside the circle. So Jesus draws him a circle—and it’s a lot bigger than he bargained for. When you say, “Tell me who I have to love,” You are really saying, “Tell me who I don’t have to love.” This lawyer wanted a loophole, a legal limit on who he had to love. Jesus is about to explode his loophole and blow his mind at the same time.

Jesus doesn’t directly answer the question, and he doesn’t quote the Greek to try to explain how the word “neighbor” is used in the Old Testament. He doesn’t offer a dissertation on its derivation from ancient languages. He simply tells a story. But what a story he tells. It is a little masterpiece called the Parable of the Good Samaritan. It has been the consolation of the traveler, the sufferer, the victim, the stranger, and the outcast in every society for 2000 years.

II. The Parable 30-35

In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have’” (Luke 10:30-35).

Even though we call this a parable, I tend to think it was based on a true story. There is nothing in the details that could not have happened in real life. It begins with a “certain man” who journeyed from Jerusalem to Jericho. He is probably a Jew but his nationality doesn’t matter. Not a word is said about his background, station in life, wealth, occupation, or family status. None of it matters. He was a human being in trouble and that was enough.

Geography helps us understand this story. Jesus said the man went “down” from Jerusalem to Jericho. I have traveled that road three times and I can testify to the accuracy of his statement. Jerusalem is in the mountains and Jericho is in the arid plains by the Jordan River, not far from the Dead Sea. The Romans had built a narrow, winding road that snaked its way through those mountains. The road was (and in many ways still is) very desolate. In the 17 miles from Jerusalem to Jericho, the road descends 3000 feet in elevation. Locals called it “The Bloody Way” because of robbers who found ample hiding places from which they could attack unsuspecting travelers. It was a thieves’ paradise, and this “certain man,” traveling alone, fell victim to their evil designs. Evidently they waited until he came in view, then jumped him, beat him, stripped him, robbed him, and left him for dead. Unfortunately the robbers forgot to hang a sign around his neck that read “Neighbor.” Or maybe they stole that too!

Eventually a priest came by who was on his way home to Jericho after fulfilling his duties at the temple in Jerusalem. Jericho was a priestly city and we can imagine that he was in a hurry to see his family. Jesus says that the priest saw the beaten man laying by the side of the road—looking more dead than alive—and seeing him, he deliberately passed by on the other side. I imagine that he felt sorry for the man but whatever sorrow he felt must have been overcome by a sense of caution and perhaps revulsion. So he continued on his journey without stopping to help.

Soon a second man came by. He was a Levite, which means he was a member of the tribe of Levi. Levites were like lay priests who helped in the temple service. The text suggests that he was both better and worse than the priest. When he saw this poor fellow lying by the road, beaten half to death, he went over to have a closer look. That was the better part. Perhaps he decided there was nothing he could do. So he too went to the other side of the road and continued on his way. That was the worse part.

Excuses, Excuses

I pause here to comment that the priests and Levites were highly respected men. Because of their education, they knew the Law of God and were able to teach it to the people. They were the true religious leaders of their day. And yet they both passed by. The story doesn’t tell us why they didn’t stop and help this man. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. After all, we all have our excuses when we don’t want to do something. But you know what an excuse is, don’t you? It’s the skin of a reason stuffed with a lie. Here are some seemingly legitimate excuses these men might have offered for passing by on the other side:

1) I’m too busy to stop.

2) I’m late already.

3) I don’t know him.

4) It may be a trap of some kind.

5) I’m not a doctor.

6) He’s probably already dead.

7) Someone else will come along who can help him better than I can.

8) I’ve been serving God all week and I’m tired.

9) I tried to help someone like this before and it blew up in my face.

10) There could be a court case and I don’t want to get involved.

11) The family is expecting me. I can’t be late.

12) I’ve got a prayer meeting tonight.

13) I’m wearing my temple garments. I can’t get them dirty.

14) I don’t have enough money to help him.

15) I’m too busy worshipping God.

16) When I get to Jericho, I’ll call 911 and have them send help.

And so the priest walked on, quoting “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” to himself. And the Levite walked on. Perhaps he was singing “Our God is an Awesome God” to pass the time.

Here is the irony of the story. Both men are truly and deeply religious. If you asked them, “Do you love God?” they would answer, “Of course we do.” And they would have meant it, and on one level at least, it would have been true. They were men who spent their days worshipping God and leading others to worship God. It is against that background that their failure seems so great. They both have come from God’s presence but somehow God’s presence never got through to them.

And now comes the hero of the story—the Samaritan. It is a simple historical fact that the Jews and Samaritans hated each other. The Jews thought the Samaritans were racial and religious half-breed heretics. The Samaritans thought the Jews were arrogant know-it-alls. To say the two groups didn’t like each other would be putting it mildly. If the poor man by the side of the road had been a Samaritan, the priest and Levite would have said, “He got what he deserved.”

Your Hurt in My Heart

It’s also fair to comment that the Samaritan has no more reason to stop than the priest or the Levite. He was probably on his way home too. I’m sure he was busy and tired and eager to see his family. All the excuses the other two might have made, he might have made as well. But he didn’t. The Bible says that when he saw the man, he had pity on him. In the Greek it’s a very strong word that originally referred to the inner recesses of the stomach and the bowels. It has the idea of being deeply moved. One translation says the Samaritan had compassion on the man by the road. Years ago I heard a definition of compassion that I’ve never forgotten. Compassion is “your hurt in my heart.” It is emotion plus motion! We remember this nameless Samaritan for one reason: He did something! The others passed on by, but he stopped and helped the man. Jesus doesn’t say that the others didn’t feel compassion. Maybe they did, but they didn’t do anything about it. Compassion means nothing unless it moves us to action.

So he bandaged his wounds and poured on oil and wine, which was a Middle Eastern form of simple first aid. He put the man on his own donkey, which meant the Samaritan had to walk while this man rode. He took him to an inn for travelers, paid for a room, spent the night there, and gave the innkeeper two silver coins. That represented two days’ wages in the first century. He even promised to come back and take care of any extra expenses. We can summarize what he did this way. His help was prompt, thorough, generous, prudent, self-denying, to his own discomfort and at his own expense. In him we see the attentive look, the compassionate heart, the helpful hand, the willing foot, and the open purse.

Here is the kicker: The two men who should have shown compassion—didn’t! And the one who wouldn’t have been expected to—did! The religious leaders knew the truth and did nothing about it. The Samaritan was an outcast, but he knew the truth and his compassion moved him to action.

Thus does Jesus turn the tables upside down.

III. The Application 36-37

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:36-37).

Now we pass to the end of the story. In the beginning the lawyer had asked, “Who is my neighbor?” He wanted a definition and a limitation. But Jesus changes the question. Not “Who is my neighbor?” But “Whose neighbor am I?” There is a world of difference here. To ask “Who is my neighbor?” is to focus on what claim others have on my time and energy and resources. To ask “Whose neighbor am I?” is to focus on what I owe to the suffering people all around me.

Today there is a wonderful campaign called True Love Waits that is focused on helping young people say no to sexual temptation as they wait for marriage. I endorse that campaign wholeheartedly. But there is a way we can turn that phrase in a new direction: True Love Doesn’t Wait. When it sees a need, it meets a need. It does not wait to be commanded nor wait to see how far it must go before taking the first step. True love says, “All the world is my neighborhood and all the hurting are my neighbors. I will do what I can to help whoever I can whenever I can by whatever means are available to me, with God’s help.”

Notice how the lawyer answers Jesus. The true neighbor was “the one who had mercy on him.” He’s so prejudiced that he won’t even use the word Samaritan. It’s like it a dirty word to him. Jesus’ application is simple and to the point: “Go and do likewise.”

Let’s go back to the lawyer’s question: Who is my neighbor? In light of this story, we can answer the question this way: My neighbor is anyone in need whose path I cross whose need I am able to meet. In that light you never know when you’ll run into a neighbor. You will find neighbors everywhere you go. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, liked to say, “The world is my parish.” With this story Jesus is teaching us to say: “The world is my neighborhood.”

Do not say, I will do more when I know more. No! You know too much already. Act on what you know and God will bless you. Do not say, If I am ever going down a lonely road and happen to see a dying man, I will stop and help him. No, that man is all around us. He is young, old, male, female, rich, poor, black, white, Asian, Hispanic, a child, a beggar, a divorcee, a cancer victim, an AIDS patient, an out-of-work engineer, a single parent, a lonely widow, a new arrival from another country. He doesn’t look or act or sound like you but he is there anyway and God has put him in your path. You can’t avoid him. What will do you? Will you walk on by? Start with the need that is near you and God will give you grace. Your religion is empty if it does not compel you to reach out to those who are hurting whose path you cross.

“Your Brother is Down There”

This week I read about a man who was standing near a hole that had been dug as part of a large excavation. A number of workers were in the hole removing dirt when the walls collapsed around them. Rescuers began running from everywhere but the man stood by and watched the scene with detachment. Suddenly a woman called out from a nearby house: “Jim, your brother is down there!” Instantly he stripped off his coat and began digging for dear life. Why? His brother was in mortal danger and he must get him out. Who is my brother? Who is my neighbor? My brother is anyone in danger, anyone in need, anyone in pain, anyone in trouble. Look! Your brother is sick, your brother is dying, your brother has lost his job, your brother is homeless, your brother is lost, your brother is discouraged, your brother lies beaten and wounded by the roadside. Do not walk by on the other side. Will you abandon your brother? Will you leave him to die?

All around us men and women are dying. We have plenty of priests and a truckload of Levites. Where are the Good Samaritans?

Jesus, the Good Samaritan

This week all of us will walk the Jericho road. Sooner or later we are bound to meet someone in need. Do not ask, “Who is that man and how did he get there?” Do not ask, “Is this friend or foe?” Do not ask, “Do I know this person?” Do not ask, “What did he do to deserve this?” Do not ask, “Is he of my religion?” Is he of my color? Is he of my family, my tribe, my background, my language, my people? If he is in need and you can help him, he is your neighbor. Will you be his neighbor?

Once upon a time a man fell into a pit and couldn’t get himself out. A sensitive person came along and said, “I feel for you down there.” A practical person came along and said, “I knew you were going to fall in sooner or later.” A Pharisee said, “Only bad people fall into a pit.” A mathematician calculated how he far he fell. A news reporter wanted an exclusive story on his pit. An IRS agent asked if he was paying taxes on the pit. A self-pitying person said, “You haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen my pit.” A mystic said, “Just imagine that you’re not in a pit.” An optimist said, “Things could be worse.” A pessimist said, “Things will get worse.” Jesus, seeing the man, took him by the hand and lifted him out of the pit!

Finally, in this story we see the gospel of Jesus Christ. Ever since Eden, the human race has been on a journey away from Jerusalem. We’ve been going down, down, down into the Jericho valley. One day we were attacked by Satan and left for dead. He robbed us of our dignity and stripped us of our righteousness. Along came the Good Samaritan himself—the Lord Jesus Christ. He bound our wounds, he carried us to safety, he paid our debt, and he guaranteed our future. He has shown mercy to us when we were left for dead by the side of the road. Jesus is the Good Samaritan. Here is a message for those who are still lying by the road, wounded and bleeding, forgotten and abandoned. This is for those who feel hopeless and helpless. This is for those who have been destroyed by sin. Jesus comes to help you. Will you not give him your heart? Will you not love him and trust him and serve him? Will you not believe in him? The Good Samaritan comes to save you. Will you not come to him and trust him as Lord and Savior?

I close with this word to those he has rescued: Look to your Master and recall what he did for you. Gaze upon the One who left heaven for you. Remember that when everyone else passed by, Jesus stopped to save you. Then in his name and in his power and with his strength and for his glory, Go and do likewise. And the Lord will be with you. Amen.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?