"Who is my neighbor?" an earnest lawyer asks Jesus in Luke 10:29. We soon learn it's one of those conversations that's padded out in advance. He asks a question to set up something he wants to say. He was earnest to "justify himself," as Luke makes clear. And obviously, he was feeling pretty good about how it was going through verse 28. But then comes the curve ball. Whatever this lawyer had in mind for the answer, it wasn't the story Jesus told. And it's not what we would expect either. Yes, we may all know the parable of the Good Samaritan, but it can be a little confusing. The “neighbor,” it would appear, is the man going down from Jerusalem to Jericho who was beaten and left for dead (Luke 10:30). The neighbor is the object, the one of whom the three other characters encounter. But in the end, Jesus says the Samaritan who helped his man "proved to be the neighbor" (Luke 12:36–37).
So here we are, along with the lawyer, trying to figure out whom we're supposed to love, and Jesus turns the question around. Look at this man who acts in mercy. Stop asking, "Who is my neighbor?" There are deeper questions to ponder. As John Piper explains, "When we are done trying to establish, 'Is this my neighbor?' — the decisive issue of love remains: What kind of person am I?" (What Jesus Demands from the World, [Crossway, 2006], 264).
"Who are you?" — that's the question.
Are we going to be like this Samaritan who gives help when help is needed? Or are we going to be caught up in questions about who we're supposed to help, and when and where and how, and what if it will make me late for Sunday School?
What grounds the way we think about neighbors is actually our identity, not theirs. What matters first is who we are.
Grace for Standing and Action
In his book, Union with Christ, Todd Billings builds on Calvin's teaching on the "double grace of justification and sanctification." He explains that when we are made new in Christ we receive forgiveness of sins and Christ's righteousness — we are saved from God's wrath. And we also receive new life by the Spirit — we are saved to fellowship with God and love others.
This is a radical truth. In Christ we are given a right standing before God (justification), and we are propelled in love for God and others by the new power of his Spirit in us (sanctification).
This affects the way we see those around us. It's not because they've become something different, but because we have. God's justifying work for us and transforming work in us commissions a path of good works prepared beforehand "that we should walk in them" (Ephesians 2:10). On this path are real people with real lives full of real stories. And now when we encounter them, they are a divine call to us. They are an opportunity — a welcomed mandate — for us to be who we are in Christ.
Of course, we could make a thousand qualifiers. The Good Samaritan didn't give his spare change to fill an empty whiskey bottle, and that’s not the best use of our resources either. But perhaps we should have some concern that we get lost in these qualifiers too often — about when help can hurt and who are the poor and what's not the Great Commission. These are all important questions, and we do well to give them careful thought.
But while we think — and think we must — may we never lose sight that the central issue has to do with how the gospel miracle bears on our own souls. God has made us new creatures in Christ — righteous before him and empowered to love others for his sake.