The Danger of Justifying Ourselves by Narrowing Down our Neighbors

Priest Philip LeMasters | 11 November 2019

Galatians 2:16-20; Luke 10:25-37

It is sobering how easily we can corrupt any good thing, including faith in Jesus Christ. Some people fall into the delusion of thinking that they love God and neighbor, when in reality they serve only themselves. One symptom of doing so is to narrow down the kind of people who count as our neighbors such that we excuse ourselves from seeing and serving Christ in all who bear His image and likeness. When we do so, we disregard not only them, but our Lord Himself. Our actions then reveal that we do not truly have faith in Him because we are only seeking to justify ourselves.

That is precisely the attitude that the Savior warns against in today’s gospel reading. After describing how the Old Testament law required loving God “with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself,” the lawyer wanted to justify himself by limiting the people he had to love. That is why he asked “And who is my neighbor?” He wanted to cut down what God required of him. That way, he could assume that he was a righteous man as he went through life serving only himself.

The Lord’s parable does not allow us, however, to place any limits on what it means to love our neighbors. He tells us about a man who was robbed, severely beaten, and then left on the side of the road to die. Surely, anyone who saw him in that condition would have an obligation to help him. All the more is that the case for the religious leaders who were going down that same road. They knew that the Old Testament law required them to care for a fellow Jew in a life-threatening situation. Like the lawyer, however, they must have come up with some excuse not to treat him with even an ounce of compassion. We do not know exactly what they were thinking, but they somehow rationalized passing by on the other side without helping him at all.

Ironically, a Samaritan is the one who treated the unfortunate man as a neighbor. The Samaritan did not limit his concern to his own people. He did not restrict the demands of love at all. Even though he knew that the Jews despised and had nothing to do with Samaritans, he responded with boundless compassion to this fellow’s plight. He did not figure out how little he could do and still think of himself a decent person. Instead, he spontaneously offered his time, energy, and resources to bring a man who was a stranger and a foreigner back to health. Even the lawyer got the point of the story, for he saw that the one who treated the man as a neighbor was “The one who showed mercy to him.”

The Lord used the story of the Good Samaritan to show us who we must become if we unite ourselves to Him in faith. Purely out of compassionate, boundless love, Christ came to heal us from the self-imposed pain and misery that our sins have worked on our souls. He came to liberate us from slavery to the fear of death, which is the wages of sin. Like the Samaritan, He was despised and rejected. In the parable, the religious leaders were of no help to the man who was robbed, beaten, and left to die. They passed by and left him in the condition in which they found him. Likewise, the legalistic, hypocritical religious leaders who rejected the Messiah were of no benefit to those who needed healing from the ravages of sin. They interpreted and applied the law in order to serve themselves and were powerless to heal anyone.

Christ has brought salvation to the world, not by merely giving us a code of conduct, but by making us participants in His divine life by grace. By becoming fully human even as He remains fully divine, He has restored and fulfilled the basic human vocation to become like God in holiness. Only the God-Man could do that. If we are truly united with Him in faith, then His boundless love must become characteristic of our lives. Among other things, that means gaining the spiritual health to show our neighbors the same mercy we have received from the Savior. Doing that even for those we love most in life is often difficult because our self-centeredness makes it hard to give anyone the same consideration we want for ourselves. The challenge of conveying Christ’s love to people we do not like or members of groups we hate or fear for some reason may seem impossibly hard.

Remember, however, what the Samaritan in the parable did for the robbed and beaten man. He administered first aid, took him to an inn, paid the innkeeper to care for him, and promised to pay for any additional expenses when he returned. Christ does the same for us in baptism, the Eucharist, and the full sacramental life of the Church, which is a hospital for our recovery from the ravages of sin. He also calls us to spiritual disciplines—such as prayer, fasting, and almsgiving—through which we open ourselves to receive the healing necessary to convey His mercy to our neighbors. He enables us to pursue a life of faith and faithfulness through the ministries of His Body, the Church.

People who are recovering from severe injuries must cooperate with their physicians and therapists in order to become well. They have to take their medicine and exercise, stretch, and accept other disciplines in order to regain good health and function. In order to grow in our ability to manifest the Savior’s compassionate love to our neighbors, we must approach the Christian life with even greater dedication.

This is not an optional calling only for those want to become especially holy. As St. Paul wrote, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ Who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, Who loved me and gave Himself for me.” To answer the basic calling to die to self out of love for God and neighbor is an essential characteristic of the Christian life. However we treat “the least of these,” the most miserable and difficult people we encounter in our lives, is how we treat our Lord. How we live reveals whether we truly have faith. As St. John the Theologian taught, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.” (1 John 4:20)

The point is not to satisfy a legal requirement or to try to earn something from God. It is, instead, to be so fully united with Christ that His merciful love becomes characteristic of us in the greatest test of all: how we treat people we are inclined to disregard. If we receive Communion, we must live in communion with the Lord by becoming more like Him in holiness. All the holy mysteries of the Church strengthen us to become better living icons of the Savior, which must shape how we treat the people we encounter every day. He has conquered death for the salvation of all. The more we share in His life, the less we will have the attitude of the lawyer who tried to narrow down his list of neighbors. The more our character conforms to that of Christ, the more we will overcome the spiritual blindness that so easily tempts us to justify ourselves in thinking that any person or group is somehow not worthy of our care and compassion. Our calling is to entrust ourselves to Christ such that His divine glory shines through us as a sign of His healing of the corruption of our hearts. It is to become people of such faith and faithfulness that the way of the Savior becomes characteristic of every dimension of our life in the world. It is to live out with integrity St. Paul’s statement: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ Who lives in me.” That is what it means to “’Go and do likewise.’”

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