It’s easy to assume that the spiritual life is mostly about keeping ourselves clean before God. But there’s a small problem with this assumption. We are the center. And we should never be center of our life before God. God should come first. Others should come second. And then, of course, there’s us. Like Jesus said, “love God (1) with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength and love your neighbor (2) as yourself (3).” God. Neighbor. Us. That seems to be Jesus’ preferred order.
Now, there’s a small catch. The three are so closely related that it’s impossible to do one well without doing the other two. In other words, if we truly love God (as opposed to some idol or mental projection that makes us feel safe) then we’ll truly love our neighbor, and in doing so, we can’t help but love ourselves. But who is our neighbor?
An expert in the Torah once asked Jesus this same question, and Jesus responded by telling what is now a famous story – the “Good Samaritan.” If you don’t remember, the story goes something like this: a man is beaten and left on the side of the road half-dead. Both a priest and a Levite – masters of the Torah – stumble upon him separately and each one passes by on the other side. Neither one looks down. Finally, a Samaritan, which for Jesus’ Jewish audience is code for everything that is filthy and unclean and impure, picks up the half-dead man and binds up his wounds. Now, no Jew in Jesus’ original audience would have condemned the priest or the Levite. Maybe they wanted to help the dead-man, but being religious, they most likely feared becoming unclean. After all, according to the Torah, dead bodies made one unclean. Dead bodies spread impurity. In all likelihood, these religious men were just trying to stay clean before God. That’s why they didn’t look down. And so in passing by the half-dead man, they followed the law right down to the letter. This, of course, raises an interesting question. Is faith about following the letter of the law? In other words, is it possible to get the letter of the Torah but to fail to live into the spirit of the Torah? And I think the answer is yes. I think this is precisely what happens when we place ourselves at the center of our religious life. We may get the rules right. But we miss the rule’s deeper meaning. We miss the spirit of the rules.
People often will ask, especially when preaching, “Who are you in this story?” And what they’re really asking is whether or not you’re the Samaritan or the religious passer-by when you’re confronted with human need. Now, I don’t think this is a bad question. But I don’t think that we’re primarily like the Levite, or the priest, or the Samaritan. No, I think we’re the half-dead man on the side of the road. And I think Jesus is the Samaritan. The One who refused to pass us by. The One who rolled up his sleeves and got dirty to save us. The One who binds up our wounds and nurses us back to health. The One who knows how to love in the proper order. The One who never puts himself at the center. The One who looked down.
FOR THIS WEEKEND: God rolled up His sleeves and got dirty to save us, to nurse us back to health. God refused to pass us by. In Christ, God refused to look to the side. God looked down. Meditate on this wonderful fact and allow it to transform how you live your life. God will give you plenty of opportunities in your relationships with others to “look down.” There’s a big difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. And so don’t be scared to roll up your sleeves and get dirty. After all, God did.