‘What must I do?’
Religion is what people think they must do to earn God’s favor.
The problem is, we’re broken. Keeping God’s commandments is beyond us. That’s why God sent Jesus: to make us new creatures who don’t need to earn God’s favor.
True religion is what people do because God has given them new life.
The Jewish religious leaders of Jesus’ day had missed the point. They thought shalom came by keeping rules. As many commandments as God had given, these guys multiplied them. They had rules about keeping rules. They were at odds with Jesus because Jesus and his disciples didn’t dance to their tune.
One day, an expert on Jewish rules got right to the point with Jesus: “What must I do to receive eternal life?”
Jesus turned the tables and sent the guy back to the rule book: “What does the law say? How do you read it?”
It was a good answer. Jesus said, “Right! Do this and you will live!”
That was just too simple for the lawyer. At one level, he was deeply invested in the complex web of rules that governed Jewish life. Someone who makes his living off the rules always thinks more rules are better than fewer rules.
At a deeper level, however, this fellow also was, like all broken people, deeply invested in living his own life. He was fine with loving God, but this “love your neighbor as yourself” thing was inconvenient, to say the least.
“Love your neighbor” wasn’t actually the problem. It was the “as yourself” part.
So the lawyer had to ask: “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus answered by telling a story that has become one of the most famous in the Bible, about a man traveling a dangerous road who was attacked by bandits and beaten near death. No one stopped to help except a man who would have been seen as an undesirable sort. This fellow took the risk of stopping on the dangerous road, giving the victim first aid, then taking him to someone who could help him recover – digging deep into his own pocket to cover the cost.
Most people have a capacity for generosity, but we also have a survival instinct. Our old nature powerfully resists the “as yourself” part of “love your neighbor as yourself.” The impulse to self-preservation is so deeply rooted we may not even realize how it controls our thoughts and actions.
Our default mode is “Take care of business.” Our culture tells us to “Look out for No. 1.” Our broken hearts say, “Save yourself.”
Jesus says, “Lose your life for my sake and the sake of the Good News.”
James, the brother of Jesus, wrote about a worthless religion that keeps all the rules but never trusts God enough to take the risk of losing your life for the cause of God’s Kingdom. We might go to church, listen to “love God and your neighbor” preaching and teaching, even read and study the Bible regularly, yet never join God’s mission of doing justice for the oppressed, setting captives free, and teaching others how to walk in God’s ways.
We might love our neighbor with an occasional good deed, but we don’t come anywhere near loving people the way we love ourselves.
Who among us doesn’t take far better care of himself than he does of people in need? How am I loving my neighbor as myself when 98% of my time, talent, and treasure is spent on my own wants and needs? How am I loving my neighbor as myself if I don’t share with others the good news that “captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the downtrodden will be freed from their oppressors, and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come”?
The Way of Jesus is a journey of self-sacrificing service to others. If I want to be on the narrow road that leads to life, I’ve got to put it out there. I’ve got to trust God enough to take the risk of living life his way, instead of my own. I’ve got to multiply God’s justice by showing captives the path to freedom and teaching new disciples how to walk in God’s ways.
The world’s lost and oppressed cry out, “I can’t be healed because I have no one to help me.”
Jesus tells us, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Think about it
What is the best example you have seen of loving a neighbor “as yourself”?
How does your survival instinct make it difficult for you to love your neighbor as yourself?
A life of freedom for beggar girls
Najia Khatun* knows what her life would be like without the Light of Hope Center in Bangladesh. She knows she would be hungry. She knows she would be uneducated. She knows she would be working long hours at a garment factory. Click here to read more.
Next chapter: In captivity and exile