The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


Modifiying with “Good”

Am I truly ready to participate in a community of peculiar, unexplained, and undeserved love?

By Mark Labberton

Gospel Reading: Luke 10:25-37

For Sunday, July 11, 2010: Year C Ordinary 15

Whose neighbor am I?

Love God and love your neighbor, says Jesus, and you will inherit eternal life. This recap of the first and second commandments perhaps seemed formulaic to the Pharisee, who flippantly retorts, “And who is my neighbor?” With this, Jesus turns up the heat.

What follows next is the so-called Parable of the Good Samaritan: a title we use to capture Jesus’ oxymoronic point. Modifying “Samaritan” with “good” would have choked the Pharisee. Too much bad blood. Too much disdain. No neighbor-love lost there. So how and why could the Samaritan be the hero of this or any story, the Pharisee ponders aghast? And in the poignancy of that confident repulsion, Jesus turns the tables on the Pharisee who silently knows the Samaritan is no neighbor to him. And if no neighbor, then no neighbor-love required.

Living as a neighbor makes us a neighbor

While still coughing in disgust, the Pharisee faces what we all must confront if we seek to live Jesus’ way: that the enemy who loves a person in need is more deservedly and truly neighbor than we who in our nearness or acceptability fail to love. Living as a neighbor turns out to be the issue, says Jesus, far more than simply recognizing a neighbor. Living as a neighbor makes us a neighbor.

Don’t worry about who your neighbor may be. Worry instead about whether you are acting as a neighbor; especially when the likelihood, the strain, even the scandal of being one pushes us far beyond what seems desirable or imaginable. This, Jesus says, will be the benchmark of whether we love God and love our neighbor. Fail this? Walk by? Then disdain our enemy who loves when we don’t? And we expose just how little interest we have in following Jesus, and in doing what Jesus both does and commands. By extension, we also make clear what little interest we have in the reality of eternal life: Gods’ love-suffused Kingdom.

The Hardest Question

In drilling down to the hardest question of this text we need to ask why Jesus moves from the identity of the neighbor in the Pharisee’s question, to the act of loving as a neighbor? Jesus’ burden and hope is to accomplish the most difficult thing: that our hearts would come to mirror the heart of God.

“I love humanity. Its people I can’t stand.” This adage captures the dilemma of that which is ordinary enough to actually be invisible to us on most days. But Jesus’ vision sees us as we are and as we are not. Love the world, but fail to love as the neighbor we are meant to be on any given day – not least towards the marginalized, the inconvenient, the unacceptable – and we fail in what matters most.

Do we feel the sting of Jesus’ implicit rebuke? Do we understand that the Kingdom calls us out of our paltry, self-serving, Pharisaical love? Are we willing to confess that we don’t want to be the neighbor Jesus wants to us to be? Do we understand that this puts life eternal on the line because it turns out we don’t actually want what eternal life is for? Above all, ask yourself this hardest question: Am I truly ready to participate in a community of peculiar, unexplained, and undeserved love? And if not, whose neighbor am I? Anyone’s?”

Mark Labberton is the Lloyd John Ogilvie Associate Professor of Preaching and Director of the Lloyd John Ogilvie Institute of Preaching at Fuller Theological Seminary. Prior to that, Mark was a Presbyterian Church (USA) pastor for over 30 years, and he’s the author of The Dangerous Act of Worship: Living God’s Call to Justice.


  1. David S. says:

    The “scandel” of being neighbor. That’s a hard one for me, Mark. I tend to gravite around the ones that I can trust to water my lawn and pick-up my mail when I’m away. NOT the scandelous/scandelizing ones. Ouch.


  1. [...] this Week: � Modifiying with “Good” Facebook | Links on “The Text This Week” Compassion: Three Stories [...]

How do you read?