August 12, 2007

The Wise Person’s Relationships: Neighbors
Proverbs 3:27-28
Luke 10:25-37

The Proverb this morning on “The Wise Person’s Relationships: Neighbors” is 3:27-28 which states, “Do not withhold good from those who deserve it, " when it is in your power to act. Do not say to your neighbor, ‘Come back later; I’ll give it tomorrow’ – when you now have it with you.” As we talk this morning about neighbors, I’d like to share a story that I am sure many of you are familiar with. This story is found in Luke 10:25-37.
Just then an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. " ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your 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.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’ Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins, " gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’ Now, again, I know this isn’t necessarily a new story to most of you, but I’d like to look at the first four verses for a moment before we move on.

The expert in the law asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. He had studied the law and already knew the answer. He knew the Old Testament and its commands. He took his two part answer directly from what he knew so well. Deuteronomy 6:5 states, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” From Leviticus 19:18, he knew that one must “love your neighbor as yourself.” These commands are what we have been given from the beginning. Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Do you think that we might be like the expert, continuing to ask questions that we already know the answers to? Jesus said to love the Lord and love your neighbor. So the question we should be asking is “What does it mean to love our neighbors?”

There are numerous areas of the Bible which will answer this question. Today, we are going to continue the summer sermon series and look at Proverbs 3:27-28 for answers. In order to get a clear picture of what we are being taught in these verses, we will look at the whole of chapter 3 to discover why we are to love our neighbors for if we don’t we may have missed the point in loving our neighbors.

The opening section of chapter 3, verses 1-10, looks at how we are to be in personal relationship with God through discipline and obedience. There are five specific things that we are told. We are told not forget what we have been taught, but to keep His commands in our hearts. We are told not to let loyalty and faithfulness leave us. We are told to trust in the Lord with all our heart and not depend on our own understanding. We are told to fear the Lord and not be wise in our own eyes for we are unable to see the whole picture. We are told to honor the Lord with our substance and give the best of who we are. If we do these things, we will be able to live a faithful and full life, we will be in right relationship with God, and wisdom then becomes an illumination in our hearts rather than just education for our minds. We are to love Him. We are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our might.

The second part, verses 11-18, tells us to not despise the Lord’s discipline. It focuses on God teaching and correcting us because of His love for us. It tells us that when we obey, we receive a complete life that only comes from God’s wisdom. These two sections make clear that God wants to love us and guide us as a parent would his or her children. As a child, you know this doesn’t mean you like everything you are told, but you trust that the one in authority over you has your well-being in mind. These verses are about having right attitudes that are focused on God, rather than our own interests. Only when we have these right attitudes and are in right relationship with God, can we truly love our neighbors as ourselves.

The last part of Chapter 3, verses 19-35, gives clear instruction on how we should actually love others. From the beginning of Chapter 3, we see ways in which we are to be in relationship with God. We are given examples that show how God cares and provides for us. This ending section of Proverbs 3 calls us to imitate how God loves and cares for us. It is in this imitation of God and how he loves us that we are able to love our neighbors. If we love God, we will obey Him. We will love our neighbors and add a divine element to each of our human relationships. This is what it means to love our neighbors as ourselves. The whole of chapter 3 encourages us to seek God for His wisdom and to love Him. If we do this, it will lead to changes in our attitudes which will lead to changes in our actions.

So, as we think about what God is asking or, maybe a better way to put this is, requires of us, let’s look at our main focus for today: What does it mean to love our neighbor? Proverbs 3:27-28 gives us practical instruction to help us love our neighbors. It says, “Do not withhold good from those who deserve it, " when it is in your power to act. Do not say to your neighbor, ‘Come back later; I’ll give it tomorrow’—when you now have it with you.” Interestingly, Proverbs does not give specific instructions which enable us to have an answer for every opportunity that comes our way. We need God’s wisdom to interpret what we should do in each of the situations we come across. This is why being attuned to God’s ways is so important.

So, what should we do? Wisdom tells us, in verse 27, not to withhold good from those who deserve it. What exactly is “good” and how do we know who deserves it? To answer these questions, we must remember what Proverbs 3 tells us about God’s love for us and what He expects from us.

First, let’s look at the beginning part of verse 27 which tells us to not withhold good. I believe it’s often easy for us to think of the tangible or physical things that we do for folks: things like providing a hot meal, a place to sleep, giving clothes to the needy, money to a friend for car repairs, or any number of other things. However, I believe it means more than this. It means to do what is in the best interest of the person. This could mean physical things, but it could also mean things we intentionally do not provide or it could even mean just having a conversation with someone.

Several years ago, before I was even at Grantham, I learned of someone who desperately wanted to help her 24-year-old son. He was moving away and needed financial assistance to do this. His mother willingly gave him funds. She also gave him her bank card so he could access more funds when he needed them. After about six months, during which time he withdrew funds regularly and her bank account went into the negative on more than one occasion, she told me what was happening and how she had had numerous conversations with him about what funds he could take out and when. We had several unpleasant conversations about how she was hurting herself by continuing to allow him to take advantage of her. We talked about how helping him out should mean more than giving him money when he was not being respectful of her or responsible with the funds she gave him. We had hard conversations about how withholding things is sometimes really the best thing one can do for a person.

About six months later, she cancelled the bank card that her son had. He, as you can imagine, was not pleased with her. He ended up going through a really tough time, at one point living out of his car. However, in time, he realized that she did what she did out of love for him. He is now working, has his own place, and is attending college. She still sends funds to him every now and then, but it is on her terms instead of his whims. She made a difficult decision and out of love for her son, she chose to withhold the money because it was not helping him learn to care for himself.

I know during this time I frequently thought I would rather not talk with her about their situation. After all, who wants to upset or possibly hurt a friend? I thought things like, “It’s really none of my business” or “I’m sure I don’t know the whole situation.” I had any number of thoughts that would have helped me not have these conversations. However, through prayer and in looking at what it means to not withhold good from someone, I am convinced that I would have been withholding good from her had we not had those difficult conversations. It was because of love that we talked even though the circumstances were challenging.

The second part of Proverbs 3:27 states, “from those who deserve it.” Don’t we often tend to put parameters on those whom we are to love? We try to find loopholes that enable us to only love those with whom we are comfortable–people that we understand or have something in common with. Yet, think about how God loves us. He loves us regardless of who we are, what we have done, or even how we respond to Him. He loves us unconditionally and because of this love disciplines us when we are in need of it. He does this regardless of whether we deserve it or not out of love. He loves us because of who He is, not because of anything we can or could do for none of us deserve His love.

Therefore, if none of us really deserve it, this verse must be about more than a person’s worth. We are told to love like God loves us. It is in His nature to love, but He loves us in ways that are best for us. Therefore, we don’t always get everything we want. He withholds things from us at times when it is for our benefit. We should imitate God’s love. This means there will be times when we need to withhold good from someone. Take the example I just talked about with the mother and her son. She needed to withhold good, the money, from her son not only because it was hurting her, but more specifically because his actions of spending frivolously and treating her poorly. Frankly, he didn’t deserve the continued resources. He was irresponsible. As you can see, we must seek God’s wisdom. Only when we do can our hearts be changed, our attitudes be different, and our actions reflect Him rather than our own selfish nature.

When we have God’s wisdom and think like He does, we think solely of what is best for the person…not what is easiest for us to do, or what will take the shortest amount of time, or cause the least amount of confrontation. Therefore as we think about the other person, we learn to put their needs above ours and love our neighbors as ourselves.

The second part of our focus passage, verse 28, tells us that if you can help our neighbor now, don’t tell them to come back tomorrow and then you’ll help them. For example, someone you know asks for a ride home from work because their car broke down. In the moment that follows this question, you have a choice to make. Will you take the extra couple of minutes to take this person home, or will you make an excuse for why you cannot help them? Maybe you’ve had a long day yourself and you’re tired, or there’s a championship game on television tonight, or your family dinner is at 5:30 p.m. sharp. Will you give these or many other excuses as to why you cannot help? Will you say, “Sorry, I can’t tonight, but I can bring you home tomorrow if you need a ride.” Often these discussions happen in our own minds in a matter of seconds. Maybe this example was an easy one for you. It’s not hard to think we’d give someone a ride home. One time things don’t interrupt our lives too much.

However, what about something that wasn’t just a one time thing? I think about the many opportunities there are here at Grantham to serve our neighbors on an ongoing basis, those who sit next to you in these pews and those who are in our surrounding community. You could help with childcare either in our nursery or toddler room. You could teach Sunday School. You could be a greeter or an usher. Or you could become a Stephen Minister. Soon, we will be implementing Stephen Ministries here at Grantham. You could learn to be a care giver that provides love and support to those in need on a one-on-one basis both in our congregation and our surrounding community.

Take a look at what your passions are and use them here. God gave them to you. If you have a passion that doesn’t fall into the service opportunities available at Grantham, let us know what it is. We want to help you use the passion and gifts God has given you to love our neighbors. What will you do? Are you willing to love your neighbors? Or are you one who will pass on an opportunity to love as God does?

As we continue to seek God’s wisdom and He makes changes in our attitudes, our actions will change. These verses in Proverbs directly address our attitudes. If we are not in right relationship with God and therefore do not have the right attitude, we will succumb to our own desires and put ourselves first.

What will you do? God tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves. This is not a command to follow when it’s convenient to us. Yet, without having God’s wisdom in us, we are susceptible to our own selfishness. This verse is not about whether you have the money or the time to help someone. It is about having a generous spirit. It is about being obedient to what God calls us to do. It means we help instantly and often. It means we do not put off our help until some future unknown time when it fits better into our schedules. It means we do not withhold those conversations that we would rather not have. It means we love our neighbors as God loves us.

Let’s look back at the Luke passage. I find Jesus’ story fascinating. The parable states that first, by chance, a priest came down the road and passed by on the other side. Then a Levite came and also passed by on the other side of the road. It’s interesting to me that both people who would have known God’s command to love our neighbors chose to pass by on the other side of the road. These were the good guys. These were the ones we would expect to help the man. Yet, they didn’t. We can speculate and possibly even justify why they didn’t help. Maybe they understood the Old Testament teaching as law, but were unsure of whom their neighbors were, or maybe they thought they would become unclean by helping. If the man was already dead and the priest touched him, he would be considered unclean for seven days. He would have had to be ceremoniously cleansed or risk being removed from his community. Obviously, this would have been a difficult choice for him to make. We could continue to speculate why these men did not help, but the reality is they did nothing.

However, as we have seen today, Proverbs clearly instructs us in ways that go far beyond just a command to follow. It takes us past that and moves loving our neighbors to a heart and attitude issue. The priest and the Levite, failed not only in their understanding of God’s command, but also in His love. If they were in right relationship with God and had His attitudes in them, they would not have been able to pass by on the other side of the road. They would have been obedient, showed mercy, and obeyed His command to love our neighbors. Jesus makes it very clear that helping is what God expects regardless of whether it means making tough decisions or a personal sacrifice.

Yet, the parable continues and states that a Samaritan was passing by and took pity on the man. He cleaned and bandaged his wounds, put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. Then he went even further and paid the innkeeper money to care for the man while he left to complete his business, telling him he would cover whatever other expenses were incurred when he returned. In the eyes if the expert in the law, the Samaritan would have been the non-neighbor in this story. This man would have been the least likely to help. A Samaritan of all people, someone considered to be like a half-breed or some kind of renegade. This person would have been the least likely to show any signs of compassion. However, Jesus showed this man to be filled with mercy and compassion – God’s traits, God’s attitudes.

Jesus continued by asking the expert in the law, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The expert in the law said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Clearly we are to see that everyone is our neighbor and that we are to help any in need. This is what Proverbs calls us to do through God’s love for us, His wisdom in us, and our obedience to follow Him by loving our neighbors. Which person in the story are you?

In the last part of the parable, Jesus tells the expert in the law to, ‘Go and do likewise.’ We are commanded to do this. As I think about the two men who refused to help the broken man, I can’t help but think that they should have done something, anything.

I recognize that not all people have a passion or even a desire to reach out to their neighbors in love. Yet, Proverbs encourages us to grow in our right attitudes, to obey God and love others. This is our command. How else can we grow and become more like Him if we don’t step out of our comfort zone and give the Spirit opportunity to work in us? He doesn’t ask that we take all the steps that the Samaritan did in this parable. He went above and beyond what would have been expected, but He asks us to do something! He wants the chance to help us grow and make our attitudes like His.

I don’t think anyone here would want to be the priest or Levite in this story, but that then means each one of us must step up and do something – fill a need, have a conversation – and let our love for our neighbors be a representation of God’s love here on earth. Having the knowledge of what we are supposed to do is not enough. Wisdom is not an end in itself; it just acts as a blueprint of what our attitudes should be towards others. Remember Jesus’ last line in the story. He tells the expert, and each one of us, to go and do like the Samaritan did. What will you do?