Heard an amusing story, probably apocryphal, about W.C. Fields upon his death bed.
A friend caught Fields, a notorious agnostic, flipping through the bible. "What are you doing?" his friend asked. "Finding religion?"
"Looking for loopholes!" came the reply.
In Luke 10 an expert in biblical law approached Jesus looking for loopholes. "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" he asked to test the waters.
Love God; love your neighbor.
Impossible, when it comes right down to it. And this duty to one's fellow man, so inconvenient!
"But who is my neighbor?" he asked, spotting a possible out. Depending on the definition of neighbor, this command might be do-able after all. In response, Jesus tells a story about serving those in need.
" . . . So finally, there was this Samaritan," Jesus concludes in a surprise twist of plot. A surprise, that is, for the listeners who were snug in their relational blankets. For Jesus asked this law expert, "Who played the neighbor in this story?"
Hmm. Well. [Cough, cough] I suppose the Samaritan was the neighbor.
So answer your own question - Who is your neighbor? The plot twist reveals that it is not so much the person in need whom we are to love, it is the alien, the Samaritan who acted neighborly. Our neighbor then is the outcast; the person with whom we wouldn't naturally associate.
This path of service is a difficult path. Especially for us mortals who are bent on securing immortality through self-righteous acts. But if that's what we have to do... So we clarify the question: Will this hard path lead to eternal life? If so, let's buckle down and get to work.
But the bible answers, honestly, no. For even good samaritans fall short of perfect obedience to God's standard of perfect love. Loving one's neighbor will never move us toward salvation. It's merely an expression of it.
This, then, is the real test. Is our relationship with Christ overflowing into every relationship (with those we care for and with those we don't) out of a response to his love? God will place the outcast in our path, will we stop and care for this person? It's a daily take-home exam; and one that I often fail. But there's freedom even then.
No, I haven't found a loophole. I've simply discovered that in Christ I'm set free of the tyranny of trying to secure eternal life through self-effort. You see, at one point, I was that alien on the side of the road, helpless and dying. And the Good Samaritan stopped, bound up my wounds, and soothed my soul. In response to his great neighborly love, I now, imperfectly yet aided by God's Spirit, watch for others who need to receive the healing touch I've experienced.
This is finding religion.
© 2005 Lyndon Perry
Permission granted to reprint this article.