“Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it.”
I came across this verse recently as I was reading through the book of Proverbs during my morning devotional. It strikes me as a blow to our highly individualistic mindset and cultural expectations in the 21st-century United States. It is, in fact, an indictment of my own often hyper-independence and fractured tendency to turn ever inward, looking out mainly for myself, my family, and those closest to me. And I thought of a famous conversation Jesus had in the Gospel of Luke.
In this particular story, Jesus is approached by a so-called expert in the Law. He wants to know how to inherit eternal life. Jesus asks him what he thinks, and the expert answers well. He says that the keys are to love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. And then it gets really interesting. Because in verse 29 of chapter 10, Luke tells us that this man, most likely well-versed in right and wrong, good and evil and how to worship God appropriately, had at that moment a particular desire. He wanted to “justify himself.” The Greek word for justify translates as “render just or innocent.” He wanted to demonstrate his innocence before this teacher, Jesus. And in order to accomplish that he asked Jesus the following question: “And who is my neighbor?”
Jesus goes on to tell a brilliant parable about a man in dire straits and a “good Samaritan” who comes to his aid after both a priest and a Levite ignore his plight and avoid him entirely. I think what has sometimes resulted from the preaching of this parable in some modern churches is a warm, fuzzy feeling about how we need to help others and how wonderful it is when we witness acts of kindness. And we do, and it is. We also hear how the Samaritan was rejected in Jewish society but turned out to be the hero of the tale. So the lesson is that we shouldn’t judge people based on how they differ from us. And that’s certainly true, too. But we miss so much of the depth and richness of the truth Jesus was imparting if we stop there.
The expert in the law was most likely a “good” man. He probably regularly attended synagogue, paid his taxes, didn’t steal or cheat and was well-respected in his village. And yet, somewhere inside even he knew that wasn’t enough, because in his heart he was seeking to justify himself. He needed to prove his blamelessness. And my guess is that he needed to do that because he recognized that there were some people he felt deserved his love and some he’d prefer to ignore. And maybe he wondered if Jesus would give him a pass on the latter group.
What does all of this have to do with immigrants and immigration? Everything, I think. Often, we American Christians, particularly white Christians, are adept at pontificating on laws and restrictions, right and wrong, and what constitutes good behavior. Laws exist for a reason. Right and wrong are absolutely fundamental concepts. But to quote Francis Schaeffer, “Biblical orthodoxy without compassion is surely the ugliest thing in the world.” To put it another way, expertise in the Law or perhaps even “perfect” theology by itself is weak, powerless, and ultimately useless in the Kingdom of God.
If we are moving ever closer to the full and complete reign of Christ over the entirety of creation, what does that mean for followers of Jesus? How can we both participate in and welcome the flourishing of all of humanity that we look forward to in the culmination of His sovereign plan of salvation? Jesus gives us some indication elsewhere in the gospel. In Matthew, in the Sermon on the Mount, He says, “Blessed are the Peacemakers.” And one way we can “make peace” here and now is to welcome in His name those who are suffering. Some of our neighbors are fleeing violence, poverty, and injustice. They’re not at peace. We can help. We can make peace by not withholding the good they are due: protection, provision, and fair and righteousness judgment in the tradition of Solomon and the wisdom of Jesus.
I think we can glean two more truths from the story of the Good Samaritan. One is that we are utterly unable to justify ourselves. Our love of neighbor is often severely lacking. Jesus knew this, and his story cuts straight to the heart of our resistance and rebellion. But powerfully, Jesus Himself is the Good Samaritan in our own story. He sought us out, wounded and dying in our brokenness and sin, and He paid the ultimate price to offer us rescue and salvation.
Because of Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf, we can walk into the abundant life of love for God and the world He created. We can follow our Savior on the path of mercy, compassion and love for our immigrant neighbors.