Luke 10:25–29 is John Wesley’s favourite passage to show why a Christian would relentlessly pursue perfection or holiness, both scriptural and social.
As we launch our MCS 135 celebrations, let this Scripture remind us of this important confession of every Methodist: to love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind, and to love our neighbour in the same way.
These statements were in the response given by a lawyer to a question he himself had put to Jesus: “Which is the greatest commandment of all?” While the encounter is also recorded in Matt 22:36–40 and Mark 12:30–31, it is only in Luke’s account where we learn that Jesus turned the question back to the lawyer by asking: “What is written in the law? How do you read it?”
1. How the lawyer answered his own question (v25–26)
Every devout Jew would have memorised these scriptures: Shema—listen, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deut 6:5) and “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Lev 19:18).
The lawyer had come ready with an answer and recited these verses confidently. When Jesus said, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live,” the lawyer must have been very pleased and proud of himself. In fact, this episode revealed his rather literal and clichéd understanding of the Law. As far as he was concerned, inheriting eternal life depended on one’s actions and behaviour.
2. A long-standing principle that is easier said than done (v27–28)
To the lawyer, to love God means that one must “do or perform” adequately all the required religious rituals. This would not only be enough to demonstrate and satisfy the greatest commandment, but even add to one’s credit and merit for loving God. With such teaching by their religious leaders, the Jews strove to follow the Law carefully as the way to eternal life. This may seem simple and straightforward, but is in fact very difficult to do. This is an age-old tenet that is easier said than done.
As for loving one’s neighbours, this is probably even harder than loving God. This is because it is harder to get along with those we can see than the God we cannot see. Even if we come from the same background or the same family, we all have different personalities and temperaments. How then can we love our neighbour as ourselves?
What more when there are no rules or guidelines to define or classify who counts as a neighbour. In the lawyer’s mind was a rather conventional and rigid understanding of loving one’s neighbour. This exposed a blind spot and inconsistency in his beliefs—that is, a neighbour was entirely by his personal choice and decision.
That is why he went on to ask: “And who is my neighbour?”
3. What shall I do? (v29)
In response, Jesus told the parable of the good Samaritan, which is not recorded in any other gospel.
In this story, after the man was beaten up by robbers, the first characters to come onto the scene were a priest and a Levite. From young, they had learnt to recite the Shema scriptures in Deut 6:5 and Lev 19:18. The Bible says they “saw”, and they “passed by on the other side”!
Only the Samaritan’s heart was moved by the sight. He came forward to pick the man up, put him on his donkey to bring him to an inn and took care of him.
In Jesus’ time, Samaritans were in the group labelled “Not my neighbour”. Being a people of mixed blood and apostates, Samaritans were not part of God’s elect. They were not under God’s blessing, and certainly not on the list of neighbours for the likes of the lawyer.
But when Jesus asked the lawyer, “Of these three—the priest, the Levite, the Samaritan—who is the neighbour to the man who was robbed and beaten?”, the lawyer was able to say: “The Samaritan, the one who had mercy on him.”
In asking “Who is the neighbour of the man who was robbed?”, Jesus was actually asking the lawyer to consider “Who is [your] neighbour?” He could just as well have asked: “Whose neighbour [are you]?” If the Samaritan could become the neighbour of the man who was assaulted, then could not the lawyer also become the neighbour of someone in need?
Jesus is also reminding us not to ask: “Who is my neighbour?” Instead, we are to ask: “Whose neighbour am I?” He is also saying to us that “Loving a neighbour requires the same kind of effort that we put into loving God, that is with all our heart and all our mind”.
This then is the spiritual formation that John Wesley sought to fulfil in his life. He constantly persuaded his congregation towards a lifetime of pursuing holiness. And this holiness is both inward and outward.
Inward holiness means to believe, trust, love, worship, imitate and obey God with our whole heart and mind and strength. Outward holiness is to love our neighbour—which includes anyone and everyone. John Wesley often emphasised that outward holiness must be seen in our responses towards our neighbours.
In his tract, “The Character of a Methodist”, Wesley highlighted eight traits:
- Always joyful
- Gives thanks in all circumstances
- Prays unceasingly
- Loves God and loves his neighbour
- Is pure in heart
- Does the will of God
- Does no evil, by word or action
- Does good to all men, including neighbours, strangers, friends and enemies.
As members of The Methodist Church in Singapore in 2020, our daily lives must demonstrate the spiritual fruit of a life pursuing inward and outward holiness. Wesley acknowledged that this is a discipline requiring others to provide mutual support and accountability. He suggested two ways:
Firstly, the believer must live in the grace of God. Only God’s infinite grace can renew and sustain us spiritually to live holy lives. By such means of grace, including the study of Scripture, prayer, fasting, the communion of saints, the breaking of bread, private and corporate worship, Christians may train to live godly lives. We are then able to have grace in abundance, sufficient to love and care for others through what John Wesley called “works of piety”.
Secondly, believers must have others journeying with them in holy living. Wesley stressed that Christians must be in connection with others for healthy spiritual lives and growth. John Wesley said that unless we engage in works of mercy—meaning good works done to others, including neighbours, strangers, friends and enemies—devout worship on its own is quite meaningless.
When Methodists are connected, many things that individuals or small groups are unable to accomplish become possible and can be done well. Only then can we demonstrate a more fruitful and abundant Body of Christ.
Whose neighbour am I?
John Wesley and many of his followers lived their lives caring for the poor, weak and sick, regardless of whether they believed in the Lord or not.
As we Methodists celebrate 135 years of church planting in Singapore, we must remember that it is God who put us in Singapore that we may become good neighbours with its citizens and residents. Therefore, MCS 135 is not just our own celebration with fellow Methodists. We must include our neighbours of 135 years—people from all walks of life and friends of different faiths, races and languages, from near and far—to share God’s blessings on the Methodist church. We want to share these rich blessings with our neighbours.
Let us love God and serve together. May God bless our neighbours and our nation.
This is an abridged version of the sermon that Bishop Dr Chong Chin Chung preached at Wesley Methodist Church’s 135th anniversary on 16 Feb 2020, which also marked the launch of the MCS 135 celebrations.