Defining Love

And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And 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 answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” (Luke 10:25-28)

These few verses introduce one of the most famous stories found in the Bible, the parable of the Good Samaritan. If you have grown up around any religious community, then you have likely heard many sermons and classes on this one passage.  

It is a text that is easy to preach, but it is a text that is not always preached well.  

I remember hearing many sermons about the good Samaritan while growing up. It is possible that I did not listen as carefully as I should have to those lessons, and I may have missed something, but the gist of them all seemed to be about being a good neighbor. According to many preachers and Sunday school teachers, Luke’s interest is in making sure we stop and help the stranded motorist on the side of the road. This story has been secularized, and some preachers have helped rob this story of its power.  

When we come to the story of the good Samaritan, we often hone in on the neighbor part of the text. In verse 29, the teacher of the law asks, “And who is my neighbor?” This leads Jesus to tell the story we all know well. What we sometimes forget is that this encounter begins with a discussion of the two greatest commands. Is Jesus challenging this man’s notions of who is his neighbor?  Certainly, and this should be pointed out and discussed, but at the same time, we must acknowledge the broader context. Jesus is using this story to define what it means to love.

Love is central to the Christian faith. God is love. The greatest commands are to love God and love others. It is essential that we correctly understand what love is. This has become difficult in recent years because we live in a culture obsessed with love, but that doesn’t comprehend the essence of love. If you pay attention to events and happenings in society, then you will hear the word love used quite often. People claim they stand for love or they are fighting for love, but what does all this mean? I would guess that if you pressed people, they would have a difficult time defining it themselves. They may say that love is the opposite of hate. What many people mean by love is a feeling of happiness or a desire that is fulfilled. It is whatever makes them happy. Here we begin to get closer to how the world understands love. It is inward focused. It is about doing whatever it is one wants.  

What the story of the good Samaritan reveals is that love is self-sacrificial. Love always costs us something. If we are not sacrificing, then we are not truly loving. This is the opposite of what many people think love is today. Love is outward focused, not inward focused. We naturally think of ourselves. We have to protect ourselves. We have to feed ourselves. We have to clothe ourselves. We think about ourselves so much that we don’t even realize we are doing it. However, Jesus calls us to deny ourself, pick up our cross, and follow him. He invites us to a live a different way, a way that is dominated by love.  

The Samaritan in the story understands what it means to love. He sacrifices his time to stop and help this man. He sacrifices his possessions by using the oil and wine he has to help this man heal from his wounds. He sacrifices his comfort by allowing the injured man to ride on his animal while he walks. He sacrifices his money by paying the innkeeper for the man’s stay and promising to return. To love is to sacrifice for the other.  

It would be easier to define love as an emotion. If all we had to do was feel good about one another, then that wouldn’t cost us anything. The Samaritan could have said to the man on the side of the road, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled” and continued on his way. He could have sent him good vibes or wished him well without ever stopping. A love like this requires no sacrifice, but it would also be denying the power of the gospel. Jesus showed his love for us when he willingly went to the cross. Jesus’ love for us cost him his life. This is the love we are to imitate in our own lives.  

Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned against cheap grace. I would encourage us all to be careful of those who would preach a cheap gospel. Love is not whatever we want it to be. Love is not defined by the culture in which we live. Love is not whatever makes us feel good. Love is a bloody cross. It is a beaten and bruised Savior who lays down his life for us. It is a God who takes on flesh and is willing to die. This is love and to distort it in any way is to distort the gospel.  

Love God and love others. The greatest commands seem so simple, and yet when we truly begin to understand what love is, we know they are far from simple. To obey these commands will cost us something. To love is to sacrifice. It is to give ourselves to God and others. This is what the Christian faith is all about.  

Scott Elliott is a graduate of Oklahoma State University and Austin Graduate School of Theology. He lives in La Grange, TX and is the minister for the La Grange Church of Christ. He is married and has two sons. He enjoys writing about the Christian faith and posting the occasional film review. His articles and reviews have appeared in RELEVANT magazine, Englewood Review of Books, and other publications.