“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The million-dollar question, I guess.
It’s posed by a so-called Expert in the Law to “test” Jesus.
Does that mean “test” in the sense of trying to catch him out, or in the more honorable sense of seeing how far his wisdom will reach in the face of the hardest question you can think of?
That is to say: if you met God and were allowed to ask one question, what would it be?
But Jesus is either shrewd or sharp. He takes the question and the questioner seriously, at face value, and like a good teacher, uses the question to draw out the student’s own ideas. That’s the meaning of the way “education,” after all, “to lead someone out from where they are to somewhere new.” E Ducere.
The irony is that this is an “Expert in the Law”who is being treated like a kid in kindergarten.
So Jesus answers a question with a question. Note that he doesn’t say “Well what do you think?” but “What is written in the Law?”
There’s a subtext here: Will Jesus overturn “What is written” or not? That criticism was levelled at Jesus constantly, through accusations of sabbath-breaking, food-hygiene laws, the treatment of adulterers and so forth.
But this time it’s more of a life-principle than a specific infraction of a written code at stake. That’s probably why Jesus responds as he does. ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Well, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” Or rather, “How do you interpret what is written?” The second question here is not redundant but an invitation to a qualified expositor to do his stuff. That is to say, if a preacher were asked to explain what the Bible said about a subject, he would give you a string of references and not just one.
So the Expert gives two answers, and combines them. “He answered, ‘“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, “Love your neighbour as yourself.”’ He combines Deuteronomy 6:5 with Leviticus 19:18. Jesus mildly agrees with his assessment.
But “Who is my neighbour?” Luke comments that the man was seeking “to justify himself” with the additional statement. He wants more than Jesus’s bland acceptance of what he has said! – he wants the way to life and seems unwilling to accept that he already knows it! That’s the implication of Jesus’s agreement, isn’t it?
Mark Twain once said that the things that he didn’t understand about the Bible bothered him less than the things he did understand -and didn’t do. And G.K.Chesterton, in a famous exchange, said “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”
Is Jesus hinting that the man knows full well what the answer to his own question is, but is unwilling to put it into practice in his own life?
In any event, the moment gives rise to one of the most well-known stories of the Bible, the story of “The Good Samaritan.” When a man is mugged, three people have an opportunity to help but only one takes it. A priest and a levite ignore the situation but a Samaritan shows compassion. And Jesus asks “Which was a neighbour to the stricken traveller?”
“The expert in the law replied, ‘The one who had mercy on him.’
Jesus told him, ‘Go and do likewise.’ ”
It almost seems as if the word “Samaritan” stuck in the Expert’s throat and he couldn’t quite say it. John said, succinctly, “The Jews had no dealings with the Samaritans.” They were hated outsiders, and not within the strict covenant of Israel, though racially kin. The priest and the levite, on the other hand, were total insiders, but so concerned with the minutiae of the Law that they wanted to avoid ritual uncleanness by touching what may have seemed to them to be a corpse.
Their “laws” prevented them from being loving.
Jesus always made the same response, in many different ways, when challenged on the law. Love and not legalism! “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:13)
So why should the Expert have already known? Precisely because he was an Expert already! He had already noted the perfect reference point to make the case that Jesus made. Leviticus 19 gives explicit instructions for identifying and dealing with your neighbour. Here’s a few clips:
‘Speak to the entire assembly of Israel….
“When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10 Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God….
“Do not defraud or rob your neighbour.
‘“Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight.
14 ‘“Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling-block in front of the blind, but fear your God. I am the Lord.
15 ‘“Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favouritism to the great, but judge your neighbour fairly.
16 ‘“Do not go about spreading slander among your people.
‘“Do not do anything that endangers your neighbour’s life. I am the Lord.
17 ‘“Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your neighbour frankly so that you will not share in their guilt.
18 ‘“Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbour as yourself. I am the Lord….
‘“Stand up in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God. I am the Lord.
33 ‘“When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not ill-treat them. 34 The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”
There’s plenty more to consider, but just think broadly about what these clips imply: compassion and care for the poor and the foreigner; respect and honesty towards neighbours, to hired hands living on the bread line, to the disabled and the elderly; fair treatment of both rich and poor and kindness towards immigrants.
There is no stipulation that they have to accept and live by Israel’s covenantal laws. Indeed, some are there as slaves and not by choice at all! And even they are to be accorded fair treatment. And this is for the “entire assembly.” In the Greek version of this passage, the phrase used is (literally) “whole church”! It’s for the entire collected polyglot People of God. Love. Love. Love. Treat one another as neighbours, and love your neighbours as yourselves.
The Expert knew all that.
He just didn’t want to do it.
He was bound, as we are, by petty jealousies, by a fake patriotism that didn’t recognise the overarching principle of being the “entire assembly,” the family of God, characterised by “mercy and not sacrifice.” He was riven with racism, with a hatred and a fear of the outsiders. Dwellers in Jerusalem even looked down on people from Galilee and called it “Galilee of the Gentiles” and mocked their northern accent. They despised the Samaritans as we’ve seen; they discouraged the Syro-Phoenician woman; they hated the Romans…. and where does it end?
And Jesus replied: Even your own precious written law tells it straight. All you have to do is do what you already know to do.
And this is how you inherit eternal life. This is how you transform a world that is split into factions and fear-filled armies hiding in their trenches.
You either build walls or bridges. As Edwin Markham put it:
“They drew a line that shut me out,
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout!
But love and I had the wit to win
We drew a circle and brought them in.”
Go and do likewise.