Luke 10:25-37 CEB
A legal expert stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to gain eternal life?”
Jesus replied, “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?”
He responded, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”
But the legal expert wanted to prove that he was right, so he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Jesus replied, “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He encountered thieves, who stripped him naked, beat him up, and left him near death. Now it just so happened that a priest was also going down the same road. When he saw the injured man, he crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. Likewise, a Levite came by that spot, saw the injured man, and crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. A Samaritan, who was on a journey, came to where the man was. But when he saw him, he was moved with compassion. The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, tending them with oil and wine. Then he placed the wounded man on his own donkey, took him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day, he took two full days’ worth of wages and gave them to the innkeeper. He said, ‘Take care of him, and when I return, I will pay you back for any additional costs.’ What do you think? Which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who encountered thieves?”
Then the legal expert said, “The one who demonstrated mercy toward him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
Last week, I mentioned how as people and as Christians we like to complicate the straightforward asks of God, turning into philosophers and lawyers as we try to stall with questions. In desiring control through our pride, we throw up any and all roadblocks that will keep us from having to do what we are asked in hopes that God will come around and let us do them our way. This week, we now have a lawyer, and he’s asking questions like “Who is my neighbor?” The first thing you might be asking yourself is whether this lawyer is trying to complicate the simple command of God to love the Lord and neighbor. After last week’s sermon, you may think you know the answer. Now, have you ever heard it said, “Don’t ask a question you are not prepared to receive the answer to?” When we want to be in control, we do not ask questions of the one with the answers when we do not want those answers. In other words, do not ask God a question like “Who are my neighbors?” unless you are prepared for an answer. We will only ask questions like this when we are sure we will get the answer we like which means we aren’t asking Jesus, for Jesus will answer our question, usually with another question which makes us all even more uncomfortable. This lawyer, who is often portrayed as adversarial or at least self-righteous, actually is doing what we should all be doing in our faith walk. Rather than relying on our own certainty or habits, we need to check in with God, to ask the questions that may come back with hard answers to keep us searching for the path laid out by Christ to follow him.
We have all probably heard the story of the Good Samaritan, but have we ever spent much time talking about the lawyer whose questions prompted this parable? What do we know about lawyers from Luke’s gospel? First of all, we know that Luke does not like lawyers, portraying them in a negative light throughout much of the gospel, including here. These lawyers, nomikos in Greek, are probably scribes, professional interpreters of Torah, the Law of Moses, and though bad guys in Luke’s gospel, they were usually well regarded by Jewish people at the time. Often helping people understand how the Torah applies to their daily lives. Luke, however, wants us to think of lawyers as the bad guys, and does a lot in the gospel to try and make this clear.
First, Luke has this lawyer address Jesus as “Teacher” which sounds respectful, but Luke’s preferred title for Jesus is Kyrios, Lord, so anytime someone calls Jesus a teacher, things get testy! For instance, in Luke 9:38, a father with a sick child calls Jesus a teacher before asking him to heal his child, to which Jesus responds by lumping the man in with the “faithless and crooked generation” before healing the child. Throughout Luke, calling Jesus “Teacher” will get you into trouble because it means you fail to see Jesus as the Lord.
Second, we are told the lawyer intends to “test Jesus” by asking his question, “what must I do to gain eternal life?” The word for “test” here is the same Greek word that we translate as temptation in the Lord’s prayer, so we usually pray to God to avoid these kinds of testings! This lawyer, according to Luke, is perfectly comfortable testing God. It puts him in the same role as the devil in the wilderness who also tempted or tested Jesus. This is not a role you want to be in if you are one of the righteous!
Finally, in asking “what must I do” he is using a verb tense in Greek that tells us he is looking for a “single, limited action” to take. Here the lawyer is looking for some simple, one-time thing he can do to check off his list and get eternal life. Can he just recite some kind of prayer, drop twenty dollars in the collection plate, or maybe just bring some canned chicken to the food bank to get what he wants and be done?
Now, the lawyer could have honestly been asking about how to lead a righteous life, but Luke does not want us to see it that way. Luke sees the scribes and Pharisees as opponents to the kingdom of God that Jesus is ushering into the world. They would lock it up behind a wall of law and rules, while Jesus would open it to the poor, oppressed, and Gentiles. Now, Jesus could have been dismissive or critical with this lawyer like he had elsewhere in Luke’s gospel when engaging with lawyers, but instead, here he talks with the man, answering his questions, just not in the way the lawyer expects. When the lawyer asks his question, Jesus instead responds not with an answer but by asking him a question of his own: “What is in the Law?” Law here is Torah, so Jesus is asking the man what he already knows for the lawyer is able to read and understand the written Torah (literacy was uncommon in those days), and Jesus asks him a follow-up question, “How do you interpret it,” or more literally, “How do you read?” Namely, through what understanding do you view all of Torah?
The lawyer responds not by talking about eternal life, because the Torah cares very little about eternal life. Instead, Torah is “more interested in how to live in the present.” The lawyer responds by giving an answer that tells how to live now and follow God now, namely that “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.’” The lawyer combines two separate passages, Deuteronomy 6:5 with Leviticus 19:18, to come up with his understanding of Torah. This verse from Deuteronomy invokes the rest of the surrounding passage in Deuteronomy that not only recognizes God as the one God but also says that this truth, to love God must be taught to future generations and be inscribed on every corner of your life. The second from Leviticus is followed in that book by all the ways we must actively love our neighbor, like avoiding theft and caring for the poor and the ill. This understanding is more than the letter of the Law but rather putting love into action, teaching it to your children, and keeping it before you all the days of your life.
Jesus responds by telling the lawyer that he has got things right and that he should “‘Do this and you will live.’” Here “do” has shifted from being a one-time action to an imperative for ongoing action. Rather than focusing on eternal life, the lawyer must enter into a life-long relationship with God and with his neighbor to live righteously. Now of course, if the lawyer were good, he would stop here and thank Jesus for the lesson, but he instead asks another question, “‘And who is my neighbor?’” Really, the lawyer is asking another question: “Who isn’t my neighbor?” or “Who can I ignore and who can I hate?” or “Who does not deserve my love?” He wants to stop short of the understanding of Torah, of living, he has just pronounced.
Here is where the lawyer does us a favor. By asking the question, the lawyer is asking whether he has gotten things right, to see if the answer he gave was really sufficient. Perhaps in his heart of hearts, he did not want it to be sufficient, he wanted Jesus to say, “You’re right! There are people you do not need to love for they are your enemies or foreigners or immoral!” Jesus instead responds by telling a story, where an enemy, of all people, provides compassion and care when those who know the Torah ignore their understanding to love God and love neighbor entirely. You’ll notice that we often call this story, “The Good Samaritan,” which is very odd because Jesus never calls him good. To put it another way, how does it sound if I say, “I am going to tell you the story of The Good White Man or The Good American.” What does that tell you? This one person is an exception to the rule! The others are still our enemies or bad but this one, through his exceptional actions gets a pass. We still, like the lawyer, are saying that we do not have to love everyone because those other Samaritans are still a bunch of jerks!
While the lawyer may have meant the question to prove that he was right, we can use his question and the kind of response he gets from Jesus for our own discipleship into the Kingdom of God. How often do you ask yourself the very simple question, “Who is my neighbor?” How often do you ask it of God? How often do you ask whether you have been loving your neighbor after saying or doing something? We have to keep asking ourselves what it means to follow Jesus, to love God, and to love our neighbor. This matters in the way going to the eye doctor matters. How long does it take before you realize that need a new pair of glasses? Maybe you’ve never worn glasses before, how do you know that you cannot see well? Chances are you won’t know. The change is so gradual that without those regular appointments with the eye doctor, you might never notice that your vision is getting worse. It is not until you get that new pair or put on a pair of lenses for the first time that you notice that you had not been seeing well at all! My wife, Caitlin, shared with me once that before she got her first pair of glasses, she thought everyone saw a lot of things as she did. Looking around at the outside world, it was not until she put on her first pair of glasses that she found out that you should be able to see the individual leaves on trees rather than a great green shimmering blob. The changes can be so gradual that we never notice that a distorted view becomes our reality.
Likewise, we need to keep checking in by asking ourselves, earnestly and honestly, “Who is my neighbor?” Even a lawyer trained in Torah did not notice that he was not following his understanding of Torah, to love God and to love neighbor, without asking this kind of question. At the end of Jesus’ story about the Samaritan, he again tells the lawyer, to go and do. Again, Jesus reminds the lawyer that to follow God is not to check a box so we get eternal life, but rather it is to enter into a relationship with love divine, through loving God and neighbor. To check in with God might lead us to unexpected places where we might have to love an enemy, a foreigner, and perhaps even someone not like ourselves. To do otherwise is to let our vision go bad until we can no longer see God let alone follow him. Amen.
Pastor Paul Grossman