So, there’s this guy. He’s an expert in the scriptures, and he wants to test Jesus, so he asks, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Now, first there is the issue of the question of whether there’s anything we can actually do to be able to inherit eternal life, but that’s not the real problem with the question here. What this guy is wanting to do is debate theology, but that’s not the way he frames the question. He doesn’t ask what the scriptures teach on inheriting eternal life, he asks what must I do.
Jesus, knows his intent, and as a good rabbi answers his question with a question, “What is written in the Law?” “How do you read it?” Jesus brings the question back to this guy in the form that the guy actually intended to begin with. Jesus doesn’t come back with what do the scriptures say you must do or what do you think you must do, but what is written in the Law, how do you read it? Jesus makes it a theological question.
The guy answers, “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 neighbor as yourself.’ Maybe this was his own take, or maybe he had heard Jesus say this before. Maybe for him this is part of his setup. In whatever case, he knows the right answer, he gets the theology question right.
Jesus responds, “You have answered correctly,” “Do this and you will live.” Did you notice that, Jesus then brings the conversation back around from the theoretical to the practical, from what do you think, to what must I do, which was the original question by this guy to begin with.
Now, one of two things could be going on here. Or, I actually think both are taking place. It could be that he’s got Jesus right where he wants him; here comes the test. But, I think more is actually going on. This guy has the right answers. He’s an expert in the scriptures, he’s studied them for years. And yet, despite his study and vast knowledge something is missing. It’s an itch he can’t scratch. He knows there must be more that what he has, but he has the right answers. Here he could ask a number of questions, for example, he could ask, what is love, what does it mean to love. But, he doesn’t instead he asks the question, “who is my neighbor?”
Now, there were two major popular schools of thought during this time based on two different rabbi’s Hillel and Shammai. Shammai was known to be more strict. Born from wealth he believed in literal interpretation of scripture, a conservative fundamentalist type. Hillel on the other hand was raised poor, and known for a more liberal approach, trying to get at the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law, as well as a more compassionate demeanor. Interestingly in most every debate we see Jesus in he sides with Hillel except in the matter of divorce. I bring this up because for the house of Shammai only fellow Jews were to be considered your neighbor. For Hillel, everyone was to be loved with the expection of one group, the Samaritans whom he considered half-breed disgraceful dogs. So, even the compassionate Hillel had a deep hatred for this particular group of people.
So, Jesus begins to tell a story of a man beaten, stripped, and left for dead who is rescued not by Jewish religious leaders, but by one of these deeply hated Samaritans. It’d kind of be like a story where an Al-Kida member plays the hero. You just didn’t do this. Now, if this guy has been beaten and stripped, you can’t tell who he is, what group he belongs to. So then a pastor, a priest, and a rabbi walk by. Sorry, a Priest walks by “on the other side”. On the other side of the road to Jericho? That’s like saying he walked by on the other side of a two foot wide alley. I mean to walk by this guy he probably had to step over him. It’s the same with the Levite. These guys are probably busy. They may be on their way to the temple for worship. They can’t touch blood or else they’re unclean. They may be in a rush. It makes sense that they wouldn’t stop for this guy. But then a hated Samaritan stops. He doesn’t know who the guy is or his background, and yet he’s overly generous. And it says that he bandaged the wounds and poured on oil and wine. Oil and wine, that’s the stuff that the priest and the Levite would use for Temple worship. Is Jesus making a statement about the true nature of worship here? The Samaritan takes the guy to an inn pays some money and promises to return to pay any additional charge owed. Jesus ends the story with a question, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
The expert in the law replies, “The one who had mercy on him.” Notice this guy hates Samaritans so much that he can’t even bring himself to say the word, instead it’s, “The one who had mercy on him.” It’s almost as if Jesus is asking the question who is it that you hate so much that you wouldn’t want them to save you, even if your life depended on it? What if it’s in coming to love them that your salvation lies.
Jesus responds, “Go and do likewise.” To which I want to say, that wasn’t the question. The question was, “who is my neighbor.” But, actually the question was, “what must I do to inherit eternal life.” In telling the story Jesus doesn’t directly answer the question preceding it, rather he answers the original question, the real question that was brought to him.
Now, there’s another story where Jesus encounters a hated tax collector. As Jesus is passing through all kinds of people are trying to closer to him. But, in their efforts they effectively shut out this wee little man, forcing him to climb up in a tree (something you don’t commonly see, a grown man climbing trees). First, this begs the question of whether our pursuit of a relationship with God is helping others connect as well, or effectively shutting others out. But, the story continues. Jesus spots the man in the tree, tells him to come down, and has lunch with him. Something happens during this exchange and this wee little man changes. He commits to living a different type of life and Jesus says that “salvation has come to this house.”
So, we have two people. One an expert, knows all the right answers and yet something’s missing. The other knows relatively little in comparison, but is ready to jump into action. It’s easy to study, to learn, to wrestle to find the right answers. It is a much more difficult thing to take the risk to change your life because of your faith. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, maybe the same is true for knowledge and action. And it’s not that our deeds save us, but as James puts it, the deeds are the evidence of our faith. Hebrews 11 beautifully connects the ideas of faith, action, and the crediting of righteousness. Because the point isn’t to know all the answers, because the more you know the more you realize you don’t know. Rather the point is to seek to live out this way of Jesus. Not to debate, but to do, to love.
I have become increasingly convinced that we will become consumed by one of two polarities: either being right, or being a force for good in the world. There are many who work very hard at having all the “right” answers and they are convinced that they are right. Yet, there seems to be little to no doing, there seems to be very little love. As Andy Stanley likes to say, it’s not just about information, but application. The people that knew the scriptures the best in Jesus’ day were also the ones who brushed shoulders with him never realizing who he was. Jesus at Gethsemane doesn’t pray that we’ll get all the answers or that we’ll have our theology right. And it’s not that those things aren’t important, we find other scriptures telling us so, but it comes in second, to our doing, to our loving. Which will you focus your dominant energies on, being right, or being a force for good?
It reminds me of a talk I recently heard by Dwight Pryor which was excellent. In it he shared the story about a man to whom God had spoken deep in his heart that he can go no deeper or higher in his relationship with God until he went wider, sharing God’s love with more people. I think there is a lot of truth to that.
So, go and do likewise. Go wider and in so doing go deeper and higher. Like Zacchaeus rather than the expert in the Law concentrate your energies on being a force for good in the world rather than being so concerned about being “right”. Learn to love the one you hate the most, you never know, your salvation might just depend on it.