This week we see part one of a two-part blog posting. Here, we will examine the question Jesus is asked, and next week we will study his answer to that question.
In the Gospel of Luke, we find the account of a contentious interaction between Jesus and an expert in the Law. I think it is very likely that this expert is one of the scribes we looked at a few weeks ago: those who meticulously copy the Law from one parchment to another, following stringent rules to ensure absolute accuracy in the copy. This scribal occupation lends itself quite well to one becoming an expert in the Law.
In the opening line of the account, we read:
On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” – Luke 10:25, NIV-1978
The question is reasonable, but it betrays a belief within the man that there is anything at all one can do to inherit eternal life. The idea of doing anything to earn an inheritance is absurd, because inheritances are not earned.
The eccentric evangelist Alexander Wooten is reputed to have startled a young man who asked him, “What must I do to be saved?”. Wooten responded, “It’s too late!” and he went on about his business. Somewhat alarmed, the young man pressed Wooten, saying, “Do you mean that it’s too late for me to be saved? Is there nothing I can do?”. “Too late,” Wooten replied. “It’s already been done! The only thing you can do is believe.”1
Unlike the young man querying Alexander Wooten, if we reword the lawyer’s question of Jesus to read something like this, “How can I earn eternal life through my own efforts?” this rendering conveys what I believe to be the question behind the question the man is asking Jesus.
The rabbis were in constant debate over the idea of eternal life, whether or not there is such a thing, and if so, how it is attained. There was an expectation among the people that the rabbis would debate such subjects in a public forum,2 and it is likely we have one of those debate scenarios here. Nothing about this exchange, thus far, is unexpected.
It is a glaring contradiction for the lawyer to stand as he asks the question. Standing up to ask the question is a show of respect toward the one being asked. The verse itself tells us that the man asked his question as a test, and I do not put to the test a man I genuinely respect.
Jesus turned the question back on the expert in the Law.
“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?” – Luke 10:26, NIV-1978
The man’s response demonstrates that he already knew the answer to the question before he asked it.
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 neighbor as yourself.” – Luke 10:26, NIV-1978
Jesus cited these same quotations in Matthew’s gospel, and there he divided them into the greatest and second-greatest commandments.
These commandments are taken from Deuteronomy 6, a section of the restatement of the Levitical Law known as the Shema Yisrael, “Hear O Israel; the LORD our God, the LORD is one,”3 coupled with Leviticus 19, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD.”4 We love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and only then do we have the capacity to love our neighbor as ourselves.
The man’s response drew a nod of approval from Jesus.
“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” – Luke 10:28, NIV-1978
That should have been the end of the discussion. The man asked a question, and, at the prompting of Jesus, answered his own question.
A deeper reflection shows us that the requirement from the Law is a very tall order. Who among us consistently loves God with all our heart, all our soul, all our strength, and all our mind? And even more difficult than that, who among us loves our neighbor as ourselves? Such a man or woman, if they do exist, has no need of grace.
The Escape Clause
The expert in the Law knows he has been laden with a burden that he cannot carry, so he begins to look for an out, an escape clause. In typical lawyer fashion, he launches into wordplay, demanding a definition of terms, posing essentially the same question but with a little different twist, “And who is my neighbor?”
It is reminiscent of Bill Clinton, word-parsing while giving grand jury testimony when asked about the claim that there “is” no sexual relationship between himself and Monica Lewinsky.
It depends upon what the meaning of the word “is” is. If the—if he—if “is” means is and never has been, that is not — that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement.5
Rather than parsing through sentences from scripture to sneak through a loophole definition of “neighbor,” a better response might have been, “This is a difficult requirement, rabbi. I am unable. How can I possibly accomplish this?”
Realizing he has been asked to achieve something beyond his ability, the lawyer asks Jesus for a list. “Give me a list of my neighbors so I can love them.” If the list is short enough, and if he can draw his circle of neighbors tightly enough, then perhaps he can achieve this rather ambitious goal of loving his neighbor as himself, and he can do this within the realm of his own efforts and his own strength, and this is assuming he has met the greatest commandment – to love the Lord his God with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength.
The rabbis regularly debated the extent of the good Jew’s responsibility toward the community. It seemed necessary to them to draw distinctions between the dedicated Jew and the not-so-dedicated Jew. Perhaps this very debate was going on in the mind of the lawyer who was testing Jesus.
Am I required love the non-dedicated Jew as well as the dedicated? And in a worst-case scenario, though I am not required to love the Gentiles, do I have to love the proselyte?
The man is determined to find some way to define his position such that he can walk away from his encounter with Jesus feeling capable and worthy of eternal life.
Bear in mind, when dealing with this lawyer, his concern is not so much with the Law, which has very specific instruction regarding the relationship between Jew and non-Jew. The driver for this expert in the law will be the Talmud, and the Talmud makes no demands on the Jew to love the Gentiles.
The stage is now set for Jesus to respond with his classic answer, the parable of the good Samaritan. We will look at that next week.
1. Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible exposition commentary (Vol. 1, p. 384). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
2. Ibid. (p. 211)
3. Deuteronomy 6:4, ESV
4. Leviticus 19:18b, ESV
5. GPO, (September 9, 1998). Appendices to the Referral to the United States House of Representatives Pursuant to Title 28, United States Code, Section 595(c) Submitted by the Office of the Independent Counsel. (Vol. 3, Document Supplement, Part A, p. 510). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Publishing Office.