The lawyer knew the answer to the first question he asked as he tested Jesus, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” It was an answer that every faithful Jewish person knew, an answer that Jesus knew as he asked the lawyer, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”
Replying with words he would have learned at his mother’s knee and in Sabbath School, words he would have whispered to his father before bedtime prayers, the lawyer answered Jesus, “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 you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Words that combined Israel’s command in Deuteronomy 6:4-5 to love God with Israel’s command in Leviticus 19:18 to love your neighbor as yourself. Words that formed the heart of the Law of Israel and answered the lawyer’s question about what must be done to inherit eternal life.
Why would the lawyer ask Jesus a safe question with a known answer? One possibility is that Jesus was stirring up too many things in the established religious power structure of Israel. Perhaps the reason the lawyer asked Jesus a safe question was to keep Jesus from becoming too dangerous as he went from town to town on his journey to the cross of Jerusalem. Perhaps the lawyer asked Jesus about eternal life in an attempt to keep Jesus from talking about the present life.
Dr. Thomas G. Long suggests that the lawyer asked Jesus his question about inheriting eternal life because “the lawyer wanted Jesus to confess publicly that, while he might seem a tad unorthodox, he was really just waving the flag of the slogan we’ve been saying since we were kids – love God and love your neighbor. In the Torah, of course, love of God and neighbor are radical concepts, all embracing. But they so quickly settle into commonplace religious respectability. Love of God and neighbor become “go to church and be nice to others.” God first, others second, me last. There’s no “I” in “Team.”
The Lawyer’s Second Question
By Thomas G. Long, Bandy Professor of Preaching and Coordinator of the Initiative in Religious Practices and Practical Theology
Unsuccessful in his attempt to get Jesus to answer his question about inheriting eternal life, Luke tells us that the lawyer attempted to justify himself as he asked Jesus “who is my neighbor?” Thinking he knew the answer to his second question of Jesus, the lawyer discovered that sometimes God provides answers that are beyond the realm of our questions as Jesus answered the lawyer’s question by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan.
To appreciate the power of this parable, you need to be aware of the downward trajectory of this story as a certain man goes from Jerusalem down to Jericho (a journey of 17 miles descending nearly 3,330 feet). On his way, this certain man, who may or may not have been a Jew, was robbed, beaten, and left by the roadside half-dead. As he laid by the road, two of the religious leaders of Israel (a priest and a Levite), representing the hierarchy of Jewish religious leadership, notice the beaten and wounded man as they pass by him on the other side of the road.
Representing the pinnacle of Jewish religious leadership, the priest walks by the man first. Consecrated to care for worship and to perform sacrifices for religious ceremonies, the priest was at the top of the power grid as part of the very elite class of temple staff.
The second religious leader was a Levite who was also part of temple leadership. Levites were in charge of looking after the ordinary duties of the sanctuary. They assisted the priests and served the congregation as they helped to interpret the law of Israel. Like the priest before him, the Levite noticed the wounded man as he walked by on the other side of the road.
After the Levite passes by the wounded man, a Samaritan (who would have been on the outside looking in of any Jewish teaching about love of neighbor) comes along. While the priest was as high as you could go in Jewish society, a Samaritan was as low as you could go in Jewish society. By the time of Jesus, Jews and Samaritans had hated each other for over a thousand years. Their division had begun with the death of King Solomon. Following his death, the monarchy of the kingdom of Israel had broken into two factions as the ten tribes of the North rebelled and established a capital in the city of Samaria. In turn, the two southern tribes made their capital in Jerusalem.
When the lawyer heard Jesus say that a Samaritan both noticed and tended to the wounded man, he realized that Jesus was providing an answer that was beyond the realm of the lawyer’s question about “Who is my neighbor” as he asked the lawyer, “Which of these three do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”
Jesus was inviting to the lawyer to place himself among the powerless and the unexpected rather than the powerful and the admired as he asked him, “which of these three do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell in the hands of the robbers.” Jesus’ answer was beyond the lawyer’s question as he defined neighbors as those who are among the wounded in life. The lawyer’s question about “who is my neighbor” empowered the lawyer to notice who his neighbor was. Jesus’ question about “which of these three was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers” was an invitation for the lawyer to redefine his understanding of neighbor. To the lawyer’s credit, he accepted Jesus’ invitation when he identified the neighbor in the story of the Good Samaritan as the “one who showed him mercy.” Affirming the lawyer’s answer, Jesus told the lawyer to “Go and do likewise.”
What would it look like for us to accept Jesus’ invitation to notice as we go and do likewise?
Dr. Long, whom I cited earlier, tells a story about visiting a Christian congregation that had a remarkable record of working for interfaith understanding and mutual ministry. In a time when suspicion and mistrust among people of different religions ran high in their community, in a time when “who is my neighbor?” ceased to be asked at the inter-faith border, this congregation had courageously modeled tolerance, hospitality, understanding, and love. The pastor told him why. The congregation worshiped in a sanctuary that had been built during the Great Depression after a disastrous fire had destroyed their previous building. One of the stained-glass windows in the rebuilt church had a small Star of David worked into the pattern. The pastor explained to Dr. Long that, if you looked through this Star of David to the outside world, you could see, a couple of blocks away and framed by this symbol in the window, the synagogue that had offered its building to the church as a place of worship after the fire, the synagogue whose members had, during a time of economic distress, helped raise the money to rebuild this Christian church. In short, looking through that Star of David was like looking up, wounded and vulnerable, from the Jericho Road to see mercy coming from an unexpected source.
Dr. Long states that “to be neighbored like that” changes everything. To be neighbored like that takes “self-justification” off the table. Being noticed and lifted from the ditch in the arms of divine mercy deepens gratitude for the power of grace and heightens commitment to “Go and do likewise,” to show mercy to a world now filled with neighbors.
The lawyer discovered that God’s answers are always greater than our questions as Jesus redefined his understanding of neighbor from power to mercy, from a selected few to the whole world, from noticing and walking by to noticing and caring that we are all neighbors.
by Pastor Marc Brown
July 10, 2022
Accompanying Scriptures: Luke 10:25-37
Fort Hill United Methodist Church
Order of Worship for July 10, 2021
Scripture Lesson Luke 10:25-37
The Good News “Noticing”
Music “Jesus Draw Me Close” by Rick Founds
Closing Music “Make Me a Channel of Blessing” by Bob Burroughs