A Provocation: Eighth Sunday after Pentecost: Luke 10:25-37

10:25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

10:27 He answered, “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 your neighbor as yourself.”

10:29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

10:37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

A Question or Two:

  • Why does the Torah expert use the word “inherit?”
  • Who is my neighbor?
  • How are neighbors and inheritors related?
  • Or are they?

Some Longer Reflections:

Christians have real trouble with this scene.

To begin with, the Torah expert stands up to test Jesus.  Christian audiences therefore identify him as the enemy from the start.  Because we have an ideological commitment to Jesus (along with a constitutional dislike of argument), we assume that anyone who questions Jesus is actually attacking him.

But the storyteller doesn’t call this an attack.  It is a test.  And tests are good things.  Necessary, even.

Would you see a physician who had flunked out of med school?  Would you hire an electrician who had not bothered to take the certification exam?  Would you take your truck to a mechanic who had never before worked on a diesel engine?

Of course not.

Likewise, the Torah expert knows that a messiah should stand some testing.

His test is simple, though the exact terms are worth notice.

“Eternal life” has become so freighted with Christian notions of heaven (mostly not originating in the Bible) that the test is skewed from the start.  In the original Greek, the Torah expert asks about inheriting ζωὴν αἰώνιον, life that is aeonic.  “Aeonic” is generally translated as referring to impossibly long extension in time, but the term more importantly refers to the quality of the aeon, not its length.  

So, what sort of aeon is this?  

The best guess is that the Torah expert is referring to the Messianic Age, the age when the world is finally turned right-side-up, where justice and kindness are the order of the day, and no children ever go to bed hungry.  This is the age that the Torah expert asks about.

And notice that the question is about inheritance.  He is not asking to escape to heaven as an isolated individual.  Inheritance is a matter of family connectedness, of resemblance and proper belonging.  The Torah expert is asking about the essential characteristics that mark a person as a member of the chosen people.

The problem is, the question is too simple.

Jesus throws it back.  As should be expected, the Torah expert knows that all of Torah comes down to loving God and loving neighbor.

The ball is now in his court.  If this test is going to amount to anything, he needs to throw another, better, question to Jesus.  He asks Jesus who his neighbor might be.

The storyteller informs us that behind this next question is a desire δικαιῶσαι ἑαυτὸν, an effort to “justify himself.”  While there does seem to be some measure of embarrassment involved (the Torah expert had just given Jesus an elementary-level exam when something more advanced was clearly called for), there is a problem with translating δικαιῶσαι ἑαυτὸν as “justify himself.”  That phrase comes out of the Reformation in 16th century European Christianity.  In the 16th century, the issue of being “justified” before God was a lively issue.  

But the Torah expert lives in the 1st century and he is Jewish.  He is not trying to “earn his way into heaven.”  He is serious about being Torah observant. That is how we should translate the verb δικαιῶσαι in an ancient Jewish text.  The Torah expert, somewhat embarrassed and maybe even defensive, still wants to observe Torah.  And he wants to test Jesus.

So he asks his second question: Who is my neighbor?

This one is much better than his first question.  It has a twist hidden in it.  If Jesus gives a quick, obvious answer (such as: “The person who lives next door to you.”), the test will continue along these lines: So, the closer a person lives, the more they are your neighbor? Is a block better than a mile, and next door beats all other options?

If Jesus were to agree that proximity is the key, the tester will ask him to imagine that his next-door neighbor needs help, and so does his mother, who lives (in this thought experiment) four houses down the street and around the corner.  Whose request has priority?  At this point, it doesn’t matter how Jesus answers.  This second, much better, question opens the issue of complexity into the discussion of Torah observance, and that is what any teacher hopes for.  When students learn how to deal with with real complexity, they have learned one of the key components of a real education.

But once again, Jesus is quick.  He introduces his own thought experiment (which is one good way to translate the word “parable”).  The parable of the Good Samaritan is a thought experiment that requires the listener to avoid false leads and cut to the heart of the issue, another key component of a proper education.

What are the false leads?

Well, for one, a listener could veer off the trail of the story by criticizing the man who was, unwisely, traveling alone down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho.  “He should have known better,” the listener could say.  “He’s got to take more responsibility for his own safety.”  That might even be true, but victim blaming is always a false lead, no matter who the victim might be.

Or, the listener could notice the priest walking down the road.  As soon as a member of the clergy enters the scene (no matter what the century), some listeners will leap at the chance to resent the clergy.  Images of hypocritical (or even criminal) members of the clergy will be projected on the priest and the Levite in this scene.  The ideal of the virtue of salt-of-the-earth ordinary people will stand up proud.

There are, of course, plenty of scurrilous clergyfolk, and there are vast numbers of ordinary heroes.  That is not the point.  And there are many heroes among the clergy and villains among the laity.  That is also not the point.  The point, first of all, is that we are all ordinary people.  But even this is a less-than-productive lead.

Of course, we could take the bait and bite on the fact that the central character is a Samaritan.  A preacher can spend time explaining what a Samaritan is, and can establish them as the oppressed outsider.  There are plenty of good sermons down that road, plenty of productive reflections to be had.

But the Torah expert’s response to Jesus’ simple question reveals the heart of the matter.  “Who proved to be neighbor in this thought experiment?” asks Jesus.  The answer given by the Torah expert reveals the depths of his faithfulness.  “The heart of the matter,” he says, “is the doing of mercy.”

This is the value of a good test: everyone involved learns something they did not know, or did not fully comprehend.  Every occasion that requires the doing of mercy is attended by endless complications, excuses to avoid doing anything.  And some of the complications are real, and ought to induce inaction, or at least caution.

But the heart of the matter is simple.

Do mercy.  Act kindly and sort out the details later.

The heart of the matter is kindness.

I once asked my grandmother what it meant to be kind.  I don’t remember why I asked.  I only remember her answer.  She told me that being kind meant treating other people as if they were the same kind as you.  I do not know if that is where the word comes from.  I do not care.  My grandmother was right.  She saw what the Torah expert saw.  The one who proved to be neighbor was the one who treated the injured man as if he were the same kind as he was.

“Go and do likewise,” said Jesus.  Indeed.  In deed.

 

 

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