Pentecost 8: 10 July Luke 10:25-37
The initial conversation has a familiar ring to it. It is probably a reworking of the episode found in Mark12:28-31, where the scribe asked which was the first commandment. Here it is an expert in the Law who asks the question. This means much the same as scribe, another term for describing such experts. The question he asks is different, but it is also familiar to us from Mark 10:17-21. It is the question of the rich man: ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ The rich man in Luke also asks the same question (Luke 18:18).
The issue is fundamental: how do we inherit eternal life? ‘Inherit’ assumes inheritance, promise. It builds on the view that God wants us to have this life. It draws on the expectations raised by Jewish scripture. ‘Eternal life’ includes everlasting life, but its focus is quality rather than quantity. It is sharing in God’s life. This is the number one question and still is.
Jesus directs the man’s attention to the Law, Torah. This is not in order to declare it inadequate or obsolete. On the contrary, here, as in the encounter with the rich man in Luke 18:18-23, Jesus directs attention to scripture as the source of the answer to the man’s question. In Mark’s version of the story, Jesus, himself, cites both the first and the second greatest commandments. In Luke the man, himself, cites them. In the process Luke has merged the two into one as one single requirement. The two belong inextricably together.
Jesus affirms that to love God and to love one’s neighbour is indeed the correct answer. ‘Do this,’ he declares, ‘and you shall live’ (10:28). These words find their echo at the end of our passage in 10:37, ‘Go and do likewise.’ Doing this commandment is the way to eternal life.
This deserves further reflection. In some traditions this would be given low marks or even marked wrong. It sound too much like salvation by works. ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved’ (Acts 17:31) sounds much more Christian. Jesus’ answer here and in the encounter with the rich man is just good Judaism. Yet before we take Jesus off to enrol him in a course on appropriate evangelism, is there not something of fundamental importance here? Is it not the case that the relationship with God matters most? Jesus is not espousing that we keep the commandments as some kind of tit for tat, a deal on the basis of which we can claim something. He is talking about loving God and neighbour - actually doing it. His own status in the process is subordinate to that goal.
This raises a larger issue. What is the relation between the two commandments? In many religious communities, including Christian communities, there is a real tension between the two. ‘I want to care, but my prior loyalty must be to uphold what I believe.’ Or at worst: my devotion to Christ leads me to behaviour that is destructive for others. People devoutly committed to a god are often a cause of much evil in the world. History demonstrates that. Current problems on the international scene demonstrate it. Our experience in dealing with people’s pastoral problems has probably illustrated it as well. Do I love God or do I love my neighbour?
To resolve the dichotomy by explaining that I love my neighbour as part of loving God because God commands it is an unstable solution. It makes love for neighbour secondary and invites the possibility that when I love my neighbour I am not really doing so; I am really loving God. At worst I am keeping on good terms with God at the expense of loving my neighbour (and then often at my neighbour’s expense!).
The pieces come together differently when we think differently about God. If God is to be thought of as the projection of those human value systems which see power and control as primary, and which see the ideal life as one of ultimate self importance and adulation from others, then the problem is already in our theology, because such values are in conflict with love for neighbour. Unfortunately the language of worship too often reflects such values, despite our efforts to explain that the language of kingship and court deference is metaphorical. Where however our theology has an image of God whose being is loving and whose life is the creative and redeeming out pouring of such love, then loving one’s neighbour is not a secondary obligation ‘which the king requires’, but an invitation to participate in the life and being of God.
Luke was probably responsible for expanding the dialogue by having Jesus tell the famous parable about the Samaritan. It is profoundly theological in the sense which we have outlined above. The priest and Levite appear as those for whom the two commandments are so far apart that the first blocks the second commandment. This would be so if purity concerns were their motivation for neglect. It would be so in a different sense if they were just apathetic. Jesus’ story reflects criticism of the theological stance of the temple functionaries. Today we might want to ask about the system. We know how structures can so exhaust people that they end up failing at the most basic level of what was the original inspiration of the system. Jesus is also being typically subversive in having a despised Samaritan play the God role.
Luke takes up this subversive piece of theology in order to deal with the lawyer’s question: ‘Who is my neighbour?’ Are there limits? Is it to include only the people of my community, of Israel? Might it also include undesirables, Samaritans, Gentiles? Does it include women, people with disabilities, lepers and others frequently excluded? Ultimately it is a theological question: whom does God love? Luke has Jesus tell the parable and then neatly reverse the question: Who proved to be neighbour to the man who was beaten up (10:36)? This does two things: it makes us realise that in human community every human person is a neighbour and potentially a caring human being; and it breaks down the hierarchy of helper and helped.
But what about the bandits? Societies where there is oppression produce bandits. Societies which seek to bring dignity to all are less likely to produce bandits. The message of the kingdom was about a transformed society, but also about one that was liberated from structures which oppressed. This individual encounter belongs in that public arena if it is not to be trivialised into an exhortation to care just for individuals. Affirming one God is affirming that no aspect of reality is to be ignored; in all of life, in individuals, in community, in structure and organisation (not least, religious organisation), in creation God is God and God is love and God invites us to participate in and become God’s action in the world.
Epistle: Pentecost 8: 10 July Colossians 1:1-14