As a fun exercise I used to give my confirmation classes a little test with eight questions. All the answers were completely straightforward; there were no tricks. I have no idea where the test originated. It came with the arresting title: A Quiz For People Who Know Everything. So who can resist trying it?
Here’s the answer to the last question. The sport where no one knows the score or the leader until the contest ends, is boxing. Who knew?
Although, in the universe of first century Greco-Roman civilization, there was another perfectly acceptable answer: the sport of debate. In debate, the score and the winner are unknown until the end. In first century public marketplaces ideas were challenged and views were exchanged at the drop of a hat. Sometimes heatedly. And spectators were plentiful because a debate was a sport with as much allure as chariot racing in the hippodrome.
This is the backdrop of the gospel today. Jesus was making his way to Jerusalem slowly and deliberately, publicly teaching as he went. At one of those many instructional pauses along the way, a lawyer stood up. It could have signified his respect for the Teacher Jesus. Or not.
Since Luke clearly says the lawyer wanted to test Jesus this seems to be a challenge. Though perhaps with the barest suggestion of deference. “’Teacher…what must I do to inherit eternal life?”’ This might be a guy who’s sure he knows everything.
Now, if someone had asked Paul this same question it would have brought forth a torrent of theological analysis and advice. Paul could debate of course, but what we have are his letters. His style favored a one-way information street, not necessarily even provoked by a question. Paul enthusiastically advocated improved behavior, spiritual wisdom, knowledge, and understanding. We see that very thing in Colossians.
But Jesus was a very different kind of teacher – a rabbi. He taught in many ways, and was not above direction and instruction. Yet he frequently taught by example – right up to and including the cross and resurrection. He often answered a question with a question, typical of rabbis.
And Jesus was a master of teaching by parable. Because stories, well told, draw us in and make us better listeners. In the gospel today, the people who were present got a double feature. What began as an invitation to a debate evolved into a story that ended most unexpectedly.
We already have expectations of this parable. Its name gives away the first one: The Good Samaritan. But let’s forget this name. It presumes it’s all about the Samaritan. We deserve to be as surprised as the lawyer, the disciples, and the crowd that was gathered that day.
The lawyer posed a question about inheritance. Not the tangible kind of course. It’s about the spiritual inheritance of eternal life, which comes from God. He wanted assurance that his life, lived rightly by the law of God, fully qualified him.
Jesus responded with his own question, “’What is written in the law?’” The lawyer answered carefully, citing Leviticus and Deuteronomy, to cover the law’s essential and final requirement to love God and neighbor. Jesus praised the lawyer. “You have given the straight answer.” Which is high praise for a lawyer!
But the lawyer wasn’t finished. He asked, “’And who is my neighbor?’” The lawyer wanted to prove his right to inherit eternal life. He wanted Jesus to say exactly who his neighbor was so he could show that he had fulfilled all his duty to God’s law.
The parable that Jesus gave in reply is rich in imagery and detail. It’s got the innocent man and the bad guys. And there’s a good guy no one could have predicted. It’s the kind of theater that plays well to every audience.
In this story the law is followed in two ways. The priest and Levite observed the law of purity. They saw the injured man, but did not respond, for fear that they would come into contact with blood and be made impure for a time. The Samaritan man chose to observe the law of love. And he did it not in a perfunctory way, but with great compassion and care. In doing so, he exceeded the requirement of the law.
The discomforting result was that the Samaritan, the outsider not accountable to the law, was the true neighbor. He was therefore justified before God while the others, the insiders, fell short. The lawyer had his answer. Jesus won the debate, telling the lawyer, “Go and do the same.
The parable however, is not just about spiritual inheritance and correctly applying God’s law of love. It is about what is written in Deuteronomy 30. The commandment to love as God loves is not too hard. It’s not inaccessible to mortals; not held in some unknown book or possessed by a foreign sage. It is written on your heart. Sin against God and neighbor is what happens when we fail to listen to what God has written on our innermost being.
Jesus said to the lawyer – you got this! Who is my neighbor? What does God require of me? The answer is within you. Shhh! Be quiet, listen to the law of love speak. Then go and do.
Could we really do this? Finding our way through traditional battle lines? Even guns, abortion, immigration- all the hard stuff? How will know when we are living toward the requirements of divine love? It’s when compassion and care rather than right belief are the substance of our love.
Jesus preaches a world where we all listen to our hearts and souls instead of the righteous noise that’s going on around us. Shhh! Be quiet and listen. The answer is in your heart and soul.