How Not to Inherit Eternal Life

This is the third in an on-going summer sermon series on the Lukan texts; read the introduction here.

Lectionary Text for July 11: Luke 10:25-37

“How Not to Inherit Eternal Life”

  • Be preoccupied with “will this be on the test?” (lawyer’s question: What must I do to inherit eternal life?)
  • Focus on rules not relationship
  • Walk by the neighbor in need
  • Stay in the ditch when a neighbor offers to help you


“How to Inherit Eternal Life”

  • Focus on relationships
  • Stop
  • Let somebody help you up

A man was once on a train going through the Alps for the first time. He sat staring out the window, transfixed by the glorious, white- peaked mountain view. He noticed a man sitting near him reading a detective novel. “How can you read with this view out the window?”  “I’ve taken this trip so often I have seen it all many times before.” Many people feel this way about the parable of the Good Samaritan. We think we already know all there is to know about it. This is how we think it goes: a lawyer comes to Jesus trying to trip him up with questions about eternal life and who is my neighbor. Jesus then tells a story that has a Samaritan as the hero, which would have shocked Jews who, at that time, hated Samaritans. The realistic part of the parable is that a person on a journey gets beat up and, subsequently, other people walk by without helping. The strange part is who sees and walks by and who sees and stops to help. Jesus’ listeners would expect the Jewish religious leaders to see, stop and help. They would not expect this of a Samaritan.

We are quite familiar with the traditional boiling down of the parable’s message to an example story. Don’t be like this. Be like this. “Don’t be self-righteous; assuming God can’t work through people you look down on. And be like the Samaritan, helping those you meet each day who need your help.

There is some truth there. But the familiar interpretation doesn’t squeeze all the blood still left in this turnip. So let’s pose the question to the parable: What is the kingdom of God like? And let’s try on my answer, “It shows up where you least expect it.” And let’s see if any new details in the landscape appear. The context of the parable is a question to Jesus from a student of Torah (a lawyer) in Luke 10:25-28. Many readers assume the lawyer doesn’t really want the answer but is somehow trying to test Jesus. They lump him together with the self-righteous people to whom Jesus tells the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18:9. Or they group him with the spies who try to trap Jesus in the question about the lawfulness of paying taxes to Caesar in Luke 20:20-26.[1] But what if the Torah student here in Luke 10 actually wants to know the answer to the question “What must I do to inherit eternal life? Or what if he wants to hear what he knows is the answer from the Torah confirmed on the lips of one he has chosen to be his teacher? Jesus asks his question back to him, assuming that, as a student of Torah, he should already know the answer. The lawyer answers with the command to love God and neighbor from Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. Jesus affirms his answer and tells him that if he does this he will live.

Then the lawyer asks a follow-up question, the text says, “because he wanted to justify himself.” “Justify” is not a word we use that much these days. If one wants to “justify themselves”, they want to be perceived as good and just, to be viewed as guiltless and righteous, to be approved and accepted. The lawyer wanted Jesus’ acceptance and approval. He wanted to stand out from the crowd in Jesus’ estimation. I have found over the years that students will go to great lengths to gain the teacher’s approval. Any teacher will tell you, though, that the best way a student can impress a teacher is by doing the readings, knowing the material, and being able to talk about its practical impact on daily life. Students still sometimes resort to other means. They may bring the teacher food items that she has mentioned in passing are her favorites. I hasten to say that, while I enjoyed the apple fritters and the peanut m and m’s, I have never requested such items or so much as implied that placing them in my campus mailbox would improve a student’s grade! Sometimes students ask if they can do extra credit work if their last assignment received a poor grade. They may come to class early to help set up chairs. If they come in late while the class is discussing this week’s readings, they may immediately jump in and try to contribute to the conversation, never mind that they haven’t done the readings.

One other way students try to gain a teacher’s approval is by asking what they regard as nuanced, subtle questions in class which, they hope, will reveal their intellectual depth. I wonder why the lawyer felt a need to justify himself to Jesus.  And I wonder what answer he was hoping for to his question “Who is my neighbor?” A list of categories of people he needed to try to love as he loved himself, the shorter the better?  Is the lawyer a human being like the rest of us who knows what the syllabus requires, but  might not mind doing the minimum required to pass the course?

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