Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

The lawyer asks good questions and gives good answers.

July 11, 2010

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Commentary on Luke 10:25-37

The lawyer asks good questions and gives good answers.

There is no need to assign the lawyer an adversarial role. In fact, the text suggests otherwise. He calls Jesus “teacher,” respectfully. And Jesus engages him as an equal, responding to the lawyer’s first question with a question. Jesus agrees with the answer. Jesus responds to the second question with a story followed by a question, and again the lawyer and Jesus are in agreement. It does not seem that Jesus takes the lawyer’s “test” as that of an antagonist.

The observation is important, because most interpretations read this well-known episode, recorded only in Luke, presuming a contentious relationship between Jesus and the lawyer. But Luke’s Jesus does not dismiss the Law or its teachers. When there are controversies over the Law, Jesus argues within the rubrics of legal debate, not against it.i I propose that we read this lection taking clues from the narrative world of Luke and this pericope in particular.

The Lawyer’s Questions
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (verse 25). According to the synoptic parallels, the questioner asks which is the greatest commandment (Matthew 22:34-40) or which is the first (Mark 12:28-34). In Mark’s version, a scribe inquires, approves Jesus’ answer, and Jesus observes the scribe’s wisdom. Matthew’s version is brief, including only a lawyer’s question and Jesus’ answer. Luke’s version does not seek to order Torah commandments but rather inquires about the fundamental principal of all the commandments.

Jesus responds to the lawyer’s question with two questions. The NRSV appears to take the two questions as asking one: What is written in Torah? But the RSV gives a simple straightforward translation of the second question: How do you read? (See also NIV, KJV, NAB.) In other words, what is your interpretation of what is written? This makes better sense in the narrative. The lawyer cites a verse from Deuteronomy and one from Leviticus. Together they offer his interpretation of the scripture and his answer to his the question. Jesus agrees with the lawyer, saying, “Do this and you will live.” (Italics are mine.)

The lawyer follows up with a second question, also a very good one. If doing this, i.e., loving God and loving neighbor as oneself, is a matter of eternal life, then defining “neighbor” is important in this context. Torah Observance is living righteously, in “right relationship” with God. Legal discussions are occupied with questions seeking definition and meaning. The purpose of inquiry and debate is not to limit observance but to fulfill what God asks by doing righteousness.

Christians typically hear the lawyer’s desire to “justify himself” (verse 29) as self-righteousness, or depending on his own righteousness to earn salvation. This is understandable, but it is an unfortunate stereotype of the Law that does not reflect the experience of practitioners in the time of Jesus or any other time. As Luke tells the story, Jesus inhabits the world of Torah Observance and is quite at home within it. Jesus’ response to the lawyer’s second question is common within Torah interpretations. He tells a story.

The Story of the Righteous Neighbor
Listeners or readers in Jesus’ time or the gospel writer’s time or any century since understand that the parable shows us that our neighbor is the one we least expect to be a neighbor. The neighbor is the “other,” the one most despised or feared or not like us. Jesus shifts the question from the one the lawyer asks — who is my neighbor?–to ask what a righteous neighbor does. The lawyer does not object that Jesus’ story responds to a different question. Perhaps within Luke’s narrative, Jesus answers both questions.

How a listener enters this story affects how one experiences its meaning. If one takes the role of observer, then one most likely sees the drama at the expense of supposed legalistic priests and Levites who, like the lawyer, despised the Samaritan. A sermon that invites listeners to identify with the priest and Levite suggests they experience their own tendencies to allow categories of race or class or religion to define “otherness” rather than humanness. A sermon that invites listeners to identify with the Samaritan invites them to experience the truth the story tells, that a neighbor shows compassion to the “other.” These approaches may be effective, but an unfortunate effect, likely unintended, is to cast the Jews in the story (priest, Levite, lawyer) as “other” in Christian terms, by defining them as legalistic or racist or self-righteousness.

A few years ago, a sermon invited me to enter the story in the place of the half-dead person lying by the road. In this role, I am the recipient of life-saving compassion by an “other” rather than choosing whether or not to be a neighbor without regard to otherness. This experience of the story opened my eyes to an aspect of the narrative world of Luke I had not previously considered. Within this world, it seems a reasonable expectation Jesus would assume the lawyer hears the parable as the beaten-left-for-dead man lying by the road.

A first century audience, Jesus’ or Luke’s, would have known the Samaritan represented a despised “other.” But I think they also would have understood that the lawyer would not empathize with the priest or Levite. They represented differences within Judaism related to function, class, observance and biblical interpretation. The only character left through which to enter the story is the one who has no identity except life-threatening wounds. The lawyer understands Jesus’ point, according to the gospel narrative, that when you receive life-saving mercy, “otherness” ceases and we experience instead our common humanity. The lawyer perceives — and so do we — who your neighbor is and what it looks like to be a neighbor. Jesus’ final words, “go and do likewise” parallel the command following the lawyer’s first question, “do this and you will live.”

iJacob Jervell, “The Law in Luke-Acts,” Luke-Acts and the People of God: a New Look at Luke-Acts. Minneapolis, Augsburg, 1972.  See also Marilyn Salmon, Preaching Without Contempt: Overcoming Unintended Anti-Judaism. Minneapolis, Augsburg Fortress, 2006.