What must I do to inherit eternal life?
That’s the question posed by a lawyer to Jesus.
What must I do to inherit eternal life?
It’s also the question we desperately want answered. The desire for all of us is to inherit eternal life. For our lives to have purpose and meaning. To be found in right relationship with God. Thus, while we know that the question comes from the lips of the lawyer, we find ourselves leaning into the conversation, longing to hear a word from the Lord. What will Jesus say? What is required of us?
Through a round of comments and conversations, the answer finally boils down to what has often been termed the greatest commandments. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. Do this, Jesus says, and you will live.
Wanting to justify himself, the lawyer keeps questioning; who is my neighbor? And wanting to justify ourselves we often keep questioning; who is my neighbor? Does that include those whose religious faith is different? Does that include those whose culture and upbringing is from a different country than our own? Does that include those who think differently about gun control, about standing or kneeling before the national anthem, or any number of political questions? Who exactly is my neighbor?
To this, Jesus shares a familiar parable. A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell into the hands of robbers. A priest and Levite both pass by, but do nothing. In our own insecurity we want to excuse the behavior of these religious elites by claiming they are trying to maintain ritual purity. However, the very law we claim they are trying to keep requires them to help a fellow Israelite in need. In their search for purity they actually make themselves unclean.
Luckily for the man in the ditch, someone does show up, a dreaded Samaritan. Remember, just a few verses earlier James and John offered to call down fire from heaven to destroy the Samaritans because they didn’t accept Jesus. This was a group not to be accepted, but destroyed. The Samaritan makes himself vulnerable to help the injured man. They are still on the road, and the bandits could still be around, so he is physically in danger. Then, after taking the man to an inn he offers to pay all expenses, so he is also in economic danger. But, as Martin Luther King Jr famously said, the Samaritan doesn’t ask what will happen to me if I stop to help, but what will become of the man in the ditch if I don’t stop to help. The Samaritan recognizes, love is not about self, but about others. He must be concerned for the one in need; and so should we.
Our neighbor then, is anyone we encounter who is in need. No questions asked.
Our story, however, takes a little twist at this point. New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine points out that we have placed ourselves in the wrong position in the story. Often, we read the story and make ourselves the Samaritan. We are the ones passing others in need and offering aid. We are the ones in a position of power. A first century Jewish lawyer, however, would never see themselves as the Samaritan in the story. The Samaritans were enemies. The lawyer would most likely self-identify with the one in the story most like him. We are not the Samaritan in the story. Instead, we are the one in the ditch. Now, the enemy, the one I long to hate, may very well be the only person who is willing to help me when I’m in danger. Can I accept help from my enemy? Can I admit that my enemy has good in him? Can I admit that perhaps the problem with my enemy is not with the outsider who is different from me, but the problem is actually with my own racist heart that won’t accept those who are different from me? Perhaps my enemy, the one I long to hate, is the only one who will be a neighbor to me in my time of need. And if my enemy is really a neighbor, then he can’t be my enemy. The enemy is instead a friend.
With this Jesus has blurred all of the lines between who’s in and who’s out, who’s my neighbor and who’s not, and just what is required of me to love others.
What must I do to inherit eternal life? Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. Do this, and you will live.