Summit Presbyterian Church
July 11, 2010
Deuteronomy 30: 9-14; Luke 10: 25-37
The lawyer in this story we call "the Good Samaritan" asks Jesus two questions: the first is "What must I do to inherit eternal life?"; the second is, "Who is My Neighbor?" My memory may not be reliable, but I believe every sermon I've heard or preached, and every Sunday School lesson I've listened to or taught has focused on the question of "who is my neighbor?" It wasn't until I read this passage for about the 10th time this week, that I even noticed first question: What must I do to inherit eternal life? And it wasn't until then that I realized it was the question Jesus answered in his final words, "Go, and do likewise."
There are good reasons why we tend to focus on the neighbor rather than eternal life. In this global village, when putting gas in our car and food on our table effects people across the world; when the family in the house next to us may speak a different language; and when war and terror are truly world-wide, the question of who we're called to love and how is an urgent one. The image of the Samaritan showing mercy to "the other" draws us in. On the other hand - and of course I can't speak for everyone - we tend to be less interested, or less comfortable, with the question of who inherits eternal life and how we can be counted in that number. I had a professor who used to say, "Scratch a Presbyterian and find a Universalist," and I think she's right: it's hard for many of us to imagine the God of love rewarding some people with heaven and punishing others with hell. It's also hard, as a (quasi) scientific people who know more about the stars and planets and what's beyond them than our ancestors, to imagine "eternal life" as a place to which we're destined. And protestants have always been uneasy with the idea that we can gain eternal life by doing -- we call that works righteousness. Whatever the reason, the question of "What must I do to inherit eternal life" is often neglected in teaching on this scripture.
And, to be fair, it's not clear the lawyer is asking it sincerely; Luke says he wanted to "test" Jesus. But Jesus answers seriously. In true rabbinic and progressive education style, he asks the man to think about what he already knows, to reflect on the question himself. "What is written in the Torah," says Jesus. "How do you read it?" The lawyer quotes from Deuteronomy and Leviticus: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind: and your neighbor as yourself." This was not an original answer. Many teachers - including Jesus - summed up the law that way. Those words were not linked in the Bible to an explicit promise of eternal life. But the answer made sense - the ways of God are eternal, to inherit eternal life one must walk in those ways. The psalms speak often of this. "The Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish," says the first psalm. "See if there be any wicked way in me," prays the psalmist in 139, "and lead me in the way everlasting." It's God's path of love and mercy towards the neighbor that will last forever; the ways of the wicked will perish, no matter how powerful they may seem now . So Jesus assures the lawyer: "you have given the right answer. Do this, and you will live."
But then the man - perhaps looking for an out - asks for the definition of neighbor. Jesus doesn't answer directly, but instead tells a story of someone who demonstrated love of neighbor. And here's the surprise: this man was a heretic. The Samaritans claimed to worship the God of Israel, but they worshipped on Mt. Gerezim; not in Jerusalem, the holy city. They read the Torah, the first five books of the scripture, but they didn't accept the words of the prophets or read the psalms. The Samaritans didn't worship in the right way and they didn't read the right scriptures. But in this parable, it was the Samaritan who showed mercy, the Samaritan who was the neighbor, the Samaritan who would inherit eternal life. Not the priest are the Levite, men of impeccable religious pedigree who led Israel in proper worship. Jesus may be suggesting that deeds of mercy trump correct religious practice: and in this he's echoing Israel's prophets. "I cannot endure your solemn assemblies," says Isaiah, speaking for God: "your appointed festivals have become a burden to me; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed." Show mercy like the Samaritan, says Jesus: then you shall live.
"What must we do to inherit eternal life?" The church has given a different answer than the one that Jesus gave the lawyer. The church has always upheld the two great commandments of loving God and neighbor, but it has also taught that eternal life comes through belief in Jesus Christ. And Jesus does call us to faith in him: most famously, in the gospel of John he says that "God so loved the world he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life." We who do believe in him can trust in those promises. But the church has been divided on whether faith in Christ is necessary for eternal life: and [I think] in this story, Jesus opens the door for the possibility that it's not -- if the Samaritan could inherit eternal life, why not the Hindu or Muslim, even, perhaps, the atheist, or agnostic [who claim not to love God]? The Samaritan's beliefs didn't prevent him from showing mercy; he was a model for the lawyer who knew the Torah so well. Just as the Samaritan's kindness was deep and wide, the mercy of God is surely deeper and wider than we think: wide like the sea, and broader than the measures of our mind. Who knows the many loving people, of all times and places, of all religions and none, who will also inherit eternal life.
A final thought. Eternal life may be sounding like a reward anyone can get for doing good deeds, or a bribe to get us to love our neighbor. It may be sounding something we can earn, an error the early reformers warned us against. But eternal life is life with God, a life following in God's ways, here on earth now and in whatever future may be in store for us. It's an assurance that the the love we show, for God and neighbor, will finally overcome the evil and suffering in the world. So when we feel discouraged, and wonder if acts of mercy do any good -- and we're especially prone to doubts, I think, when it comes to neighbors far away -- sending money to Haiti, demonstrating against the war - we can remember that love of God, and kindness towards neighbor, is the road everlasting. The way that will endure, the way that we can trust and to which we are called. And it's also the way where we are bound to find all kinds of people, people we didn't expect, inheritors, like us, of life eternal.