“Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (Lk 10:25) This time it's an expert in the law asking. He is someone who has given his life to studying the Old Testament Law. Luke tells us that he asked the question to put Jesus to the test.
He is certainly not asking as did the rich young ruler. The rich young ruler asked the question because he knew Jesus knew, and he did not. This man asks because he thinks he knows, and wants to see if Jesus does.
If we are generous, we could surmise that the right answer from Jesus may lead this expert in the law to become a follower. If cynical, we would assume that he is trying to trip Jesus up. In either case, it is probably not a good idea to hold oneself as the authority and Jesus as the student. Jesus has a way of turning the tables on those who think He needs to answer to them.
And so He does. “What is written in the law? How does it read to you?” (Lk 10:26)
The expert in the law answers with, “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.” (10:27)
In one fell swoop Jesus affirms the validity of his Biblical interpretation and calls into question his obedience. “You have answered correctly; Do this and you will live.” (10:28)
Now on the defensive, the expert in the law comes back with, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus answers with the story of the good Samaritan.
But before we get to that, stop and think about what you just heard. The gospel according to Jesus is that people who love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength, and their neighbor as themselves, inherit eternal life!
As you will recall (from previous blogs) I was looking for places where Jesus would answer the question of how to gain eternal life. Now here was another one that seemed completely at odds with our current gospel presentations. First the rich young ruler (previous blog) is told that he must sell all his possessions, and now this lawyer is told that he must not only understand the law, but fulfill it!
At first sight it would appear that this one is at least easier to explain away. “Perhaps, Jesus knew that no one could keep these two commandments. If the lawyer could, he would inherit eternal life. But he can't, so he will need to trust in the finished work of Christ instead. Only Jesus hasn't died yet, so He can't say that. But that doesn't matter because the question wasn't sincere anyways. The man was testing, not seeking.” Phew! We can hang on to our current gospel presentations!
Not so fast. Jesus says, much the same thing in Matthew 5, but there the context does not allow us to side step the fairly obvious connection of a practiced radical righteousness with entering the kingdom of heaven.”
“Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt. 5:20)
Just prior he says the law is valid until heaven and earth pass away. That He came not to abolish, but to fulfill. And that whoever annuls the least of the law will be called least in the kingdom and whoever keeps and teaches it will be called great in the kingdom.
But the real kicker follows. Jesus moves from theory to practical illustration. It's here that he tells us that lust is a form of adultery, and that anger is a form of murder. (Mt 5:21-28) Following that He instructs us to gouge out our eye if it causes us to sin because it is better to lose an eye on the way to heaven, than to go fully sighted into hell. (Mt. 5:29,30)
While the scribes and Pharisees are accustomed to thinking that they need to stay within the letter of the law, Jesus' teaching is that our practice must fulfill the spirit of the law. The absence of such practice will put us with most of the Pharisees – destined for hell. Jesus is not teaching about the kind of righteousness we would need if we could achieve it, even though we can't. He is unpacking the kind of righteousness the Pharisees can't achieve, but the Holy Spirit can. He is pointing to the need for a Divinely enabled life.
It may be helpful to point out that “inherit eternal life,” is not exactly the same as our current evangelical “get saved.” Throughout the NT, “salvation” is often viewed as something we obtain upon our death. The lawyer is asking the question, “What kind of life do I need to live in order to be resurrected to eternal life?” This is not the same as asking what he needs in order to live that life.
This is a bit different than Jesus' words about Zacheus – “Today salvation has come to this house” – as a result of his obvious change of heart. It's closer to Jesus' words to the rich young ruler – “Go sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come , follow Me.” For the rich young ruler there was a life changing event (sell it all, and give it away) tied to the promise of eternal life, (treasure in heaven) followed by an upside down earthly life (come, follow me).
But if you put all of these together you have Jesus teaching that there is an impossible change of heart that flows into an impossible new earthly way of living, that will usher us into the kingdom of heaven. (see also Mt 7:13-29) With the disciples we ask, “Then who can be saved?” And with the disciples we hear Jesus answer, “With people it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.” (Mk 10:27)
I wrote the above yesterday. And then in preparation for a cell group, I came across a quote from J. I. Packer: “The Christian's life in all its aspects – intellectual and ethical, devotional and relational, upsurging in worship and outgoing in witness – is supernatural; only the Spirit can initiate it and sustain it. So apart from him, not only will there be no lively believers and no lively congregations, there will be no believers and no congregations at all.” Amen!
Jesus is not embarrassed to tie eternal life to a life lived upside down to the way normal people live. Nor is he shy about calling the absence of that life the absence of life altogether.
Let's return to our story.
“Do this and you will live,” says Jesus. Trapped by his own brilliance in the Word, the lawyer is looking for an escape. “Who is my neighbor?” he says. Perhaps he was hoping the answer would be, “the house next to yours in any direction.” That would make four to six neighbors at the most. The point is that he wants to limit the amount he has to love. Kind of like us asking if God requires a 10% tithe. At worst the answer will be, “yes,” and we will need to part with 10%. At best the answer will be, “no,” and we can give less without feeling guilty.
With both us, and this lawyer, the question is an outsider's question. When the Spirit of the Loving God has entered our hearts we will long to give lavishly and will chafe against stopping at 10%, and we will hope that loving our neighbors as ourselves will not need to stop at the neighbors who live next to us.
And so it is that Jesus tells a story where a complete stranger becomes a neighbor, and the least religious, the most righteous. Looking back it is part of the answer to the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He makes love for our fellow man a prerequisite for entrance into eternal life. And it's the same kind of love that He expresses towards us in the cross – neither convenient, easy, or without sacrifice!
Neither is this unusual. “In as much as you have done it unto the least of these,” (cf Mt. 25:31-46) tells exactly the same tale. And the stakes are exactly the same extreme. He ends with, “These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (vs 46)
Evangelicals are the lawyers of today. We take pride in our passion for the Word, and are ready to stake our eternity on the legal reality that our sins have been covered by the blood of Christ. We point back to the day we “trusted” in the finished work of Christ, as the whole reason for our confidence. Yet many of us do not love our neighbors (defined as Jesus did) as ourselves. And we live in luxury while the brothers and sisters of Christ all over the planet suffer and die.
I think there is too much at stake to ignore the words of Jesus. Brilliant we are, but so was the lawyer.
One last thing.
In our quest for a formula – a neatly defined response to God – that will guarantee our eternity, we have landed on the word, “faith.” I love the word “faith”. We use it with good authority. Jesus uses it, and so do the apostles. I am going to talk about it a lot in future blogs.
But notice this.
Jesus doesn't use it with the rich young ruler, Zacheus, or this Lawyer. And John the Baptist doesn't use it either. Our quest for a word, gives away our failure to get it. God is looking for a deep change of heart. Lots of words can be used.
People who “love” God have eternal life.
People who “fear” God have eternal life.
People who “seek” God have eternal life.
People who “repent” have eternal life.
And there are more.