South of the Hugh River, NT 2016

The neighbour with eternal life


Gospel: Luke 10:23-37

23 Then turning to the disciples, Jesus said to them privately, ‘Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! 24For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.’

25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ 26He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ 27He answered, ‘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 neighbour as yourself.’ 28And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’

29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ 30Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” 36Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ 37He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’


The neighbour with eternal life

We often call today's gospel the Parable of the Good Samaritan. But that heading is not in the text. Naming is important. If we call the reading the Parable of the Good Samaritan, it may mean we focus on the last part of the story and ignore the lawyer.

And maybe it even means we won't feel the full force of the story of the man who has been robbed and his neighbour who has eternal life.

Looking more deeply, we can see that the story is about an authority on the Law of God, the Torah, and his encounter with Jesus. He has been looking for life in the Law, but is not satisfied, so he asks Jesus what he must do to find life.

But the story doesn't quite start there. If we listen carefully, the story that is set in the Lectionary begins in Verse 25 with the words, Just then...

Just then is a connecting phrase... it directs us to look back at what has already been said.  And in the Greek, the words Just then... are kai idou...  which mean and behold... or and see...

So if we look back, what we see is that Jesus says to the disciples in verse 23:  ‘Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! 24For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.’

So when verse 25 says and see... or and behold... it's saying, if you want to see what kings and prophets have longed to see... look here! Here it is!  Here is the answer to life. Here is the secret.

And suddenly we don't only have a story about a Samaritan, or even about a lawyer. We have a story about the fulfilling of all our longings as people, the things prophets and kings have longed to see, the thing the lawyer calls... eternal life.

What we have is a story about how to really live. "Do this and you will live," Jesus said; in our time we might say this story is about finding the meaning of life. And the lawyer understands he can't do it, this meaning... is something that is given, it's something we inherit.

When we talk of eternal life, it implies something about life without beginning and end, but apparently the language underneath eternal life looks much more like  ‘the life of the age to come,’ according to Bishop NT Wright. He thinks we get the "wrong impression ... about spending ‘eternity’ in a world beyond space, time and matter, in ‘heaven.’ 

We've imagined already that our expert in the Jewish law is concerned about life on earth— "what is the meaning of it, what's the point?" he might have said.

Indeed when Jewish people heard the words eternal life...  Jewish people thought about the age to come much more in terms of Daniel 12:2, "Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, (ζωὴν αἰώνιον in the Septuagint) and some to shame and everlasting contempt."

In the bodily resurrection of the age to come, God’s people [hope] to share in the new earth and new heavens which will result from God’s liberation of the present world from decay and corruption. (N. T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: Romans: Part One (London: SPCK 2004), p. 96.)

But this is beginning now. The kingdom of heaven comes near to us when we are hospitable and listen to the witness of Jesus disciples, (Luke 10) Wright says Jewish people understood that the divine bleeds over into this world. (see below)

So what the lawyer is asking is, "How can I be a part of this? How can I be raised to everlasting life and not to shame and contempt? How can I live life free the threat of shame and contempt hanging over me? Where is joy?"

And Jesus essentially says, "You know the answer! What does the law say? And the lawyer says,

 "Love God with everything you have, with your whole being, and love your neighbour in the same way."

Except if you were listening to the reading you would say, "No. He said: love your neighbour as yourself..."

And I'm going to say that love your neighbour as yourself means... Love your neighbour the same way you love God.

You see love your neighbour as yourself means that everything we want for ourselves we want for our neighbour. We want them to have exactly the same opportunities, the same joys, the same comforts, the same privileges...

But here's a problem with that: Our culture, which has fallen in love with possessions, thinks that the way we can love our neighbour as ourselves, is to help other people get more stuff like us— that's if it cares about them.  Because... in the big heresy of our age, we too often teach that if God loves us and we are doing the right thing, then God blesses us with more things, and blesses us with more things than our neighbours, rather than takes things away from us. It's called prosperity theology.

And if that doesn't seem to make sense, here is the connection. We tend to like to love the neighbours who are just like ourselves, don’t we? After all, they don't need much from us. But that weird bloke down the street... not so much. We don't like to call him neighbour because... it might cost too much.

In Jewish thinking, and in the thinking of the ancient world, there are finite riches in the world... if we have more our neighbour cannot catch up; in fact our having more... is why they have less! In the world of Jesus, we can only love our neighbour by being equal, by giving our riches to them, not by mining more minerals and making more stuff... (And we know that doesn't work anyway... the rich get richer, and the poor...   )

One of the commentaries says, "An honourable [person] would ... be interested only in what was rightfully [theirs] and would have no desire to gain anything more, that is, to take what was another's. Acquisition was, by its very nature, understood as stealing. The ancient Mediterranean attitude was that every rich person is either unjust or the heir of an unjust person (Jerome, In Hieremiam 2.5.2; Corpus Christianorum Series Latina, LXXIV, 61). Profit making and the acquisition of wealth were automatically assumed to be the result of extortion or fraud. The notion of an honest rich man was a [contradiction in terms.] (sic: first-century oxymoron.) To be labelled "rich" ... meant having the power or capacity to take from someone weaker what was rightfully [theirs]. (Malina and Rohrbaugh Social Science Commentary in the section, The Beatitudes in Matthew's Gospel, 5:3-11)

The growing ecological, climate, and social catastrophe, which threatens our human existence is because we have believed the lie that we could continually create more material wealth, which has meant that, as we now realise, we have robbed the earth and impoverished it and destabilised it so much, that it may not be able to support us!

So, rather than the life of the age to come, also known as eternal life, also known as the kingdom of heaven, being about us getting blessed by more material riches, it is about us being blessed by learning to live with less, so that more of us may live. I am not making this up. Later, in Luke 18, "A certain ruler asked [Jesus exactly the same question as here in Chapter 10], ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’"  And their conversation, about the law goes like this:

[The ruler said] ‘I have kept all [the laws] since my youth.’ 22When Jesus heard this, he said to him, ‘There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ 23But when he heard this, he became sad; for he was very rich. 24Jesus looked at him and said, ‘How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! [— to inherit eternal life, he might have said!] 25Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’

The lawyer back in our conversation is not dumb. He knows that if you care for everybody, and not just for your relatives, and the people in your village, and in your country, which is what the piece of Torah he quoted to Jesus implied, it's going to be costly.

When he asks, "Who is my neighbour?" he's really saying to Jesus, "Surely there's some limits to this? How much do you expect me to give up?" He knew that if everyone was neighbour he couldn't keep living the way he was.

And that's when Jesus tells the story of a man who has been beaten and robbed and who is ignored by two experts on the law... two people just like the lawyer, who should have helped him.

And who helps the man who has been ignored? A Samaritan, one of those people whom the experts on the law thought were heretics. It's not just that the Samaritan is showing us how to be generous, he is showing us how to do the law of God. The heretic, the ignorant one, the outsider and the enemy, is showing us that the law is this simple: You love God by loving your neighbour the way you should love God: with everything you have, and every part of your being. And your neighbour is everybody, even your enemies, even the people who despise you.

And Jesus is saying this is what gives you life. This is what lets you inherit life. Go and do this!

And here is the best thing. Because somewhere in his soul... this man who is a neighbour, who has decided to love all people just the same way he loves God, with everything he has got... because he has done that, that Samaritan on the road,  there is something effortless about his loving. Did you notice that the story did not say he weighed up the costs? It didn't say he considered the risks. He didn't wonder what his wife would say. It says he was moved with compassion. I'm told The Message translation says "His heart went out" to the bleeding man."  The Spirit was in him. He was near to the kingdom of God, it was bleeding into his neighbourhood.

The Samaritan is moved. "While heaven is indisputably God’s realm, it’s not some distantly remote galaxy hopelessly removed from human reality. In the ancient Judaic worldview," Wright notes, "the two dimensions intersect and overlap so that the divine bleeds over into this world."(NT Wright.

Or as Jesus says, the kingdom has come near. This is life.

No wonder Jesus says to the lawyer, go and do likewise.... for something effortless will begin to infect our loving. And the world will begin to make sense. Amen

Andrew Prior (2019)
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

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