What’s Really Important?
In the summer of 1977, when I was a student, my friend Eddie Keeping and I were travelling around southern Ontario doing vacation Bible clubs in small rural communities. We were working with local Anglican churches but we also made contact with churches of other denominations along the way, because we tended to get kids from all churches and none at our Bible clubs. One Sunday night in a small Ontario town we decided to go to the prayer meeting at the local Baptist church. When the pastor found out who we were, he sat down with us and started to ask us questions: ‘Now, you do both believe in the full divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, don’t you? You do both believe in the verbal inspiration and inerrancy of the Scriptures? You do both believe in the substitutionary atonement made by Jesus on the cross for the sins of the whole world? You are both sure that you have been born again through faith in Jesus Christ?’
Eddie and I were a bit taken aback; it took us a minute to realise that we were being given a theological test, and if we didn’t answer all the questions quite right, we might not be allowed to pray with the assembled believers. Neither of us had experienced anything quite like it before. As it happened, the pastor didn’t discover any dangerous heresy in either of us – although he still couldn’t quite understand why we were happy to be Anglicans – and so we were allowed to pray with the others. But looking back on the experience now, the thing that stands out the most for me is what we weren’t asked. At no point in the conversation were we asked, ‘Do you love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and do you love your neighbour as yourself?’ The questions were all about beliefs and ideas; none of them had anything to do with actually putting our faith into practice.
I haven’t thought about that pastor for many years, but I thought about him again this week as I was reading today’s gospel reading. You see, the lawyer in our gospel for today was a bit like that pastor. Luke begins the story by telling us that ‘Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher”, he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”’ (Luke 10:25). The context makes it clear that the lawyer was not asking a genuine question. In other words, he wasn’t coming to Jesus as a sincere seeker, one who really wanted to know how to receive eternal life. No, this lawyer wanted to ‘test’ Jesus; in his own mind, he already knew the answer to his own question, and he wanted to see if Jesus would give the correct reply. He had a sort of checklist in his head – just like that Baptist pastor Eddie and I ran into – and he wanted to run Jesus through his little doctrinal test and see if Jesus came out smelling orthodox enough. But unfortunately for him, Jesus wasn’t prepared to play that game. He pretty soon took control of the conversation, and then it wasn’t the lawyer asking Jesus questions to test him; it was the other way around! Jesus was the one who was testing the lawyer, and he didn’t come out of the test very well.
As we think about this passage, we perhaps need to start by asking the question, ‘What do we mean by eternal life?’ Nowadays if someone asked the question, ‘What must I do to receive eternal life?’ what they would actually be asking, in plain English, would probably be, ‘How can I be sure I’m going to go to heaven when I die?’ But that wasn’t quite what the lawyer was asking; in fact, his question says nothing about death and nothing about heaven. Luke wrote these words in Greek, and what the Greek actually says is ‘What must I do to inherit the life of the new age?’
What’s this ‘new age’? It’s nothing to do with what we call the ‘new age movement’ today. It refers to the old Jewish belief that the day is finally going to come when God sets the world to rights. The day will come, the prophets said, when the lion will lie down with the lamb and the child will play around the snake’s nest – the day when soldiers will beat their swords into ploughshares and the nations will stream to Jerusalem to learn from the God of Israel. Future hope, for a godly Jew, didn’t mean dying and going to heaven; it meant dying, and then being raised from the dead at the end of the age, so that you could join in the life of the new age, on a healed earth, with all the evil removed and God’s will finally being done on earth as it is in heaven.
The New Testament takes over this Jewish belief, with one major modification. Jewish people believed that the end of the age would come some time in the future, with a clean break between the old and the new ages. But when Jesus began his ministry by saying, ‘The kingdom of God is at hand’, what he meant was, ‘The new age of the kingdom of God has already begun, but it isn’t fully here yet; the two ages are running in parallel for a while, and you can choose which age you want to belong to’. When he called people to repent and believe in him, he was challenging them to leave the old age of sin and evil and give their allegiance to the kingdom of God, in which they would learn to live by the values of the new age.
The lawyer is still thinking in terms of the old Jewish view; he thinks eternal life is a reward for godly living, and he’s asking Jesus what he has to do to earn it. But Jesus doesn’t think God’s commandments are an entrance exam you have to pass in order to enter the future kingdom of God; rather, he thinks that the kingdom is already here, and if you’re in it, your life will be marked by these two main characteristics of love for God and love for your neighbour. This is what the kingdom looks like, so if you want to enjoy life in the kingdom, you need to start practising these things as soon as possible!
So, while the lawyer asked, ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ we might reasonably paraphrase that today as, ‘What are the most important issues in my life with God? What are the first things, the things I should give my best attention to? And it turns out that the most important issues in the eyes of Jesus are not to do with wealth or popularity or business success, but relationships. This, of course, isn’t entirely a surprise to us! It’s often been said that very few people on their deathbeds think to themselves, “I wish I’d spent more time at the office!” Very few people at the end of their lives feel compelled to finish one last business project, but on the other hand many people have a sense that it’s important to put things right in a difficult relationship before they die. Instinctively, we all know that love is the most important issue.
But having said that, let’s remember that love in the Bible often carries a different meaning. Today love is mainly an emotional word; ‘falling in love’ with someone is something that happens to you; it describes an emotional state and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it except pray as hard as you can that it lasts forever. But love in the Bible is not passive but active, and it’s not primarily about emotions but choices and actions. In the story of the Good Samaritan we aren’t told anything about whether the Samaritan felt love for the man, but we are told in great detail about his actions. Just look at all the active verbs in verses 34-35: ‘(The Samaritan) 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 the inn, and took care of him. The 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”’. Love, you see, is not primarily a feeling: it’s action.
So Jesus speaks about our primary relationships: with God, with our neighbour, and with ourselves. “You shall love the Lord you 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” (v.27). These two great commandments both come from different places in the Old Testament, but as far as we know no one had brought them together before and singled them out as the most important commandments, the commandments above all that you needed to follow in order to experience life as God planned it. This passage is sometimes referred to as our Lord’s summary of the Law: not that it replaces the other commandments, but that all the other commandments are summed up in these two and should be interpreted in the light of these two.
So there is to be no part of our being that isn’t fully occupied with loving God in action. The ‘heart’ in the Bible doesn’t mean the feelings but the will, the choices that we make. The ‘soul’ refers to the whole person; we’re told in the symbolic language of Genesis that God took some soil from the ground and formed it into a man; he breathed his breath into it, and ‘the man became a living soul’. Our ‘strength’ refers to the fact that this is going to take effort on our part, because loving God in action is often not easy, and we’ll need all our resources of energy and resolve and strength and what’s sometimes called ‘stick-to-it-iveness’. And we’ll need to think carefully and clearly too; God gave us our brains and he expects us to use them, so we’re called to love him with our minds as well. So no part of ourselves is withheld; we give ourselves totally to God in loving service.
But if we ask how we are to follow this commandment in our daily living, the truth is that it’s often the second commandment that actually puts it into practice: it’s often true that we love God with everything in us by loving our neighbour as ourselves. Let’s note here that Jesus assumes that we love ourselves: not, that is, that we necessarily always have good feelings about ourselves, but that we love ourselves in action: looking after our own needs, feeding and clothing ourselves, keeping ourselves warm and comfortable, looking after our own best interests and so on. We all know how to do this for ourselves, and so Jesus can use it as the standard by which we love others as well. “You know how you look after yourself? Well, look after your neighbour in the same way”.
But here the lawyer, like any good barrister today, asks a supplementary question: “And who is my neighbour?” Once again we note that he was not sincere in his question; Luke says that he wanted ‘to justify himself’. It seems that he wasn’t comfortable with the way Jesus had taken control of the conversation and turned the questions around on him. Jesus tends to do that, doesn’t he? We come to him thinking that we’re going to investigate him and interrogate him, but after a while we find that it’s actually the other way around, and that he’s the one who’s turned his searchlight on us, probing deep into our hearts to find out what’s really there! C.S. Lewis remarked about this once in a letter to a new Christian; he said, “Have you noticed that your imagination can’t easily be persuaded to portray Jesus as shorter than you?”
But still, even though this wasn’t a sincere question, we need to think for a minute and ask why the lawyer chose this question to challenge Jesus. Why would he want to know who his neighbour is? The answer is that the lawyer still has his own self-interest at heart. Remember, he sees the two great commandments as a sort of entrance exam for the kingdom. One of the commandments is to love your neighbour, and the lawyer wants to know who exactly is his neighbour. After all, if there are fifty people living in his village and it turns out that only thirty of them actually qualify as being his neighbours, why would he bother loving the other twenty? What’s in it for him? Why shoot for 75% if the pass mark is fifty?
But Jesus doesn’t accept the premise of the question; in fact, he doesn’t answer the question at all. The parable of the Good Samaritan does not tell the lawyer who his neighbour is; rather, it tells him how to be a good neighbour himself. The issue isn’t whether or not the man who had been robbed was a neighbour to the Samaritan – in fact, given the bad feeling between Jews and Samaritans, it’s not likely either of them would have used that word to describe the other. But as Jesus points out, in caring for the man’s needs the Samaritan acted in true neighbourly fashion toward him, whatever might have been the state of feeling or prior relationship between them.
It’s actually very interesting and significant that Jesus chose to make a Samaritan the hero of his story. The Samaritans lived in central Israel, and they were people of mixed race who followed many aspects of Judaism but, in the eyes of the Jews of Jerusalem, they had also mixed in some doubtful ideas and practices of pagan origin. To the Jews, the Samaritans were not real followers of the one true God; the lawyer who questioned Jesus would definitely not see them as ‘orthodox’. Nonetheless, the Samaritan shows by his actions that he understands God’s priorities better than many who are much more orthodox in their belief than he is.
How did the Samaritan love God? He did it by moving through his normal day with his eyes wide open to the needs of others. He reminds me of Texas oilman Keith Miller, who was learning to live as a Christian in an oil company office. He decided that every time he went for a drink from the water fountain he would pray for the other people in his office. However, he found out that he didn’t know enough about them to pray for them. So he started inviting them out for coffee and listening to them, and gradually as they got to know and trust him they opened up to him about their problems. He soon discovered that there was a Christian mission field right there in his oil company office!
The chances are that in your office, or on your block, there is someone whose marriage is ending, or someone who is struggling to make ends meet, or someone who has an illness that causes them a lot of trouble, or someone with an addiction problem of some kind. Living the life of the kingdom of God simply means noticing these things, and doing what we can to help. That’s what the Samaritan did.
And let’s remember the importance of the issue. My friend Harold Percy says that when some people get to the end of their life, God’s verdict will be, “Brilliant performance, but he missed the whole point!” We don’t want to be in that situation, do we? We don’t want to get to the end of our lives to find out that we’ve wasted most of our energy barking up the wrong tree! So let’s pray that God will guide us to make the right choices, to set the right priorities, to make first things first. Let’s give our best energy to learning how to love God with everything in us, and to love our neighbour as ourselves. Jesus says, ‘Do this, and you will live’. I think we can paraphrase that as ‘Do this, and you will discover that this is really what life is all about’. May it be so for us. Amen.