Thursday, July 7, 2016

Who Is Testing Whom?

The Parable of the Good Samaritan only appears in Luke's gospel account, but all three synoptic accounts portray the interaction between Jesus and the lawyer/scribe/Pharisee (depending on your version) that precedes the parable. The funny thing, though, is that they don't quite tell the story the same way.

In Matthew 22 and Mark 12, a religious authority comes up to test Jesus and asks him, "Which commandment is the greatest?" In those two accounts, Jesus replies with some form of "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind" and "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." In both cases, the lawyer-figure is the one to ask, and Jesus is the one to answer. Also, in both accounts, the (eventual) result is an impressed audience. Both record that "from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions." In Luke's version, however, Jesus isn't the one who gives the answer. He ends up being the one to ask the questions.

In Luke 10, a lawyer approaches Jesus to test him. He asks, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" But Jesus, playing the role of the experienced rabbi, puts the question back to the man, asking, "What is written in the law? What do you read there?" which is a gentle way of saying, "What do you think the right answer is?" Instead of Jesus offering the concise summary of the law that we still quote in the Rite One Eucharistic service, it is the lawyer who gives the insightful response. He's the one who says that one must love the Lord and love one's neighbor." Well done, lawyer! Jesus affirms this, indicating that he accepts the man's summary, saying, "You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live."

We all know what happens next. The lawyer takes it one step further, seeking to justify himself. He asks the rabbi for a definition of neighbor, but, again, Jesus puts the question to the man. After telling the story of the Good Samaritan, he asks the lawyer, "Which one of them was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?" And the lawyer gives the only possible answer, "The one who showed him mercy." (I love Steve Pankey's post today about the man's inability to even utter the word "Samaritan," which you can read here.) And Jesus again agrees, saying, "Go and do likewise."

Did you see the pattern? With gratitude to Klyne Snodgrass, who demonstrates this parallel in his marvelous work Stories with Intent, the cycle in this parable looks like this:

Lawyer's Question #1: What must I do?
Jesus' Question #1': What does the law say?
Lawyer's Answer #1': Love the Lord and love my neighbor.
Jesus' Answer #1: Then do it.

Lawyer's Question #2: Who is my neighbor?
Jesus' Question #2': What does the story suggest?
Lawyer's Answer #2': The one who showed mercy.
Jesus' Answer #2: Then do it.

It's a beautifully constructed passage, and the remarkable part about it is that the lawyer doesn't end up testing Jesus; Jesus, in the classical rabbinical fashion, tests the lawyer and, in so doing, tests us as well. As I wrote about on Tuesday, the lawyer's question is universal. We all ask that question: what must I do? Jesus turns it back on him, and I'll suggest that the preacher do the same for her/his congregation. The people in our pews want to know, "What must we do to inherit eternal life?" And, through the preacher, Jesus is saying to us, "What do you think?" The power in this story--at least as Luke tells it--is the moment of realization on the part of the lawyer. What will our moment of realization be this Sunday? Fellow preachers, resist the temptation to give the answer. Let Jesus ask the question, and trust the congregation to be hit smack across the face with the truth.

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