Lawyers – Luke 10:25-37; Deuteronomy 6:1-9
Which of the people in our well-known and widely known gospel reading this morning do you identify with most?
Is it the Samaritan? I think we’d all love to be the Samaritan, wouldn’t we? To think that in any given situation, we would be the ones to cross the road to help someone, to have the courage and compassion to address their need, and to follow through, continuing to give up time and energy and resources until they are back on their feet. And we can probably think of situations where we have acted in this way!
But is there also a danger in over-identifying as Samaritans? We see this historically where the story has been used as anti-Semitic polemic, casting the Jews (the priest, the Levite and even the lawyer) as heartless and hypocritical. But do we use it more generally to point the finger at those who, in our view, are ignoring human need and suffering? And to pat ourselves on the back?
Or are you someone who does identify with the priest and the Levite? Are you already painfully aware of how often you have allowed race or religion or social status or a person’s neediness to define who are your neighbours and determine your response?
Or do you identify with the man – the man who fell into the hands of robbers? Do you know from experience that when you are lying in a ditch, beaten and stripped and half dead, metaphorically, or in reality, you are grateful to anyone, simply anyone, friend or former foe, who might stop to help you?
There are other possibilities, too. I don’t imagine any of you identify with these characters, but my earliest memory of this reading is performing it at a kids’ programme (a kind of SMAD) during a missionary staff conference, and I got to be one of the robbers. If we’re just talking about performing a play, being a robber is rather exciting – the hiding, the jumping out, the fight scene…
But there are two others in this passage who we may or may not identify with – because, note, I have been talking about the passage – not just the parable.
One of these is Jesus, himself, though while we try to be more like Jesus, to act more like Jesus, to love more and more as Jesus does, I don’t imagine too many of us picture ourselves as Jesus in this instance.
So – who does that leave? Is it possible – heaven forbid – that we might identify with the lawyer in today’s reading?
Lawyers do not get a very good rap in contemporary culture. We have all heard the jokes, like the one about the person who asks, “I know you’re a high-priced lawyer. If I give you $500, will you answer two questions for me? And the response, “Sure! What’s the second question?” And it would appear that lawyers also don’t get a very good rap in this story. After all, this lawyer wants to test Jesus – he wants to justify himself – he doesn’t really get it – or does he?
But if we take another look at this passage. If we (as Jesus says to him) ask ourselves not only what is written, but more significantly, how do we read it, or how have we misread it in the past, we might find we have judged the lawyer too harshly. We might find that the lawyer is, actually, the most helpful person to identify with here.
For what the scholars tell us is that we need to understand this ‘test’ within the narrative world of Luke. It was accepted practice for disciples or other followers to engage in discourse with a teacher, to ‘test’ a teacher, and this is how this man addresses Jesus. He calls Jesus ‘Teacher,’ respectfully. And the question he asks is an excellent one. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Or in other words, “How should I live?” “What is your understanding of the life well lived?” And Jesus, following the rules of this kind of debate, responds to the question with another question, one that reveals Jesus’ respect for this man’s knowledge and thinking. “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” Or how do you interpret what is written?
And the lawyer gives a well-thought through response, summarising Deuteronomy 6 or 30 and Leviticus 19, indicating that he knows that love for God is inextricably linked to love of neighbour; that we cannot love God without loving our neighbour, that we cannot hate a neighbour without something being damaged or deficient in our relationship with God.
And Jesus approves of his answer. “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
We should note that in Matthew and Mark when Jesus is asked a similar question, “What is the greatest commandment?” or “What is the first commandment?” he gives the same response as the lawyer. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind (Matthew leaves out strength) and you shall love your neighbour as yourself.” The lawyer is on strong ground with this answer.
But he hasn’t heard the joke about the second question or perhaps he’s heard the other joke: that the difference between a good lawyer and a bad lawyer: that a bad lawyer can let a case drag out for several years and a good lawyer can make it last even longer! Because in verse 29 we read, “But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’”
What do we make of this? What do we make of the lawyer wanting to justify himself?
Again, rather than interpreting this passage through the teaching of the apostle Paul, as someone wanting a righteousness of their own that comes from the law, we need to understand that this follow-up question was entirely appropriate within this kind of debate. Professor of New Testament, Marilyn Salmon writes, “If doing this, i.e., loving God and loving neighbour as oneself, is a matter of eternal life, then defining ‘neighbour’ is important in this context. Torah Observance is[about] living righteously, in ‘right relationship’ with God…. The purpose of inquiry and debate [then] is not to limit observance but to fulfil what God asks by doing righteousness.”
And Jesus follows the follow up, as rabbis did with a parable.
It’s a story we know so well with its four main characters, the priest and the Levite, both of whom Jesus’ audience were expecting to fulfil, to live out the law of loving God and neighbour, and the Samaritan, who Jesus’ audience were not expecting to live out the law. And there is the man lying on the side of the road – about whom we are told very little except that he is in desperate need.
I have a third lawyer joke. It asks: how many lawyer jokes are in existence? Only three. All the rest are true stories.
But we are mistaken, we do not have the true story, Marilyn Salmon says, if we assume that the lawyer, on hearing this parable, is immediately identified, or identifies himself, with the priest and the Levite. Each of them, she argues, “represented differences within Judaism related to function, class, observance and biblical interpretation… The only character left through which to enter the story is the one who has no identity except life-threatening wounds.”
The lawyer then hears this story as the one lying in the ditch, beaten and stripped and half dead. He hears the story as the one who is desperate and grateful for help from any source. And when he responds to Jesus’ final question, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour?” with the words, “The one who showed him mercy…” he is not saying ‘the one’ because he cannot bring himself to utter the word ‘Samaritan’ as some have suggested, but because he gets what Jesus is saying. He understands that when it comes to receiving or giving mercy, when it comes to living out the love of God, ‘otherness’ fades away, and each of us become a neighbour – to each other and for each other; each of us becomes family.
A retelling of the Good Samaritan story was produced in 2014 by the New York City Rescue Mission, again trying to challenge our notions of ‘otherness’, to help us see others as neighbours – and in fact as family!
Video – https://youtu.be/Bel3vITdnGE
Learning to see others not as ‘other’ is not easy. Which is why we need this parable where a Samaritan shows us what it means to follow God and this passage where a lawyer does the same. Perhaps we should think of this – not only as the Parable of the Good Samaritan – but the Passage of the Good Lawyer!
Because we need someone to identify with who keeps asking the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
We need someone to identify with who keeps reading the scriptures and reading them into our lives and our situations.
We need someone who keeps on asking the question, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ – not so they can limit their definition, but so they can expand it and their knowledge of God. Someone who understands that the love and mercy of God makes all kinds of people kin.
We don’t know the rest of the lawyer’s story. Jesus’ final words to him are, “Go and do likewise,” but perhaps by identifying with this Good Lawyer we can live out his story in our lives; as we keep asking the questions of what an eternal and good life looks like, as we keep reading and interpreting God’s word, and as we keep wrestling with recognising and loving our neighbours and our God.