I have some very good and wonderful friends who are lawyers. Yet this profession is sometimes viewed as lower than a used car salesman or even a U.S. Congressman (though to be truthful, many of them are lawyers)! They may even be seen as worse than pastors!
The job of a lawyer is to represent a client favorably (or in the case of a prosecuting attorney, just the opposite) in the light of the law. To do so, one needs to be good with words, with rhetoric and with logic. We might say that he needs to be verbally “slick.”
In the beginning of our text today we have a slick lawyer. Understand that this is a law expert about the law of God as we know it in the Old Testament, so we could think of him as a theological expert. And we know from a host of biblical passages that these “experts” (who were also rabbis divided into groups like the Pharisees and Sadducees) did not like Jesus whatsoever. To them, he was an itinerant, country bumpkin, non-credentialed, unschooled preacher dude who somehow garnered a following of ignorant people who together upset their comfortable status quo. He needed to be taken down a peg.
To discredit Jesus, he needed to be caught in his words by making some blasphemous statement about which they could accuse or prosecute him. And to do this, Jesus is invited into the “big boy” circle of rabbis who discussed fine points of the law in a sort of question and answer format.
Here is the question that the expert puts to Jesus …
25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
He gives him a sticky theological question. The essence of it may be more than would appear in simple terms. It is likely inclusive of more than just how a person is in right relationship with God, but beyond that to how one is positioned by the deeds of life to achieve a high inheritance from God in the world beyond. There were varied answers, opinions and emphases in the Jewish world about this subject.
Jesus answers a question with a question, essentially taking back the initiative in this high-level wordsmanship debate…
26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
27 He answered, “‘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, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
The lawyer plays along and answers well by quoting two very well-known passages to Jewish people of the time. There was both a vertical (love God) and horizontal (love man) component in his quotes from Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18.
28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
Jesus does not take the bait to argue applications of these passages. As a law expert, the lawyer was certainly part of the community of religious leaders who had many detailed ideas about keeping the Law and obeying it – legalistic details that set them up as the most exemplary people of the time. Jesus just affirms the words of the Word – obey this and you will be fine with God.
The lawyer is understandably embarrassed; he had just been “schooled” by this itinerant, non-credentialed country teacher and had his own authority turned upside down by Jesus’ probing questions.
Therefore when the text says he wishes to “justify” himself, it seems very likely that he was seeking to salvage his reputation or to “get the last word in.” So he asks the question, “Who is my neighbor?”
29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
His actual question should have been, “What am I to do, because I cannot love God perfectly, and I cannot love my neighbor as much as I love myself?” And this would have led to a presentation of the Gospel … but …
The lawyer’s intent was to discover what the minimum requirements were – how to define love’s parameters by linking religious duty with personal identity. It is this assumption that Jesus’ parable so directly challenges.
Before we go on to tomorrow’s portion of the passage that is the actual parable, let’s sort of sit in a circle like the rabbis did and ask a few questions …
What are some self-righteous ideas and beliefs that some people have about how they think themselves to be in good standing with God?
What does it mean to love God with all of one’s heart, soul and mind? Does this not sound something like a sort of works salvation?
What does it mean to love one’s neighbor as one’s own self? Can this truly be done?