A Question About Eternal Life

This coming Sunday our gospel is the well known story called the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). In yesterday’s post we placed the gospel in the context of the ongoing mission of the disciples that was highlighted in the previous Sunday’s gospel. The parable begins with a question: There was a scholar of the law who stood up to test him and said, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 

The setting is not entirely clear. Jesus spoke to the disciples privately in v. 23, but now he is addressed by a lawyer. The lawyer’s question is readily understandable following Jesus’ blessing of the disciples in vv. 23–24 for what they have seen and heard. What if one has not seen and has not heard what the disciples were privileged to see and hear? Is there any hope for them? The scholar asks a good question, even if there is some sense of opposition in the asking of the question (ekpeirazō – put to the test).  It is perhaps notable that in Mark and Matthew, the question asks what is the greatest of the commandments and Jesus is the one who provides the answer. Jumping ahead just a bit, Jesus does not answer the scholar’s question, instead asking his own question, receives an answer (“You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”) and accepts the scholar’s answer: “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.”

The scholar’s question “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” is one that raises questions in the simple phrasing of the question itself – especially given that Jesus accepts his answer.

At first blush one wonders about “doing” and “inheritance.” Stoffregen offers, “I would like to think that there is something I could do to inherit some of Bill Gates’ fortune… An inheritance is usually determined by the giver, not the receiver.”  Some commentaries, operating out of their theology of salvation, claim the scholar was thinking of some form of salvation by works and had no understanding of divine grace.  They do not see Jesus as accepting the question, but only the answer to Jesus’ own question. I would suggest they have pre-interpreted the text – clearly Jesus commands “doing” love not simply being in a state of love. Catholic understanding is not the “either-or”, i.e., do this and not that, but rather “both-and.”  From the 4th century onwards Catholic theology and teaching have declared “works salvation” as outside orthodoxy, i.e., a person can do things and thus earn salvation. The Church teaches that salvation is from grace alone – the grace which enables us to respond in faith and in action to the gift of God. Yes, orthodox Catholics are about “doing,” but never in the sense that we have “earned” something that then places a claim upon God, but rather compelled by the love of God, how could we but do otherwise?

What is written in the law? How do you read it?” Jesus responds to the lawyer’s question with these two questions of his own. It is generally easy to agree on “What is written;” the problem is usually in the second part, “How do you read it?” or “how do you interpret it?”  This is not only personally important to the scholar but also to his place in Jewish society. The particular Greek word for “read” (anaginosko) suggests that reading was always done aloud and generally publicly. Jesus does this in the synagogue at Nazareth (4:16). Jesus’ second question may go further and imply, “How do you interpret the law to others?”

“You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” The scholar answers with the twice-daily repeated shema from Dt 6:5 — except that he adds “mind” to the Hebrew text — and he includes a command from Lv 19:18 about loving one’s neighbor as one’s self. They combine to illustrate the way to everlasting life given in the scholar’s answer (v. 27). This combination was evidently original with Jesus (Mark 12:29–31) and perhaps known to the lawyer –  or perhaps the scholar was very well read in the Scriptures. In any case, Jesus accepts the answer: “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.”

The lawyer has read well, but reading is not enough. The Pharisaic elevation of the importance of study of the Torah reached its zenith in the pronouncement of Akiba: “Study of the Law is of higher rank than practicing it.” In stark contrast, Jesus responds: “do this, and you will live.” Eternal life is found not just in knowing the commandments but in doing them.

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