A legal expert stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to gain eternal life?”
Jesus replied, “What’s written in the Law? How do you interpret it?”
He responded, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus said to him, “You’ve answered correctly. Do this and you’ll live.”
But the legal expert wanted to prove that he was right, so he said to Jesus, “And who’s my neighbor?”
Jesus replied, “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He encountered thieves, who stripped him naked, beat him up, and left him near death. Now it just so happened that a priest was also going down the same road. When he saw the injured man, he crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. Likewise, a Levite came by that spot, saw the injured man, and crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. A Samaritan, who was on a journey, came to where the man was. But when he saw the man, he was moved with compassion. The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, tending them with oil and wine. Then he placed the wounded man on his own donkey, took him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day, he took two full days’ worth of wages and gave them to the innkeeper. He said, ‘Take care of him, and when I return, I’ll pay you back for any additional costs.’ What do you think? Which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who encountered thieves?”
Then the legal expert said, “The one who demonstrated mercy toward him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
This is a very familiar story. In fact, it’s so familiar that it’s hard to come up with “something new” for those of us who teach about it. And for those of us who hear about it, well, we’ve pretty much heard it all! There is one thing, however, I see in this passage that I don’t think I’ve ever heard a sermon on and it’s this—works.
Unlike last week’s passage where many people force it to be about “winning souls,” this passage is specifically about what one needs to “do to gain (or “inherit”) eternal life” (verse 25). To me, Jesus’ answer is quite telling.
But first let’s notice what Jesus didn’t say. He didn’t say, “If you openly declare that I am Lord and believe in your heart that God will raise me from the dead, you’ll be saved.” (Romans 10.9, NLT; adapted). In other words, there’s no confession! No statement of faith! Jesus simply asked the legal expert how he interpreted the Law of Moses. And when the legal expert replied with loving God and loving neighbor, Jesus said, “You’ve answered correctly. Do this and you’ll live.” Wait… What?! How can this be? Doesn’t this run contrary to the rest of the New Testament? Doesn’t this contradict what a lot of our churches believe and teach? It certainly does! Which is why we generally don’t hear any sermons on this passage! We just don’t know how to deal with Jesus’ statements.
And to make sure we don’t misunderstand Jesus’ response, he gives us that great story about the Samaritan. That story’s all about one’s actions. It’s all about extending mercy to others. That, Jesus said, is how one “inherits eternal life.”
So why, then, do we think it’s something else? Where did we go wrong? There are a couple of things that need our attention: faith along with works and understanding “salvation” in the New Testament. We’ll address these in reverse order.
When people talk about “salvation” or “being saved” in the New Testament, I don’t think it’s really about “eternal life.” As we’ve talked about again and again on this blog, the New Testament was written during the transitional period between the resurrection and ascension of Jesus on one hand, and the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE on the other. During this period, there were two type of “salvation” being discussed—spiritual and physical. While we focus primarily on the spiritual aspect of salvation, it seems to me that the physical aspect was the focus of the New Testament to a greater degree (although there was a definite mingling of the two). And what I mean by “physical” is being rescued from God’s then coming judgement.
For example, Jesus said if anyone wanted to save their life, they’d lose it (Matthew 16.25; cf. Matthew 10.39). We see this quite literally fulfilled in the siege of Jerusalem where many of Jesus’ contemporaries believed that Yahweh would rescue them from the Romans. But Yahweh didn’t rescued them. About a third to half of the population were slaughtered and the others were either enslaved or driven from their homeland. The salvation in Matthew 16 refers to the temporary saving of their physical lives under the Old Covenantal system. People would rather side with tradition than be counted among Jesus’ followers (John 7.13; cf. John 9.22; 12.42; 19:38; 20:19). Because of this, they were walled up in Jerusalem and destroyed along with the city and Temple.
Again, Jesus warned his contemporaries about the then coming judgment of God by the Romans in Matthew 23-25. He told his followers they’d be arrested, abused, and killed because they follow him. Even their own families would turn against them (seemingly to save their own lives; Matthew 10.34-38; Luke 12.51-53). But he promised if they’d remained faithful even to death, they’d be rescued—not necessarily in this life, but in the next.
The outcry, then, throughout the New Testament is a continuation of Jesus’ claims in the Gospels. The writers are still talking about the siding with Christ and being rescued, even after death, from God’s then soon coming wrath. One either sides with Jesus and faces possible death or one sides with Israel and faces certain death. That’s the choice. That’s what “salvation” looks like in the New Testament.
Now, certainly, there are “rewards” for following Jesus in this life, but the focus seems to be on life after life after death.1 Jesus said, “I assure you that anyone who has left house, husband, wife, brothers, sisters, parents, or children because of God’s kingdom will receive many times more in this age and eternal life in the coming age” (Luke 18.29-30).
Faith and Works
A lot of people get hung up on “works,” especially in Protestant churches. They’re afraid that talking about “works” makes it seem like people “do something” to “earn salvation.” But, did you know that every passage in the New Testament that talks about judgement talks about people’s actions and never their faith? See Matthew 25 for an example.
Again, notice the passage above. The legal expert asked specifically what one must do to inherit eternal life and Jesus said one should do good works—loving God and others by taking care of them and showing them kindness. Again, Jesus didn’t say anything about one’s faith. But that doesn’t mean that faith isn’t present. Let me explain.
The “legal expert” would have been someone who was an expert in the Mosaic Law, a religious lawyer, if you will. Now those people, by and large, were the covenant people of Yahweh. They were Jews. In other words, they were people of faith in covenant with Yahweh (Romans 9.1-5). Therefore, we wouldn’t really be out of bounds to say that the legal expert already had faith in Yahweh.
What he and Jesus were discussing is exactly what James wrote about in his letter:
My sisters and brothers, what good is it if people say they have faith but do nothing to show it? Claiming to have faith can’t save anyone, can it? Imagine a brother or sister who’s naked and never has enough food to eat. What if one of you said, “Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal!”? What good is it if you don’t actually give them what their body needs? In the same way, faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity.
Someone might claim, “You have faith and I have action.” But how can I see your faith apart from your actions? Instead, I’ll show you my faith by putting it into practice in faithful action. It’s good that you believe that God is one. Ha! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble with fear. Are you so slow? Do you need to be shown that faith without actions has no value at all?…As the lifeless body is dead, so faith without actions is dead (James 2.14-20, 26; adapted).
In other words, just because one claims to “have faith” doesn’t mean one has “eternal life” or “the Life of God’s Realm.” That faith must result in “faithful activity.” What does that look like? Turn back to the story above—it’s loving God, loving neighbor, loving enemy (Matthew 5-7), taking care of those who need it, being kind to everyone and all living things. And this isn’t a once every Christmas type of thing, either. No. James is clear: we must put our faith “into practice [with] faithful action.” And this goes back to what I’ve said before on this blog—following Jesus is about a daily practice, not a religion. It’s about a Way of Living; a Way of Being.
Is our faith in Christ compelling us to a daily practice of faithful action? Are we actively helping others? Being kind? Loving our enemies? What would practicing faithful action look like for you?
In the Love of the Three in One,
Br. Jack+, LC
1. This is a whole other topic that we may get into some day!