SEEKING TO DO RIGHT
25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27 He answered, “You shall 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 your neighbor as yourself.” 28 And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
In all the years I have read this text, I never really paid attention to why the parable was offered in the first place. I have always focused upon what it meant to be a neighbor rather than the question that initiates the dialogue with Jesus: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” It is a very important question and it is asked again in the story of the ‘rich young ruler. In both cases the men are seriously seeking God. “How can we be pleasing to God? What comprises a life that matters?
These are the questions that we ask everyday in real life. Most of us accept the premise that we should be mindful of the needs of others but how much is enough? How cold does it have to be to open our doors to the homeless? When must we say yes and when is it ok to say no? How much money should we pledge? Is our tithe pre or post taxes? How many summer camps do we send our kids to? How long do we subsidize adult children? How much of our time do we spend with aging parents? What happens when someone in our family is diagnosed with a life long disability or is chronically depressed, or addicted or schizophrenic? How do we stay mindful when we are exhausted? Virtually every day, requests are made of u. Real needs are presented to us. How can we ever do enough? What must we do to inherit eternal life?”
We are all caught in the gap between God’s call and our own limitations. Even a nominal bit of self reflection reveals that the needs around us exceed us. So what do we do? These are some of the most pragmatic questions we can ask of our faith.
The problem, however, is that when we are focused on what must we do, we miss the good news. That is the real predicament of the lawyer and the rich young ruler. They were aiming for a good (or at least, a good enough) grade. (They were like many of us in school when we were far more worried about our GPA than actually learning.) They did not feel safe in God’s love, they wanted to know where they stood with God. It was beyond their imagining what God really wanted from them.
Jesus goes about teaching them in an unexpected way. Both men are asking the right questions but for the wrong reasons. They are seeking a quantifiable answer. It is not clear if they are aiming for ‘A’ or if a passing grade is satisfactory but they have to nail down a number—or an identifiable ‘right’ behavior— to feel safe with God. The implied assumption is that there is a way they can ‘do right’. They just need to figure out what the rules are so they can get to work.
We do the same thing every time we overextend ourselves. We keep trying and trying because we should do more—even while we are exhausted. We earnestly seek to do right but there is always more to do. In the process, we deny our limitations as created creatures and act guilty and defensive when we actually say ‘No, I can’t do that.’ When age, fatigue or unrelenting demands finally confront us with what we cannot do, we start to realize that we have to draw a line. We have to face the line between becoming all that we can be and believing we can do anything if we try. Sometimes people have to go way past the line before they realize there was a line to draw in the first place.
Sometimes the only way we can learn about the difference between grace and works is to raise expectations. When the expectations are finally high enough, we have to face what we can’t do. We cannot justify ourselves. If you are going to live by your good deeds (works), you will surely die by them. I think this is what Jesus was trying to teach these earnest men.
Years ago I was supervising young pastors at Grady. They were only supposed to be on site a few hours a week. One student came to me to report he had been coming in twice a day to feed an emaciated old man who had refused to eat for anyone else. He felt he had probably saved this man’s life. So I asked: “Then what was the problem?” It turns out the student had exams coming up and could not keep up the same feeding schedule. What should he do? My response was if he indeed was keeping this man alive, why wasn’t he feeding him breakfast? My student, as do we all, had to learn there is always more we could do.
Jesus takes the men seriously and at face value. In both cases, Jesus directs them to God’s commandments. They know their scripture. They know what God expects. But then Jesus says, if you are going to measure yourself by your performance, don’t be half hearted. Instead of helping by refining the expectations, Jesus made it worse. They had wanted to narrow down these lofty ideals to something more reasonable— something more doable. Jesus’ reply creates a terrible problem for any of us who seek to do right.
Need alone, nor the commands of the law can determine what is right in all situations. We have a much more difficult call to discernment. That means we are called to struggle—-not figuring out which rule to follow. No matter how hard we run, the finish line is always beyond our grasp.
This is an important teaching moment but many interpretations take Jesus’ replies and turn them into moral lessons more akin to Aesop’s Fables than the good news. It is way too easy to dichotomize the good and the bad people in the story. ‘Good’ people act like the Samaritan, ‘bad’ people act like the priest and the Levite. The really good people give all that they have to the poor. How much more obvious could it be? But this interpretation creates a troublesome gold standard for Christian behavior. It is just a different activity which places our standing with God in our hands. Such thinking reflects our secular values rather than Christian ones. Without realizing it we become the rich young ruler and we become the lawyer. We want a knowable and an attainable standard to live by. That, as we are to learn is not going to happen.
If you are going to base your life upon your achievements—your ‘doing’, the standard has been set. You will fall short. Very few of us realize that when we sign up for the Christian faith, we are signing up for a lifetime of chronic inadequacy (at least by secular standards). In real life, there are very few of us who will sell all our possessions and give to the poor and in real life, we are more often like the priest and the Levite than the Samaritan. Over and over again, we fail to see—or simply walk by the needs of others.
We can feel guilty about that. We can spend our lives striving, hoping we can at least get partial credit for trying. Or, as unlikely as it might seem, we can be grateful that God’s generosity far exceeds our capacity to perform. As ordinary as it is to want to have a way to know where we stand, we ignore God’s promise that he already knows us and loves us. We expose our distrust in God’s promises. Jesus set a new direction not a standard of achievement. It is a vulnerable place to live and is surprisingly hard to accept.
In our Faith in Real Life discussion Ron Johnson quoted these words: COMPASSION IS INCOMPLETE IF IT DOESN’T INCLUDE YOURSELF. Or to put it another way our responsibility to our neighbor depends upon our ability to respond. Loving our neighbors is the expectation and desire of God but it is NOT a standard that determines our standing with God. Serving God means living with our limitations and serving anyway. Serving God and neighbor will always bring us up short. God calls us to struggle not to perform. And he promises to be with us every step of the way.
If you trust God’s love in that struggle—and as much as we wish it were so, most of us do not—-you will be grateful. We are safe with God. If you’ve tasted such moments you will hunger for more.
May we trust in God’s sufficiency even as we seek to justify ourselves. Let it be so.
Vernon Gramling is a Parrish Associate at DPC. He has been providing pastoral care and counseling for over 45 years. You can find more about Vernon, the Faith in Real Life gatherings and Blog at our staff page or FIRL.