Three More Encounter Jesus
The parable of the Good Samaritan and the story of Mary and Martha are fairly familiar as individual stories, but Luke didn’t mean for us to read them separately. He told them together as two encounters that happened as Jesus made his way from Jericho toward Jerusalem: encounters with a lawyer and with two sisters.
Lawyers then, like they are now, were experts in the law. But not like they are now. Now, laws are political – legislated by and enforced by the government. Now, experts in the law go to court or serve as judges or write opinions. Then, the law that lawyers were experts in was the law of Moses, the Hebrew Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament law. So, the lawyer stood up to question Jesus. “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
We hear that question much differently than he meant it. He is not asking Jesus how to get to heaven. The concept of eternal life was broader for Jews in Jesus day and time than for us today. Eternal life was not living beyond earthly death. What they thought of when they said “eternal life” wasn’t life that goes on and on or life after earthly death, it was life with the one who is Eternal, life with God, creation restored to live the way God intended without disobedience or sin. Instead of “eternal life” we might ask “Teacher, what must I do to inherit the Kingdom of God? Or the Beloved Community? Or God’s Kindom in which we all live in harmony as brothers and sisters of Christ?” Eternal life isn’t something that starts after you die, it is a way of living in the present.
Jesus answers the lawyer’s question with a question, “What is written in the law?” He knows the answer – he has dedicated his whole life to studying the law. He’s an expert. The lawyer asked the question because he wanted to know what Jesus would say. He isn’t trying to trick Jesus, but he is testing him. Have you ever asked a question, not because you didn’t know what you would answer, but because you wanted to know what the other person would answer? To see if you and the other person are on the same page? So, Jesus just turns it right back around on him. “You’re a lawyer, what does the law say?”
He knows the answer. It all distills down to, “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. But Jesus, who is a neighbor?” The problem is, see, that the boundaries are a bit unclear, Jesus, especially about that “neighbor” part, especially when there are people you’d like to classify as less than you, you’d like to group all together and hate, you’d like to dehumanize because you are not about to socialize. The lawyer has a problem, and he wants Jesus to help him. It’s just that it’s really not possible to love everybody. So, for a while…like ever since God gave Moses the law on Mt. Sinai…the Jewish lawyers have been trying to pinpoint exactly who it is that has to be included in that love one another command.
Jesus replies with a parable that we know as a story about the Samaritan who got it right, the Good Samaritan…and the lawyer probably would want us to remember to include the Good Samaritan because surely there was only one…those Samaritans were a real problem…they acted like they worshiped God, but they didn’t do it the way the Jewish people did, like wolves in sheep’s clothing. But the connection between this parable and the encounter with Mary and Martha isn’t who gets it right. It’s not so much about the Good Samaritan and Mary getting it right. We can look at those two and say, “Well, they are really special.” The connection between these stories that teaches us the most is the people who give the wrong answers to the question that the lawyer asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
A man is going from Jerusalem to Jericho and is ambushed by robbers who strip him, beat him, and leave him for dead. Jesus’ answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor” is right here. The man has been stripped. The only way to identify someone was by their clothes. This man, left for dead, is any one. He could be Jewish or Gentile, Samaritan or Egyptian, one of us or one of them. A priest and a Levite go by and cross over as far away as possible to the other side. Priests and Levites worked in the Temple. Priests were in charge of sacrifices and worship. Levites were on the “ministry team” – they were the musicians, the gatekeepers, the craftsmen who kept up the Temple. Both were concerned with remaining clean so that they could be in the Temple, the house of God on earth. To come in contact with someone who was unclean would mean that they had to be purified before they could again “Love the Lord with all their hearts, souls, strength and minds.” They were so distracted by trying to keep this law that they were no earthly good. For them, life had become all about worship, all about avoiding anything that would make them unclean. They failed to love their neighbor. In fact, they avoided their neighbor, who could have been anyone. Then the Samaritan comes by and bandages the man. Now remember, he didn’t have a first aid kit or even a change of clothes packed on his donkey. Evidently, he was willing to take his own clothes, even though it meant that he was then indecent according to society’s standards, and rip them up to bandage the man. He gave up his clothes. He poured oil and wine on the man’s wounds…he gave up his food. He took the man to an inn and paid for it…he gave up his money and made sure the man had shelter. And he said he was coming back, so the innkeeper was on notice to follow through. “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
How many of you have not played tic-tac-toe? You know that moment when you see that there is no space your opponent can fill that will keep you from winning? That you have two different ways you can win? I love that moment. Jesus’ story has left the lawyer without a move. He can’t say the priest or the Levite were the neighbor – it had to be the Samaritan. But, no matter what he says, even if he says the priest or the Levite, the neighbor is the man who was travelling alone on a dangerous stretch of road (no one did that, why was he alone), who was beaten and left for dead (so he was unclean), and he was stripped naked (all cultural identifiers were gone…he could have been anyone).
As they continued on their way, Jesus and his disciples reached the home of Martha for the night. Martha was thrilled to host them. The problem is that Jesus hadn’t sent her a text or called. He hadn’t shared his ETA. They just showed up at the door, and she was scrambling. I’ve been Martha, maybe you have too. She needs help, and Mary is just sitting in there soaking up every word Jesus says. Clearly, she has not learned to love her neighbor as herself. So, Martha marches in and interrupts, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” “Martha, Martha, the Lord answered, you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. I don’t need a big meal – keep it simple. Don’t panic and clean. I don’t need everything to be perfect. I am here to see you. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
While the priest and Levite had been focused on worship, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind,” Martha was focused on hospitality, “Loving her neighbor as herself.” Now, here is the connection – they were all focused on the law, as duty. The lawyer’s question to Jesus was “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The answer is not in reading the law more perfectly. The answer is not do this and this and you’re good. It’s not worship every Sunday, give 10% of your gross salary, and carry a care bags in your car for people begging on the street corners to pass out. All good things. But, there’s not a chart with your name with stars to stick on that when you reach a certain number of stars you get eternal life.
The law can’t change your heart any more than a scale can change your weight. I can stand on the scale every morning and see that I am not where I want to be. I can read and become an expert in the law, and not be where I want to be. Eternal life is about your heart, about the joy you have in loving God and neighbor, about delighting in worship and service. It is about motivation – desire rather than duty, love rather than obedience. What must you do to inherit eternal life? Let your heart be changed. Then you will live eternal life today. Thanks be to God! Amen.