Master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?
This is not the first time Jesus is asked this question. The rich man in the Gospel of Mark asked it too, though he added the word ‘Good’ to his question: Good master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?
The fact that the Gospels record two men with the same question seems to underline its importance, as well as its universal relevance. What must I do? Have you asked Jesus this question – when you were young, maybe – or maybe you are older but find yourself asking it again?
What must I do? In answer Jesus tells a parable, makes sure it is understood, and then directs: Go, and do the same yourself. Unambiguous, straightforward, and almost a little clinical; it seems like something is missing. I wonder if you get the same feeling.
There is something strangely dispassionate in Jesus, a kind of holding back, a seeming lack of engagement with this lawyer.
Or perhaps Jesus is aware that this man is fragile in his all too obvious conceit. He sits there in the group of listeners, conscious of his status as a lawyer, awaiting his opportunity to ‘disconcert’ Jesus. Do you know what this word ‘disconcert’ means? Well, you can take your pick from any of these synonyms: agitate, baffle, bewilder, cause embarrassment, confuse, derange, discomfit, discompose, dismay, disturb, embarrass, fluster, nonplus, rattle, sadden, trouble, unnerve, upset.
All of this, of course, is just another way of saying the lawyer wanted to big note himself and, what’s more, that he had absolutely no idea who Jesus really was.
The man in the gospel of Mark is very different. Driven by an inner urgency he comes running up to catch Jesus who was just leaving on a journey. His question is personal. He comes running up, kneels before Jesus, and puts his question to him. Everything speaks of sincerity.
The lawyer, on the other hand, sits there and then stands up before the master and puts his question. No wonder Jesus is on his guard and wisely makes him answer his own question. What is written in the Law? What do you read there?
[If only more people would ask themselves this question before they answered the questions of others – What is written in the Law?]
The lawyer cannot resist the challenge and answers comprehensively: You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbour as yourself. He proves that he already knew the answer and must now accept from Jesus the compliment (You have answered right ..) which makes it clear who is the master and who is the pupil.
Now it is the lawyer who is disconcerted. He had been caught red-handed, stealing from the bickie tin of pride. His discomfort was his own fault and if he had had any sense he would have let the matter go there.
What a far cry this scene is from the one in Mark where Jesus: looked steadily at him and loved him. With the lawyer Jesus, so to speak, stays out of the loop, keeping his distance from the man, letting him deal with consequences of his own impudence.
But instead of just sitting down and thinking things over the lawyer is: anxious to justify himself; and asks a second question: And who is my neighbour?
Jesus tells a parable which he asks the lawyer to interpret: Which of these three, do you think, proved himself a neighbour to the man who fell into the brigands’ hands? Again the answer is confident and correct: The one who took pity on him.
No compliment this time but simply a command: Go, and do the same yourself. Nor does Jesus invite the lawyer to follow him, as he does the man in Mark’s account. Certainly this is because the lawyer is not yet ready for discipleship. In a way he first needs to let go of himself.
Ironically, it seems to me, the lawyer manifests exactly the same self-absorbed, self-protective preoccupation with himself which caused the priest and the Levite to cross the road and avoid involvement with the man who had fallen into the hands of brigands.
Jesus invites the lawyer, as he invites you and me, to cross the road from thinking to doing, from detachment to compassion, from self to others. It is a wide road but there is no reason why, with God’s grace and a little humility learnt from a painful lesson, this man (and you, and I) should not one day succeed in the challenge.