Almost as soon as the toddler begins to speak he begins to drive his parents’ nuts with question after question. Why? Why? Why?
We go to school and we’re asked questions to see if we’ve understood the lesson. At the end of the year the exam papers are full of questions.
Life is full of questions.
The Bible is no exception. In the Bible we find all sorts of questions. Scholars have tried to estimate just how many questions the Bible actually contains and have come up with a figure of around 3,200. There are good questions and bad questions, rhetorical questions and unanswered questions and questions that aren’t really questions at all.
We also find that questions are put by and to a wide range of characters: God asks questions but invites them too. Jesus made himself available to men and women so that they could put their questions to him and sometimes he answered with a direct answer and sometimes he responded with another question of his own. Men and women all ask questions and are themselves in turn questioned.
As we come to God’s Word this morning there are plenty of questions for us to look at. About five – two from the lawyer and three from Jesus.
The Initial Interaction
The episode began with a question as the lawyer spoke to Jesus:
v.25 "Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?"
The man who asked this question was a lawyer and in the NT a lawyer was a person who interpreted and taught the Mosaic law. This man was no simpleton but had a degree of expertise in spiritual and religious matters. His question too focuses upon a very important and wonderful subject – eternal life.
The subject being such an important one, it is not surprising to find that this question was posed more than once to Jesus who himself spoke about eternal life on several occasions. Perhaps the most famous words Jesus spoke on the subject of eternal life are those found in the third chapter of John’s Gospel:
Jn.3:16 "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life."
Jesus understood this eternal life as knowing God the Father and Jesus Christ whom he had sent (cf. Jn.17:3); it was, and is, a reality and a possibility. Later the apostle Paul would make it very clear that this eternal life was a gift that God freely gave to sinners (Rom.6:23).
The lawyer’s question then focused on an important matter – it was a good question – or, at least, it would have been if the question had been honestly put! In this case it wasn’t for the lawyer wasn’t interested in knowing the answer he was looking to test Jesus with a view to finding fault with him.
And yet Jesus, who knows all about men and their motives was quite prepared to allow this particular man access to him! That should be an encouragement to all of us. We come as we are to Jesus – with all our foibles and frailties – we don’t have to wait until we’ve got everything sorted out. After all it is Jesus who is the One to sort us out and he is well able to do so!!
Nevertheless we ought to stop and think about just how we deal with spiritual subjects especially those spiritual subjects that are so vital to our eternal well-being. It is not wrong for us to ask our questions but do we really want to hear his answers? To ask our questions any other way is surely unworthy. To use questions as a means to finding fault with Jesus or for keeping him at arm’s length will not help us in the long run for we need to know and trust him not keep away from him.
It may well be that this particular lawyer was suspicious of Jesus and thought that what he was teaching involved a rejection of the divine law which had been transmitted to Moses. His question was designed to catch Jesus out and give him a reason for criticising him further:
v.25 "Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?"
Instead of giving an instant response Jesus instead turned his questioner back to the very law of which he was supposed to be an expert.
Jesus had no problem with the Law of God – he had not come to set it aside but to fulfil it. He knew that the Law of God was holy, and that the commandment was holy and righteous and good (cf.Rom.7:12). So the Law could be trusted to teach the truth and to point men and women in the direction that each of us ought to take.
So Jesus responded to the lawyer’s question by inviting him to explain just how he understood what the law taught:
v.26 "What is written in the Law? How do you read it?"
The lawyer probably felt confident of the reply he was about to give, after all he was on familiar territory and was very sure of his own ground:
v.27 "And 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 neighbour as yourself.""
It was a great answer which effectively summed up the teaching of the Law – Jesus himself summed up the Law in exactly the same way and so it is no surprise that Jesus commended the lawyer:
v.28 ""You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live."
Notice that Jesus didn’t say that knowing what the Law requires was enough he called for the application of the Law too. Nor did he say "aim at doing this" but he simply said "do it". And by "do it" he meant "go on and on doing it". The Law gave instruction about the kind of life a person must habitually live if he or she would seek to achieve eternal life for themselves by their own efforts. It would not be enough to try hard, it would not even be enough to succeed just once to do what the Law required, to gain eternal life by means of the Law a person would have to keep the Law perfectly every single day of their life. Paul would later explain this when he quoted from the Book of Leviticus (Lev.18:5):
Gal.3:12 "The one who does them shall live by them."
No, there was nothing wrong with the Law. There was nothing wrong with the lawyer’s answer. The problem was with the lawyer himself: was he able to consistently live this way? The question is the same for you too. Are you able to consistently live that way – day after day with never a slip, never a mistake?
Jesus sent the lawyer back to the Law he was familiar with. But the Law could not do anything to help the lawyer keep the Law – all it could do was to function as a plumbline, showing up the lawyer’s twists and bends.
And that is one of the major functions of God’s law for all of us.
Did you realise that?
The Law is designed to show us our shortcomings but it is not equipped to help us to overcome them! As we gaze at the law and become aware of our failures we are meant to realise that we will never be able to secure our own salvation, that we will never be able to gain eternal life by our own efforts. Once the law has done this work we will be ready to hear of another way – God’s way of grace through faith in Jesus Christ.
If at first you don’t succeed...
The lawyer has not succeeded in finding fault with Jesus but is not about to give up:
v.29 "But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus"
Why had he asked his first question if he knew the answer already? The lawyer is in danger of being revealed in his true colours – he doesn’t want that so he presses on. Perhaps the Law is not clear enough:
v.29 "And who is my neighbour?"
Now this the lawyer’s second question was one that divided opinion amongst the Jews and perhaps he was hoping that Jesus would be caught supporting the "wrong" side. Or perhaps his conscience was beginning to prick him and he wanted out...
Generally speaking the Jews interpreted the word "neighbour" as referring to other Jews – it certainly didn’t apply to those non-Jewish Gentiles, no-one could imagine that! The Pharisees, to which group this lawyer may well have belonged, went even further. A neighbour to a Pharisee was a fellow Pharisee – how could they treat the common people whom they despised and considered to be accursed (Jn.7:49) as their neighbour?
In order to answer the lawyer’s second question Jesus now recounted a story – perhaps even referring to a recent well-known incident that had recently taken place.
Before we look at this very well-known story we would do well to stop and remind ourselves to which question this story supplies an answer. So many people read the story as though Jesus was telling us what to do to inherit eternal life but the story is all about recognising who our neighbour is and to whom are we acting as neighbours.
The story, which has come to be known as the Parable of the Good Samaritan, is a story about a man who travelled from Jerusalem to Jericho but before he could arrive was intercepted by a band of criminal thugs who beat him up, took all he had and left him for dead. I don’t suppose that this was a particularly rare event. The road ran through dangerous isolated territory where there was plenty of scope for organising ambushes and for slipping away again afterwards.
Jesus said nothing about the identity of this unfortunate traveller though it is clear that a Jew is meant.
Two other men came down the road travelling in the same direction and although they both saw the injured man both passed by on the other side of the road: they didn’t want to get involved. Many of us act like that today too. These two were both religious men – a priest and a Levite. They had probably been about their religious duties in Jerusalem and were making their way back home to Jericho. You might have expected something more from these man than this.
Jesus’ listeners may well have expecting to hear about someone else who would come along and help the injured party and of course they would have been expecting Jesus’ to sing the praises of an ordinary decent fellow, Jewish, naturally. But what a shock awaited them! Jesus’ third man was a Samaritan! Jews went out of their way to avoid Samaritans, those half-breeds with a corrupt and impure religion.
But it was this man who stopped and helped and he did so even when there was no claim of friendship or even of nationality. The muggers might still have been in the vicinity but the Samaritan didn’t seem concerned about any potential risks to his own safety, he was going to do what he could. And he could do quite a lot.
Practically and compassionately he made use of his first aid skills – wine as an antiseptic washing agent and oil as a soothing balm were applied to the man’s wounds. He then put the man to ride on his own animal – this most likely meant that he had to finish the journey on foot himself. Then provision was made at the next Travelodge they came to before the Samaritan man felt free to continue on his way.
Having finished his short story Jesus had a question he wanted to put to the lawyer. The lawyer had asked "Who is my neighbour?" but Jesus now asked a slightly different question of him:
"Who proved himself to be a neighbour?" (v.36)
The lawyer of course knew what the answer was to that question. Neighbourly love was clearly seen in the acts of selfless compassion which the Samaritan man carried out towards another who really had no claims upon him. This Samaritan man had recognised a need and had the ability to be able to respond to that need and in so doing he had acted in a neighbourly way. He didn’t seek to limit the concept of neighbour but seized the opportunity to exercise love when he could.
So here was an example of what it meant to "love your neighbour". Now how would the lawyer react?
He didn’t even want to take the word "Samaritan" on his lips but he couldn’t deny that this man had demonstrated wonderful compassion.
Following upon his correct interpretation of Jesus’ story Jesus encouraged the lawyer to do the same sort of thing as he lived out his life. Why? Because this was how a man is to meet the divine command to "love his neighbour".
I wonder how serious the lawyer was when he raised his question about eternal life. I know part of his intention was to discredit Jesus but I wonder whether he chose this particular subject because he really did want eternal life. Or did he chose this particular subject because he was already convinced that he had done enough to guarantee that he would enjoy eternal life.
I don’t know about you but I am always shocked by the attitude of this man. He’s talking about such an important subject and he has a certain knowledge about what kind of standard he must achieve and maintain if he is to have eternal life by means of keeping the law. But it all seems so prosaic and his real understanding so shallow and so dull.
Why do I say that? Well he’s just declared that to inherit eternal life he must love God wholeheartedly and also love his neighbour as himself. But all he can think about is "and who is my neighbour"? It’s as though he thinks that to love God wholeheartedly, perfectly and continually is a piece of cake! All he needs is a little more clarity of the matter of his neighbour and then he’ll be able to do that too – no bother.
Do you still want to earn your way to heaven? Do you still think think all you need is to be told what duties to perform and that’s that? Well go to the Law of God then and look long and hard at it. It tells you how to live? It tells you what God’s standards are like. It tells you that if you live and go on living that way that you will live!
But remember that the Law has no help to offer when you fail. The Law is fine as long as you keep it – entirely, perfectly and perpetually – but what happens when you don’t, The Law won’t help you then. It won’t stand up for you and put a hand on your shoulder comfortingly and say it doesn’t matter you did your best. No, it’ll come with its broken commands and declare you guilty and worthy of punishment, eternal punishment. It won’t say, it’s alright you nearly made it – it’ll call out against you that you failed, that you are a failure and that you cannot be admitted to the Tree of Life.
The Law is fine if you are perfect and have never been anything else not even for one moment of one day. But you are not like that and you know it! You hear the story of the Good Samaritan and you realise that you struggle to demonstrate such loving compassion even once let alone regularly consistently with every needy person you encounter. You may try hard, you may make many improvements in the way you live your life but what about your yesterdays when you weren’t bothered about loving God or your neighbour?
Jesus sent the lawyer back to the Law that the Law might reveal to him just how far short he had fallen and was falling from God’s standards. Only when aware of a need that was way beyond his own capacity to satisfy would the lawyer be ready to receive God’s free grace as a gift. Only when you realise how serious your predicament is will you be ready to do the same.
It was possible for this lawyer to approach Jesus and to speak to him. He had the amazing honour of having Jesus take notice of him with all his dishonesty and impure motives and he had the opportunity of mulling over what Jesus said to him. Did he benefit or did he not? We’re not told the end of his story.
But what about the end of your story? You can call out in prayer – you can hear the Words of Jesus – you can read them for yourself in the Bible – you can hear them explained – but will you? Will you heed them? Will you see yourself as God sees you – as sinner who has offended against him and his commandments a million times over. Or will you take offence – objecting to the very suggestion that you might not quite cut it with God? Will you keep on taking offence and keep on rejecting the salvation you need?
Please God that we may see something of our shortcomings and failures and recognise them for what they are: blots and blemishes that dishonour our Creator. May we come to an end of all our efforts to "do it my way" and may we put our faith and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ.
And to God alone be the Glory.