When the lawyer in our story comes to test Jesus he does what anyone has to do when they test another. He asks a question that he knows the answer to, after all, if you don’t already know the rights answer how will you know if the test has been passed?
“Teacher,” he says, “what should I do to inherit eternal life?” We’ve heard the story so we know he knows the answer: love God, love your neighbour. We know he knows because Jesus refuses to even take this test. Instead of answering the question Jesus turns it back. What do the books of the law say? How do you read them? Jesus doesn’t submit to this examination, he doesn’t recognise the lawyer’s authority. Jesus takes control of the conversation, turning the test back on the tester and telling him he’s passed, or at least passed the theoretical part. “You have answered right; do this, and you will live.”
Is this good news or bad news for this learned man? To learn that not only does he know what he needs to do but that Jesus knows that he knows? To find out that he isn’t the one setting the test but the one taking it? Is this good news; that he’s passed a test he thought he was setting? It doesn’t seem as if feels like good news to him. He doesn’t thank Jesus, doesn’t go quietly back to trying to live up to the two great commandments he’s quoted.
Instead he presses on with trying to test Jesus, but now, one suspects, he isn’t so sure of the right answer. “Who is my neighbour?” he asks. Once again Jesus refuses to answer. He tells a story and asks a question. This time, though, he does something more as well. He doesn’t just turn the test back on the lawyer, he changes it. Instead of asking “who is the neighbour I should love?”, which is what is the question put to him, he asks “who acts like a loving neighbour?”. When the lawyer’s question comes back to him it has shifted from looking out at people the questioner might help to looking for people who might help him.
“Which of these three proved neighbour to the man who fell among thieves?” Jesus asks. “Go and do likewise”, he says. The one to whom we are to be a neighbour is the one who needs us. We are commanded to love, to help, whoever we are put in a position to help. We can’t predict who that will be and what they will be like. We will come across them, lying by the road and we are to be ready, ready to see them, ready to act. We shouldn’t worry about whether we’ll be able to tell who they are. Their need will tell us. We don”t need to go looking for them. They will be lying in the ditch we pass. That’s what Jesus tells our lawyer.
He knows what he has to do, he has to love God and help his neighbour. He will know who his neighbour; they will be the person lying by his road, in need of his help. It’s all very simple. It doesn’t need great learning or expertise. What’s more it’s all so simple there’s no need of tests and Jesus won’t take any. He doesn’t need, doesn’t want, to prove himself to anyone. He is who he is and if you don’t have eyes to see or ears to hear then there’s nothing he can do about it.
What this conversation doesn’t cover, as a consequence, is what it means to love God, to love God with all our hearts, souls, minds and strength. Why the lawyer didn’t press on with this as he did with the second isn’t explained. If he really wanted help with inheriting eternal life this would seem a more difficult matter, it seems to me. As Jesus shows him he already knows what love of neighbour means. Does he know about love of God?
Loving our neighbour means helping them, as the Samaritan does. What does loving God mean? Is it just a feeling inside? Is it a matter of sacrifice and prayer? Is it about going to the Temple, the Synagogue or for the Church?
It’s to answer this question that Luke goes on to tell the story about Martha and Mary. Mary does nothing, she says nothing. She sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. That’s all we’re told. She sat at his feet and listened. She didn’t ask any questions. She didn’t express her acceptance or her love. She didn’t leap up and start proclaiming the gospel nor did she search for neighbours who were in need of love. She didn’t even help with making Jesus comfortable, let alone washing his feet with her tears or anointing his head with precious oils. Mary sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching.
When Martha complained Jesus replied that there is only one thing that is needed and that Mary has chosen the better part. Sitting and listening. It seems to me that this is the answer we’re given to the question the lawyer didn’t ask: “how shall I love the God I can’t see and who doesn’t need my help?” This is actually much more difficult than loving our neighbour, which is hard enough itself, which is why nobody comes right out and asks. We’re afraid to ask in case we seem stupid or lacking in faith and in case the answer tells us to do something we can’t begin to attempt and in some ways we’re right to be worried because the answer is rather like that to the question about the neighbour.
The Samaritan acted as a neighbour not because he knew the answer to the question about who his neighbour was but because he was able to recognise the time to act when it came. Mary chose the better part not because she was an expert in theology but because she recognised the time and the place to sit and listen. When Jesus came to her house she knew that the right thing was to pay attention to him not to get busy in the kitchen. When Jesus comes to us, as we’re told he does, do we have the sense to be still? Do we know to be quiet? Do we sit and listen?
What should we do to inherit eternal life? Pick the broken people up from the ditches along our way and sit and listen when Jesus comes to call. It’s that simple, it really is.