Reflections on Luke 10:29
But wishing to justify himself, he said to Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"
If this was a debate, he lost the opening round. He knows that. He set a trap for Jesus. It didn’t work. Instead, Jesus pushed back. Hard. Strong. With words he didn’t understand. So what does he do now?
Should he ask Him? “What do you mean? Eternal life begins now?”
No, if he does that, Jesus will have the advantage. He could make a fool out of him in front of everybody and say something like, “How is it you’re a teacher in Israel and don’t understand these things?” He’s heard He’s done that before. 1
Maybe he should just sit down.
Or maybe not. Debate is his expertise. It’s his gift from God. If Jesus is, as many of his colleagues suspect, a false prophet, then He will never withstand the force, the power, of his logic. He has Scripture. He has wisdom from God. He has years of experience in the courtroom and more wins than losses under his belt.
He makes the choice. He will attack again.
But on what grounds? He decides not to re-engage the question of eternal life again. Best to attack where he’s strong, confident. A debate he’s sure to win. And better still -- one that strikes at the heart of where Jesus has gone wrong.
And He’s gone wrong here -- on this question of who is “neighbor.”
He willfully violates the teaching of the elders. Jesus knows – everybody knows – God defines “neighbor” as our people. Not those outside Israel. And, even then, it must be Jews who are real Jews living in obedience to God and His Law. This is the accepted teaching.
But not to Jesus.
From the streets to the synagogues, He’s known as a “glutton. A drunkard. Friend of sinners!” 2And it’s obviously true. Look at them! Prostitutes. Roman tax collectors pretending to be Jews. The dregs of society – all followers of Jesus. Is it even possible half the people here would qualify as “neighbor” in God’s eyes?
This, he decides, is where he takes his stand.
If Jesus even tries to defend Himself, saying He agrees with the elders’ teaching, He’d lose at once. He’d have to explain this crowd around Him – and He couldn’t.
No, He’s trapped here. He’s got to argue why He opposes the accepted teaching of Scripture. When He does, He will publicly declare Himself in rebellion to God.
And that will be His downfall.
Jesus will hand him the evidence he needs to bring Him to trial.
It’s time to make his move. He may have lost the first round but he will win the day. He will justify himself in front of everybody. There will be sweet vindication! All he has to do is speak the words out loud. The crowd may not get it. But Jesus will. He will feel the justice of God hemming Him in. From every side.
The crowd is quiet. The words come easily, smoothly, with more confidence than he expected.
“Answer me this, Teacher: Who is my neighbor?”
* * *
My first week as chaplain at a mental state hospital went by fast.
The bishop had asked Leslie, my supervisor, to assign me to a ward with lower functioning patients. I spent a good chunk of the day with them and, the rest, with Leslie and my classmates as we processed our various experiences.
My attitude was not good.
I was still angry at the bishop. I felt judged by him. He’d put me in this little tiny box and stamped a label on me -- “narrow” -- “born again” – “evangelical.” And why? Was it because there was an “awakening” of God going on in some of his churches? Or that he had pastors under his care who were courageously preaching the Bible and calling people to a born again faith in Jesus Christ?
Why didn’t he like it? It made no sense to me. And why was he taking it out on me -- consigning me to an entire summer at this wretched hospital? Really?
I tried to hide my anger. But during the second week of the program, it popped out. Unexpectedly. One of my classmates was leading a Bible study. He asked us to join in and talk about it together. As we did, I heard something I didn’t like. He had a wrong understanding of a particular verse of the Bible.
So I broke in and corrected him.
He looked at me puzzled. They all did.
“You’re wrong about this,” he chided. He gave his explanation, others chimed in, and I soon realized – they were right. I’d misunderstood.
Somehow my anger, my bad attitude, had left me cold and uncaring to my fellow classmates. One of them spontaneously belted out, “I can’t believe how arrogant you are.” Again, I apologized – as sincerely as I could. I looked over at Leslie, hoping to gain his support. But his head was down. He was writing notes on his legal pad. My heart instantly sank.
This would get back to my bishop.
Once again, I’d be branded with words like, “arrogant”, “self-righteous.”
I resolved to do better. It was still early in the summer. I had time on my side. I’d stumbled, yes. But, hopefully, not for long. I’d do my best to perform well with the patients. I’d work hard to gain the respect of my classmates. I’d promise Leslie I’d never let this happen again.
I’d make sure of it.
A few days later, we had our weekly meeting together. I was nervous about it. I was convinced -- first words out of his mouth -- he’d bring up the incident at the Bible study. I was afraid he, too, had labeled me. And more afraid he and the bishop had already talked. That thought kept me awake for a few nights.
But instead, as always, Leslie surprised me. He instantly put me at ease. “Tell me how it’s going for you so far,” he said, concerned.
“Not great,” I replied bluntly.
“That’s what I thought.”
“I’ve got to do well this summer and I feel like I’m already failing miserably.”
“In what way?”
“I need the bishop’s approval – which means I have to do more than simply pass this program. I did that last summer. I’ve got to somehow meet his expectations and I don’t know how to do that.”
“So that’s your focus, isn’t it?” Leslie asked. “You’ve got to make sure the bishop’s happy with you.”
“Yeah, or he won’t ordain me.”
“Seems odd to me,” Leslie reflected, writing something on his pad.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Well, you’ve obviously angry with him. He’s forcing you to be here and you, clearly, don’t want to be. If I were you, I’d want to defend myself. Make an appointment, go see him, and prove him wrong. But you can’t. You need his approval too badly. So you’re stuck here – with me!”
And then he smiled, comfortably.
“That’s about it!” I volleyed back, trying to be cheerful.
“And what would you tell him, if you could?”
“That he’s judged me wrongly, without even knowing me. He’s done the same with our church. I feel like he marginalizes those who openly talk about Jesus Christ – and how He’s saved us – and what He’s doing in our lives. We get pigeonholed and I don’t understand it. How can a bishop be upset by that? Is he as clueless about the Christian faith as he is about me?”
Leslie let my words hang in the air for a minute.
“So what are you going to do about it?”
“Ask you to help me?”
“What do you want me to do?”
“Maybe you could call him? Ask him what he wants from me?”
Leslie shook his head, “That’s not my job.” And then he looked at me with almost sadness in his eyes. As if I’d hurt him somehow. As if, of all people, I was the most clueless.
“Do you know why I’m here?” he asked. “God gave me a heart for the people who live day in and day out at this hospital. And I help train chaplains who have the same heart. That’s my job. And right now, I think it’s pretty clear, that’s not you. Your heart is somewhere else.”
1 John 3:10
2 Luke 7:34
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