The story is told of the atheist who accosted a preacher. “Do you believe in eternal life?” The preacher had no time to reply. “Well it’s a load of rubbish!” shouted the atheist. “I believe in science, evolution, survival of the fittest, and when we die, that’s it! No eternal life, no great judgment, and no God!” The atheist continued his assault against the preacher repetitiously and tirelessly. “Eternal life! Eternal life! Ha! It’s all pie in the sky when you die.” When I die that’s it, the end, no eternal life, no nothing. He continued his tirade until he reached his climax, “I will be buried six feet under when I die and that’s it! Nothing! Caput! When I die I am utterly convinced that that will be the end of me!” “Well thank God for that,” replied the preacher!
Everyone struggles, at one time or another, with the fact that they are going to die. Some of us have been able to keep death at bay. Our contemporary lifestyle has sanitized death by taking it out of the home and keeping it behind closed doors. However, many of us have seen death close up. Our spouse has died, or one of our children, a sibling, a good friend, and we have been devastated and crushed by grief. We have been left behind to slug it out through life in the midst of our pain and sadness. They are gone but we have been left behind to find an adequate answer to the meaning of their death and to wonder about our death as well. We work like mad to look young and stay in good shape, but no matter how hard we work at it we know we will all die. Life will go on after us and after a generation or two we will be forgotten. So we wonder…after we die, will there be something more? Is their really life after death?
When the lawyer asked his question of Jesus, “How may I inherit eternal life?” he knew it was an important question to the crowd around him. There had been a growing interest in the question of eternal life since the return of the Israelites from exile in Babylon and the building of the second Temple around 520 years before. The occupation and domination of Israel over the last few hundreds of years by powerful nations had dashed her people’s hope of becoming a great and powerful nation as it had been at the time of David. So the question of eternal life and what would happen at the end of history became more and more important, especially to the Jewish leaders, the Pharisees and the Sadducees and the Scribes. Would God ever vindicate Israel and make her a great nation again? What would happen to Jews, dead and alive, as they waited for the establishment of God’s kingdom?
The lawyer, who would have been an expert in the Jewish Law, secular and religious law being undifferentiated, must have felt he had an airtight argument with which to test and then trap Jesus. Jesus was a problem to the Pharisees and the lawyers because he undermined their authority as the theologically correct ones who could interpret God’s law and he challenged their false perspective about God, themselves, and others. But Jesus refused to be trapped and didn’t answer his question. Instead he asked the lawyer a question, the best kind of response to someone who challenges you. He knew that the lawyer lived by the Jewish law which contained 631 Mitzvoth, or commandments, listed in the in the Torah. Taking the upper hand in the discussion, Jesus asked the lawyer to answer this question which scholars tell us had been debated for years. The lawyer answered with two laws that had been linked together over the years – to love God and to love your neighbor. Jesus, knowing that the Pharisees tended to elevate knowing the law over the doing of the law suggested to the lawyer an attitude adjustment – he tells the lawyer to go and do it – go and live out the two commandments. For Jesus it wasn’t enough to know the law you had to do it and then, and only then, would you live; only then would you have eternal life. As Fred Craddock put it, Jesus‘ understanding of the law was that “those who live the right way now show they have been touched by the kingdom of God and will receive the promised inheritance – life with God in the age to come.”
But wanting to justify himself, the lawyer asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” He didn’t think that the commandment meant he had to love everybody. His question implied selectivity. He wanted to know whom he should love. He couldn’t be expected to love just anybody, could he? Jesus then told a story that would have puzzled the lawyer and perhaps left him wondering far into the future.
If you read about Jewish life at the time of Jesus, the other 629 mitzvoth kept tight boundaries between Jewish life and the life of the Gentiles around them. They told you what to eat, when to eat, with whom you could eat, whom you could touch and talk to, the list goes on and on. It was a religious duty to keep these laws and to avoid certain people. The lawyer thought he knew who his neighbors were. They were the Jews with whom he lived and studied and worshiped. Never would he have thought of a Samaritan or a Gentile as his neighbor. So, when Jesus launched into his story the lawyer had no idea where it would end up. He would have known the dangerous road from Jerusalem to Jericho quite well. It is narrow and hidden in deep gullies in dry and barren desert – the perfect spot for robbers. He would have sympathized with the Priest and the Levite who could not touch the injured man without dire consequences to their religious offices. But a Samaritan as the hero of the story, helping a wounded man – that would have thrown him. Samaritans were considered unclean and good for nothing. There was great hostility between Jews and Samaritans to such an extent that Jesus himself was thrown out of Samaria. How could the lawyer make sense of the story; what category could he fit it into?
Michael Lindvall tells how when the first German Franks were converted to Christianity, they were baptized en masse by the thousands; the people went down to the river in hordes. As they went in, they would hold their swords up high, out of the water. “They were always careful to hold their swords above their heads out of the waters of baptism,” Lindvall writes, “not to save them from rust but to keep them from Jesus.” The Franks kept their swords out of the water to hold them back from God so they could justify their actions against their enemies. The lawyer, on the other hand, believed he already was justified in holding himself back from loving everyone. But Jesus had a very different interpretation of the law. “You have heard that it was said, you should love your neighbor but hate your enemy. But I say to you,” said Jesus, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your father in heaven….Be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful.” (Matthew 5)
Jesus uses the power of story to make his point and to draw the lawyer to his point of view. Lois Paul Carson, English Chair, Upper School Cary Academy, Raleigh, North Carolina, writes that the power of story and words to reflect the world we live in, as well as to provide the imagination and vision necessary to reshape that world, is infinite. “Stories enable us to understand ourselves and others; they give us the power to sway an audience, to force change, to build bridges across ethnic and gender lines.” Jesus hopes his story will shake loose the framework of the lawyers understanding of the law and open him to a new understanding what it means to be a child of God.
I received a phone call one day at my office in the church I served in Lombard. A young woman was calling to ask if I would baptize her child. The baby was only a few days old and the mother was anxious to have her child baptized. I asked if her husband and she belonged to a church. No, she said, they didn’t belong to a church and they had been calling all over town to try and find a church that would baptize their child. Did she and her husband plan to join a church, I asked. No she said, they really weren’t church- goers, but she really wanted her child baptized. I went out on a limb and asked her if she was Roman Catholic and had been brought up to believe that her child would end up in limbo or even hell if she wasn’t baptized. Surprised, she answered yes. But I wasn’t surprised. This wasn’t the first call like this I had gotten from a non-practicing Catholic. Her dilemma wasn’t far removed from the lawyer’s question. They both lived under the law and had a very legal understanding of the meaning of eternal life.
The concept of immortality is one of the oldest and most general of human ideas. Evidence of it was found in the burial rights of Neanderthals to Greek philosophy and evidence of it is expressed in almost every religion. Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus believe in the ongoing existence of the soul. But Christians don’t make a distinction between the body and the soul, and believe in the ongoing life of the soul and the resurrection of the body. Most of us have been taught that heaven is that place where we hope to live our eternal lives, and that it will be a state in which those who please God live eternally in God’s presence and enjoy the limitless riches of the creative divine love. (The Westminster Theological Dictionary). Jesus had a much broader, deeper , and demanding understanding of eternal life. Eternal life can be a here-and- now experience, as well as something out in the future. Eternal life is a quality of life that starts for us when we open ourselves to God, heart, soul, might, and mind. It begins when we allow God into our innermost being to give us our identity, our strength and resolve, and to use our intellectual capacities. (Fred Craddock, Interpretation: The Gospel of Luke). It begins when we let the love of our neighbor flow from this new creation we have become in Christ.
The problem for most of us is that we have a hard time allowing God into our innermost being to transform us beyond the confines and structures of our social, political, and religious habits and prejudices. Why accept the responsibility of our actions if we can blame it on someone else? Is there anything more fun, really, than self justification? I learned it well in my family. Adam and Eve blamed each other, the lawyer in our story was just following the law, “the devil made me do it,” was Geraldine’s plaintive cry on The Flip Wilson Show. Is there anything harder to find than the humility to admit the sense of disparity we have between what we know life was made to be and the way we live it? John Leith writes that in the New Testament the “basic cleavage between human beings is not between rich and poor, powerful and oppressed, male and female, free and enslaved, but between those who believed that they were righteous and those who knew they were sinners.”
The lawyer’s problem was that he lived by a code that demanded outward compliance, but that same code could not produce inward transformation. Shirley Guthrie puts it this way: “Only people who are aware of their separation from God can be aware of their need for acceptance, forgiveness and for the love of God and others. Only then can they love the God who loves them and are they moved to love others.” Eternal life is not some pie in the sky payback for a life well- lived. It is a promise out in front of us. But it is also present here and now in the praise and love we offer God and in the love we offer one another at coffee hour, or when we cook for the soup kitchen, or visit St. Gregory’s school, or send out our benevolence checks every year. We are steeped in eternal life when we go on a mission trip and work side by side with American Indians, or Nicaraguans, or Costa Ricans. We are filled with eternal life when we open our lives, heart mind and soul, to God’s transforming love that breaks down walls of hostility and allows us to be the one who shows mercy. Now….as Jesus tells us to, let’s go do it.