Doing theology as if Jesus matters challenges us to work very hard toward coherence between belief and practice, theology and ethics, faith and works. It is difficult to imagine anything that undermines the redemptive impact of Christian faith more than the lack of integrity, when we say we believe one thing and our actions reveal a different set of values altogether.
In this final essay, I want to revisit the theme of faithful living in light of the message of Jesus by returning once more to the classic story Jesus told in response to a lawyer asking him about eternal life in Luke 10. “Then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal?’ [Jesus] said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ [The lawyer] 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 neighbor as yourself.’ And [Jesus] said to [the lawyer], ‘You have given the right answer; do this and you will live.’” (Luke 10:25-28)
The question the lawyer asks Jesus is our question, too. What must we do to inherit eternal life? What must we do to live? How do we live? How do we serve life?
When our hierarchy of values, our priorities, are like Jesus’ priorities, we will be worshiping the God Jesus claims is the true God. These two names, “Jesus” and “Christ” are actually titles that themselves underscore the importance of this person. “Jesus” means “savior,” a term ancient Israel applied of their great leader with the same name, “Joshua.” Romans during the first century thought of the emperor as their “savior.” And “Christ” means “anointed one,” “son of God,” “messiah”—that is, literally it means “king.”
To think of this person as “Jesus” and “Christ” (“savior” and “king”) is, for Christians, to confess that he embodies God. Jesus Christ shows us with clarity what God is like and what God wants from human beings. God is the merciful God of life who seeks to heal a hurting creation—and human beings have the vocation of joining God in this work.
If we confess Jesus as our savior and king, we are saying we want to align ourselves with his hierarchy of values. We are saying something definitive about our own identity. The task of theology is to help us understand and live with integrity with this identity. What do we value the most? What does shape what we do? To what do we devote our best energies and resources?
In his book, Great Plains, Ian Frazier gives a fascinating look at the western interior of North America. He highlights the extraction of untold natural wealth, generally with devastating consequences on the environment. He closes the book with a great, and deeply distressing irony. The bounty that has been taken from the ground in the Great Plains, worth billions of dollars, has been replaced with billions of dollars worth of buried nuclear weapons and their delivery systems. Quite a trade-off, irreplaceable natural beauty and life-systems replaced with systems whose only purpose is to destroy life. What does this exchange say about our nation’s hierarchy of values?
Part of doing theology is self-awareness. The other part, for Christians, is trying to align our hierarchy of values with Jesus’ values. As we better understand what our actual gods are, as we bring these gods to the surface, we then will be able to revise, adjust, and correct. By being more self-aware we will be able to transform our theology into the actual theology we want, that we believe will help us serve life.
This self-awareness should also include recognition that these various rival gods (redemptive violence, consumerism, the “free market”) that compete for our ultimate trust are not passive. The appropriate analogy is not one of looking in a card catalogue in a library and having the comfortable space to decide without pressure which book we want to look at. Rather, the analogy is more the old county fair with the various barkers in the midway all vying for our attention, making promises, seeking more than anything to separate us from our money but to make us think we are happy about them doing so.
As Paul writes in Romans, these various principalities and powers actively seek to separate us from God (8:35-39). And they are pretty powerful in their allure. However, the Bible also tells us that the main power these idols have is deception. Once we see them for who or what they are—rivals to God, not God’s servants as they claim—then their hold over us might be broken. Then we may be freed to model our theology (and our lives) after Jesus’ theology and life.
Our passage from Luke’s gospel gives us about as much direction in just a few sentences as any place in the Bible. Jesus faces a test when he is confronted by this lawyer, a recognized expert in Torah, the Law, the core of Israel’s life and faith. The lawyer asks Jesus the question: What must we do to inherit eternal life? Don’t let the word “eternal” distract you here. “Eternal life” for New Testament people was not focused on life in a different world, escaping from this world to go to “heaven.” The lawyer is not asking how can my soul end up living forever.
Eternal here has to do with quality. How do we live life as it is meant to be lived? How do we live in harmony with God and with God’s intention for human beings? How do we fulfill our purpose? As human beings, as living creatures, we are all oriented to life—life’s longing for itself. How do we best do this? This is the question.
Jesus makes like Socrates here. The lawyer asks, “What must I do to inherit life?” Jesus turns it back on him. What do you think? The lawyer is ready. He summarizes Torah in a nutshell. Love God with one’s whole being and, as part of that love, love one’s neighbor. Yes, Jesus says, you’ve got it right. Do this and live.
This answer the lawyer gives and Jesus affirms actually is a pretty rich and complicated statement. The issue here is life itself. The meaning of life, our place in life. The question about eternal life looms about as big and basic as any theological question a person could ask.
Jesus shows great respect for this lawyer. The lawyer turns directly to the law, to Torah, to the commands—the message God gave God’s people about how to live together as God’s people. Torah speaks to life, not just to legalistic rules and regulations about behavior. Torah is not mainly about an external toeing the line. Torah is about our very relationship with God. Torah is about the quality of life, our purposes and destiny. The writer of Psalm 119:41-48 captures this sense of Torah: “I revere your commandments.” From the start, Torah is about love. We too easily separate law and love—and with tragic consequences. We end up with loveless law and lawless love. Law becomes about power and retribution and has no soul. Love becomes about feelings and self-gratification and has no social embodiment. But Torah, in its truest meaning, speaks to hearts. Torah speaks a word of love.
We see the centrality of love from the very beginning when the commandments are first given to Moses in Exodus 20. The first word in the commandments is “I am the Lord your God who delivered you from slavery and into freedom out of my mercy and love for you.” The commands follow in response to God’s love.
Leviticus 19 also emphasizes the centrality of love in portraying the law: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” Paul, in Romans 13, follows the logic of Leviticus 19 closely: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”
The law brings life because it is grounded in and leads to love. But we can’t command love, right? Certainly not in an external, coercive sense. Maybe we shouldn’t command anything in an external, coercive sense.
Our following commands works best when we want to, not when we feel forced. The commands in Torah are a response—we follow Torah because we have God’s love, not in order to earn God’s love. What could make the non-legalistic intentions of Torah more clear than how the lawyer (with Jesus’ approval) summarizes the entire Law and Prophets: love God; love neighbor. Love must come from the heart. We only know how to love because we have been loved. As Bruce Cockburn sings, “when you love love, love loves you too.”
The way love works—wooing, not coercing—fits with the nature of creation as a whole. God has infused creation with God’s Spirit, the Spirit of life. As Christians, we confess a unity among God the Creator, God the Spirit, and God incarnated in the human being, Jesus. God made what is out of love and continues to enliven it. And this love is defined by the message of Jesus.
Jesus and the lawyer are on the same page. Torah equals love which equals life. But then the lawyer presses on. He tests Jesus further. “And who is my neighbor?” Notice that the lawyer recognizes the direct link between love of God and love of neighbor. The lawyer recognizes that the clearest test of our love for God is our love for our neighbor.
We don’t know how the lawyer himself would have answered this question. We don’t know who the lawyer thought his neighbor was. Possibly, if the lawyer is like we are much of the time and if his culture was anything like ours, he would think of neighbor as limited to those inside his own circle of friends. The neighbor would be one like ourselves—life and love are to be given to me and mine, alone.
When the lawyer asks who the neighbor is, Jesus makes another pedagogical move. Rather than a direct answer, he tells a story. And what a story! He tells of a man being brutally robbed on the road to Jericho and then saved by a Samaritan.
Jesus’ listeners could imagine the trip from Jerusalem to Jericho—steep, winding, dangerous, a drop of 3,300 feet in 23 miles. They could imagine being mugged and left for dead—and they would shudder. Then they would shudder again as they imagined the priest and Levite passing them by—those damn hypocrites! They should be helping! I’m about to die here.
But then comes the guy who does help—and he’s a cursed Samaritan! It’s like I am back in Oregon, a University of Oregon grad with a sticker on my car to show it. I’m driving over to the Coast and my car breaks down. After hours of dozens of cars speeding by heedless to my troubles someone finally stops. And it’s an orange and black Hummer, driven by someone from Oregon State. A Beaver, for crying out loud!
Years ago, I heard a radio preacher talking about his car breaking down on the way to the airport. He had a hard time getting someone to stop, too, until finally a hippie van pulls over and helps him out. Ironically, the lesson the preacher drew from this experience wasn’t about having his notion of neighbor shaken up, it was, well, you never know when you might get a chance to evangelize.
The Samaritans were the Jews’ sworn enemies. And, in Jesus’ story, the Samaritan is the hero! It would have been a bit more palatable if the beaten man were a Samaritan and the hero a regular Jew like the lawyer. But Jesus genuinely turned things upside-down to make his point.
And the lawyer realizes this. To his credit, he gets Jesus’ point. The one who shows mercy is the neighbor. He is the one who shows what it takes to inherit eternal life, even if he is a Samaritan. Showing mercy—that is what God wants. That is what God is like.
So, in the end, theology is about how we live more than about our ideas or dogmas. Jesus takes the most theological question imaginable (“how do I inherit eternal life?”) and answers it with a concrete directive. Love God; that is, love your neighbor; that is, act with transformative mercy toward anyone in need, most especially your enemies.
Jesus links this call to love enemies directly with God’s own way of loving: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you….If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:27, 32-36).
Paul reinforces this point in Romans 5 where he writes of God’s love for us “in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us….While we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son” (Romans 5:8, 10). God’s love serves as the basis for our being able to love others. God’s mercy transforms us and empowers us. And God’s mercy serves as our model.
Jesus is utterly comprehensive in his definition of neighbor. In the Good Samaritan story the neighbor is the enemy, the last person his listeners would have thought of as a neighbor. In his life, Jesus showed “neighbor love” not only to his friends and followers, but also all kinds of other people. He showed neighbor love to religious leaders and outcast lepers, to the wealthy and the poor, to synagogue leaders, Roman soldiers, and revolutionaries. So when we reflect on the texts mentions above such as Leviticus 19 and Romans 13 that call for love of “neighbor,” if we see these in light of Jesus we recognize that “neighbor” means “fellow human being” and nothing less.
When Jesus began his public ministry, he affirmed the words of the prophet Isaiah. He claimed that these words were being fulfilled in his witness. We need to be attentive to the general thrust of the words Jesus proclaimed (Luke 4:14-21). His message of good news is directed at “the poor,” “the captives,” “the blind,” and “the oppressed.” We should resist spiritualizing these terms too much. Jesus showed in his ministry that he meant very literally that he brought a special message of hope and empowerment to those most vulnerable people.
Gustavo Gutierrez, the great Peruvian liberation theologian, captured this central element of Jesus’ message when he wrote of the travails of “non-persons” in our world today (The Theology of Liberation). Too many people are pushed to the margins, dehumanized, trampled upon. These are precisely the people to whom Jesus reached out. In Luke’s account we again see an expression of a trinitarian unity. Jesus, the Son, speaks under the power of the Holy Spirit (4:18) and proclaims the “year of God’s favor” (4:19). God is truly the source of this ministry of neighbor love, of neighbor restorative justice.
Jesus answers the lawyers question with an extraordinarily challenging command. “How do we gain eternal life?” By loving our fellow human beings—each one of them, even the most obvious enemy. The Samaritan showed what it means to be a neighbor. Jesus states firmly, “Go and do likewise” if you want to gain eternal life.
I will conclude by suggesting just how comprehensively this “go and do likewise” should be understood. Theology in light of Jesus concerns itself with neighborliness. And, as we have seen, this neighborliness has to do with serving life, the wellbeing of our fellow human beings. We might think of this call to neighborliness in terms of three inter-locking circles. We are called to neighborliness in our faith communities, the locus of God’s healing strategy. We are called to neighborliness in relation to the large social and political issues and policies in our society and the wider world. And, we are called to neighborliness in relation to our geographical neighbors in our work of establishing and cultivating face-to-face communities in our workplaces, in our production and distribution of food, in our local economies.
The one circle includes our faith communities. “Go and do likewise” and create faith communities that embody the kind of face to face encouragement that Jesus had in mind in calling together his twelve disciples, that Paul had in mind when he wrote his powerful letters to congregations in Corinth, Rome, and Philippi, and that John had in mind in his messages to the seven congregations of Revelation chapters two and three.
In bringing together “Jews” and “Samaritans,” people in need and people with excess, people with faith and people who doubt, people who are old and people who are young, Christian congregations model to the entire world God’s ways of peace and healing.
Learn about love face to face in your common life. Find others who model Jesus’ style of compassion—and accept the challenge to model such compassion yourselves. Nurture your children in healing environments. Worship together, exhorting one another to faithfulness. Provide a critical mass of those committed to genuine neighbor love that can sustain such love in a world hostile to worship of the true God.
The second circle includes working for genuine healing on a national and global scale. “Go and do likewise” and find ways to speak truth to power, to reform governmental structures toward genuine democracy, to seek to beat the swords of imperialist domination into plowshares that genuinely serve human well-being.
People of faith in North America have access to the decision-makers and policy setters, even if the people in power do not always (or often) welcome our influence. Engagement in the political arena brings with it many temptations to waver from commitment to Jesus’ message; however, that this message is needed may not be denied.
The third circle points more to work on a local level. “Go and do likewise” and create broader communities, alternatives to the corporate, profit-driven distribution of vital human resources. Food co-ops, credit unions, soup kitchens, farmers markets—these only scratch the surface of possibilities for human connection that may cultivate life in face of dehumanizing tendencies in our culture. Work to creating economies that put human wellbeing ahead of shareholder dividends and CEO bonuses.
We should affirm all of these ways of responding to the words Jesus left the lawyer with. “Go and do likewise.” Serve life on all levels—at least collectively, as we encourage one another to express our various gifts in response to the God that Jesus made visible among us.