A religious lawyer comes up to Jesus and asks him a question to test him. These experts in the Mosaic law had by and large not bought into the message of Jesus, nor the preparatory message of John the Baptist (Luke 7:30). Evidently, this lawyer is not being entirely sincere. He is asking Jesus a question “to test him” (10:25). Note there is nothing wrong with asking God questions. The Psalms model openness of communication with God. But there is a difference between asking a question to find out the truth, and asking a question to hide the truth. The lawyer is trying to find a loophole in Jesus’ understanding of the Old Testament law. He is testing him.
Jesus, wisely, asks the lawyer a question in return (10:26)! This is the common tactic of Jesus when put to the test, to reply himself with a question, and it is a tactic to keep up our sleeves for when we might need it in persecution. The Book of Proverbs famously says in two immediately adjoining sayings apparently entirely contradictory advice. “Reply not to a fool according to his folly” (Proverbs 26:4). But then right after Proverbs then says, “Answer a fool according to his folly” (Proverbs 25:5). Which is it? Should we answer a fool’s question or should we not answer a fool’s question? The answer to that riddle is often found in Jesus wise tactic: ask a question of your own in reply.
So Jesus wants to know the lawyer’s answer to his own question. The lawyer responds with the standard answer given at the time (10:27), one that Jesus himself gives to this matter. Jesus tells him that this is the right answer, but then says, “do this and you will live” (10:28). What could Jesus mean? Is He teaching “works righteousness,” that if we keep the law, then we are saved by virtue of our own merits? No, Jesus is trying to help the lawyer see his own hypocrisy. The law tells him to love God and love his neighbor. But here he is “testing” Jesus, which is not a loving way to treat your neighbor. And Jesus is God incarnate; therefore, the lawyer is also not loving God in this way he is treating Jesus.
Luke notices this dynamic and indicates that the man is squirming under Jesus’ wise responses to his questions, but introduces a distinctly “gospel” note to the conversation. The man is “desiring to justify himself.” It is often said that Luke wrote down a lot of Paul’s apostolic emphases in Luke’s Gospel. Here is one characteristically Pauline way of talking: “justification.” The lawyer realizes he is not doing what he needs to do in order to live, so now he is trying to prove that he is doing it; he is trying to “justify himself.”
So Jesus tells the famous story of the Good Samaritan. The point of the story is that we should not be spending our time trying to figure out who is our neighbor, but instead acting neighborly to those we come across—even if they are from a different race or religion. That’s how the Good Samaritan acted.
Following Jesus means living life as a Good Samaritan. For sure, there are times when we have to be not only as innocent as doves but as cunning as serpents. Jesus has just been very wise, careful, even shrewd with the lawyer who was in a sense his “neighbor.” Jesus is not calling us to naivety. He is calling us to love.
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