Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
The lawyer wants to know, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" The fact that it is a lawyer of Israel asking the question is evidence for the truism that we all teach what we need to learn. Moses, the lawgiver himself, had said back in Deuteronomy that the law was all about life:
"See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess" (Deut. 30:15-18).
"What must I do to inherit eternal life?" the lawyer asks. Jesus goes to Moses for his reply to the Moses-expert's question: "What does it say in the law?" And after the lawyer summarizes the law correctly, Jesus echoes Moses, "Do this and you will live" (Luke 10:28; cf. Deut. 30:19).
But experts know that their texts are not as straightforward as the amateurs think, and the Moses-expert is no exception. "Look, you can't just answer a question about eternal life with notes on a 3" x 5" card. The law is hard, hard to do and hard to exegete. It takes years of study to read it. It is high above us, and distant in time from us. Let's unpack this great commandment a little. Who is my neighbor?"
Is the law hard? Is it in heaven, that someone needs to go up and get it for us, so that we can hear and observe it? Is it beyond the sea that someone needs to get it so that we may hear and observe it? Jesus gives the lawyer something to hear and observe (cf. Deut. 30:12-14 [NRSV]).
What Jesus offers is not far away. It is the common event of a mugging and the also common events of indifference to suffering on the one hand and mercy in response to need on the other. The story is as close as the fear we feel when someone approaches us on a dark sidewalk at night, as near to us as the people we can walk past without noticing, as familiar as the smell and feel of a Band-Aid on torn skin.
"Who is my neighbor?" the lawyer wants to know, and so do I. I also want to know, how do I love my neighbor as myself? What about fostering dependency in the neighbor, or wearing myself out or just putting Band-Aids on wounds that need so much more?
Surely someone should call a meeting of the county commissioners and get some lights put on that stretch of highway between Jerusalem and Jericho. Until the work is done, we could organize escorts, too. The bandits could be trained for honest work. Of course, all of this means that some of us run the risk of compassion fatigue and will have to read and write more books on self-care. But look.... For mercy's sake, look in the ditch. There is someone hurt. Do something. Do what that home-raising from Moses taught you, namely, show the kind of mercy that means rolling up your sleeves and getting your hands dirty. Do this, and the guy in the ditch will have a chance at life. Do this, and you will live too.
Sometimes our theological reflections on how hard the law is or how far from our capacity, as well as our political reflections on how hopeless it is to try to change the system, function as a sophisticated parlor game to keep us occupied while we are avoiding actually doing anything for anyone. If thinking globally paralyzes you or only functions as a training program in mental gymnastics, then, as Wendell Berry is supposed to have said, "Think locally; act locally." The word is local, as local as that fellow in the ditch or the rabbi who told his story. "The word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe" (Deut. 30:14; cf. Rom. 10:8).