Finding the question | 10 July 2016

Text: Luke 10:25-37

The questioner answers his own question, but remains unsatisfied.  “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” the lawyer asks Jesus.

It’s a big question.  Like one of the big questions.  Right up there with What is the meaning of life? and What should I be when I grow up? and Where did I leave my phone?

What must I do to inherit eternal life?  Presented with the hypothetical situation of If you could ask Jesus just one question, what would it be? I’m guessing a fair amount of people would choose some version of this question.

Jesus could have taken this one any number of directions.  He could have given a concise answer summarizing his theology of the afterlife.

He could have named specific actions this specific person might take to right their life, like he would soon do with the rich young ruler who would come to him and ask the exact same question: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  “Sell all you own, and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me,” Jesus will say.  But not to this person.  Not in this situation.

He could have pointed out the confused nature of the question, how people who inherit something don’t need to do anything to receive what is theirs on account of being a child of the one passing along the inheritance.  A gift, a grace.

Had Jesus been a certain variety of Christian he could have replied, “Accept me into your heart as your personal lord and savior and you will have eternal life.”

But he selects None of the above.  He doesn’t give an answer at all.

Maybe Jesus knows he’s being tested, as Luke tells us when he introduces the lawyer and his question.  Perhaps this is another example of Jesus reframing the conversation, opening up a new set of possibilities the original question leaves out.  Or is Jesus just not all that interested in the question itself?  His refusal to answer another way of saying “EERRNNTT, Wrong question.”

What he does do is direct the question right back at the questioner, giving only a suggestion of where the answer to such a question could be found.  “What is written in the Torah?” Jesus asks.  “What do you read there?”

This was a question well-suited to the lawyer.  In the Jewish world at the time there was no distinction between civil and religious law.  One who carried the title of lawyer was one of the few members of society thoroughly literate and trained in the reading and interpretation of the books of Moses, the Torah, the law.  This person would know inside and out not just the Torah, but also the various interpretative schools that would have grown up through the decades and centuries.  Jesus’ question invites this lawyer to state how he has come to understand all these matters.  “What is written in the Torah?  What do you read there?”

The Torah scholar replies, “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.”

This response is so insightful and innovative that when Matthew and Mark give their accounts of this exchange, they place these words in the mouth of Jesus rather than the mouth of his conversation partner.  It’s a quotation of two different verses: one from Deuteronomy – You shall love the Lord your God; and one from Leviticus – love your neighbor as yourself.  Both passages were highly valued in Jewish teaching, but there are no records before the gospels of them appearing side by side.  It was an interpretative innovation.  It was a breakthrough in the creation of spiritual technology, like you have the wheel, and you have the suitcase, and then one day someone decides they’re going to see what happens when they make suitcases with wheels – and the world is never the same.

Love God with all your being.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  Put them together, and now we’re really going places.  Matthew and Mark attribute this innovation to Jesus himself, but Luke is fine with allowing this lawyer to get the patent on this one.

And Jesus is fine with acknowledging the wisdom of it all.  “You have given the right answer,” he says.  “Do this, and you will live.”

It is perhaps noteworthy that Jesus doesn’t say, “Do this, and you will inherit eternal life.”  He simply says, “Do this, and you will live.”  Life is happening now, and when you walk in the way of love, when God and neighbor and self are brought together under the banner of love, then we begin to truly live.

And so, as Jesus himself states, the lawyer has found the right answer.

In the other accounts, this is where the exchange ends.  The original question has been addressed, the parties are in agreement, and there’s nothing left to discuss.  Mark goes so far as to say, “After this, no one dared to ask Jesus any question.”

But here, with Luke’s telling, we’re just warming up.  This exchange is picking up steam, the dialogue so far serving as something of an opening act to the main event, what we know as the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

This passage is today’s lectionary reading, but we’ve decided to stick with it throughout the month of July.  It’s a parable that has made its way into the cultural lexicon well beyond the world of religion, but it’s often referenced in simplistic ways.  The parable has enough dimensions that there’s plenty of material to keep us going.    It’s also a fitting way for us to find our way back to a more intentional focus on antiracism, which we’ll carry through the end of the year.

So we will look into this parable – but we won’t get there today.  What I’m especially interested in at the onset is what prompts the telling of this famous parable.  Because it takes another question before Jesus wheels it out.

The questioner has answered his own question, correctly, but remains unsatisfied.  Jesus has rewarded him with the public honor of acknowledging his wise response, but has kept his own commentary to himself.

In looking over this familiar text again, I invite us to consider that this first part of the passage is about finding the right question rather than finding the right answer.

When the lawyer asks his follow up question, “And who is my neighbor?” I can almost hear Jesus saying, “Now that’s more like it.  That, my friend, is a good question.  Let me tell you a story.”  This second question is not one that Jesus will bounce back to the questioner.  He has some things to say about this, almost as if he’s been mulling this very question over for years and is thrilled someone else is also interested.

It reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend I also consider a mentor, now over 70 years old.  A few years ago he said something to the effect that each person really only gets to pursue a couple questions in their life.  This has showed up in certain ways in his life as a biblical scholar, and likely rings true to all you PhD’s among us who find your question, your area of focus, and dig in deep to see what all you can discover.  It could also apply to other vocational settings.  The designer asks how they can create something both beautiful and useful.  The social worker asks how they can affirm and enrich the humanity of their clients.  The business owner asks how they can provide their service in a way that is efficient, fair, and profitable.  The pastor asks: Can I really milk this parable for a whole month?

More broadly speaking, the life of faith seems like it very much has to do with asking the right questions.  If we only get to really pursue a couple of them in our lives, then what are those questions, or perhaps the question, we want to be asking?  Depending on the question we ask, our lives will take on a very different shape.  The lawyer’s first question, if twisted for selfish gain, “How can I inherit eternal life” could lead to a rather shallow and self-centered existence.  Or, in its very extreme, could provide the spiritual backdrop of a suicide bomber assured of their place in paradise.  The lawyer’s second question, “And who is my neighbor?” could lead a white person like me to look at the events of the past week and consider how I am connected with the police killings of two more black men – Alton Sterling and Philando Castile – and the killing of five police officers – Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, Patrick Zamarripa, and Brent Thompson.  Asking that question could lead one to an ever expanding definition of neighbor and neighborhood.

Before heading out to Camp Friedenswald last week I grabbed a book off my shelf to review in some spare moments.  It’s called Letters to a Young Poet and includes a collection of letters written over 100 years ago from the great poet Rainer Maria Rilke, addressed to an aspiring young writer who initiated the exchange.  The book only contains the letters of Rilke, but you can get a sense of what the young poet is asking through Rilke’s replies.  In one of his letters, Rilke writes this: “You are so young, you have not even begun, and I would beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything that is unsolved in your heart and to try to cherish the questions themselves, like closed rooms and like books written in a very strange tongue.  Do not search now for the answers which cannot be given you because you could not live them.  It is a matter of living everything.  Live the questions now.  Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, one distant day live right into the answer” (p. 21, 2002 edition)

Being guided by questions rather than certain answers is something that has almost come to define progressive Christianity.  It’s become a familiar and productive way to go about life, and this is a beautiful thing.  But it still remains for us to choose which questions we will be living.  What are the few, or the one question that we’ll stick with through life?  Maybe that’s question enough to get started.

I suggest that this prelude to the Parable of the Good Samaritan offers us one of those centering questions that we can live.  The lawyer begins by seeking an answer, but ends up finding a question.  “Who is my neighbor?”  It’s a question that can only be answered in the living of it.  A question that directs us close in to the heart of God, that beats with love for all creation, all creatures who have inherited life.