Dwight A. Moody
A lawyer came to Jesus, Luke writes in his gospel, and asked a question: “What must I do to enter the age to come?” (to use the Jewish phrasing of the inquiry). Jesus, in turn, asked his own question: “What does the Law say?”
Jesus knew that a disposition to help a neighbor depends upon how a person interprets the law.
The lawyer knew the law, the Torah of Moses, and correctly quoted two texts calling people ancient and modern to love God and love neighbors. Jesus commended him, knowing that it is not so much what a person says about the Bible as much as it is what a person emphases in the Bible that matters.
But this second question prompted a third question: “But who is my neighbor?” the lawyer asked.
And Jesus responded, not with a question but with a story, perhaps the most famous story he ever told and certainly one of the most famous stories ever heard.
“A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho,” Jesus began; and I always like to draw attention to that word “down.” Many trips to Jerusalem and a year living there taught me that a person on a bicycle can coast all the way from Jerusalem down to Jericho.
The traveler in the story fell among thieves and was left for dead by the side of the road.
Three people passed by the wounded traveler, all familiar with the law. The first and the second noted the crumpled body in the ditch but passed by on the other side. Evidently, their reading of the law permitted them to ignore the person by the side of the road and travel on to their destination.
The third man also read the law. In fact, attention to the Torah of Moses was one of the few ways in which the he and his Samaritan kin were similar to the Jews and their tribe: they read the law of Moses. But his reading of the law and his interpretation of that law prompted him to attend to the wounded man.
The story illustrates how easy it is to interpret the law so as to excuse us from helping people. Perhaps this is what the gospel text means when it describes the man who questioned Jesus as “seeking to justify himself.”
This story was put on my mind this week by my Sunday School teacher, just after I had read two stories in the news.
First, a candidate for the United States Supreme Court (Brett Kavanaugh) talked his way through three days of questions without once acknowledging how the law might be interpreted to help people. The Judge was erudite, and articulate, and polite; but he seemed unable to express an understanding of the law that allowed public officials to address the needs people who are hurting, or struggling, or resisting powerful organizational expressions of the violence the lone traveler encountered on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho many years ago.
While the judge sat at a table on the east coast, a preacher (John MacArthur) sat at his desk on the west coast and displayed another way to interpret the law so as to hinder efforts to help pick up the beaten down. Social justice is not a part of the gospel, he asserted in blogs and also through a document that has gained thousands of supporting signatures. Here again, it seems, a learned man interprets the written word to divert attention from addressing human misery of an ever-present hell in order to focus on rescuing them from a faraway hell.
Like the legal experts in the ancient story told by Jesus, these modern law scholars find ways to interpret the texts so as to handicap efforts to address the present suffering of hurting people. When we hear Jesus ask us the old question, “Who is neighbor to the man?” all we can reply is, “Neither this judge nor this preacher.”
Thank God, we have among us other judges and different preachers who read the law with the mind and heart of Jesus, who see in its words a permission and a commission to bind up the wounded and strengthen the weak. To these Jesus directs our attention and gives his command, “You go and do likewise.”