Who will inherit eternal life?
The lawyer in Luke's Gospel this week asks the ultimate question - what must I do to inherit eternal life? (Luke 10:25) Before we get into Jesus' answer to this question, it is important to acknowledge that not everyone in Jesus' time nor in our time believes that there is eternal life. Some believe(d) that life on this earth is the only existence. Yet, if we truly open our hearts to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, everything in the four Gospels tells us that there is, indeed, an eternal life. Just a few weeks ago, as we studied the Transfiguration story in Luke 9, Jesus revealed His eternal and divine nature as Moses and Elijah appear. Men who were thousands of years removed from their earthly existence became present with Jesus on the sacred mountain. Several weeks from now, we will study in Luke 16 the story of the rich man and Lazarus. Both men continue to exist after their deaths - one (the rich man) in an existence of torment; the other (Lazarus) at Abraham's side. Jesus revealed eternal life, taught eternal life, and ultimately provided eternal life through His death, resurrection and ascension. Jesus' promise to the criminal on the cross in Luke 23:43 was: "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise." Therefore, let us be encouraged by Jesus to believe in eternal life, and let us pursue eternal life through Him.
As we delve into the question at-hand, the answer that Jesus provides us in Luke 10 should lead us to pause and reflect on whether we, ourselves, will inherit eternal life. First, our reading begins with Jesus' pronouncement of woes upon three cities - Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum. The reason these woes should lead us to personal introspection is due to the fact that the Jews who lived there in Jesus' time were among the most faithful followers of God. They studied and memorized the Torah. Rabbis came to be trained in the Law in Capernaum. Many Pharisees and experts in God's Law lived in these communities. Yet, Jesus makes a profound statement to them. He says that the people of Tyre and Sidon (Gentile communities) will be better off than they will be in the coming judgment. (Luke 10:14) The first century Jewish listener would have been seriously bewildered at this statement. The Hebrew Bible was full of pronouncements against the people of Tyre and Sidon. In one stretch of Scripture, God's pronouncement of woe upon Tyre lasts three chapters - from Ezekiel 26-28! How could the people of Tyre and Sidon have it better in the coming judgment than the people of the faithful Jewish cities of Jesus' time? We get an answer to this question in Luke 11:42-54 where Jesus pronounces six woes directly upon the Pharisees and teachers of God's Law. In a nutshell, these verses tell us that some of the Pharisees, for all of their religious activities, neglected to love God. (Luke 11:42) Jesus seems to be saying in these woes that the inheritance of eternal life should not be something that is assumed or taken for granted. In the Kingdom of God, the world's norms and assumptions are "out" and God's estimations of who will inherit eternal life are "in".
Second, the question of who will inherit eternal life is answered through the Parable of the Good Samaritan. This is one of those stories we know like the back of our own hand. Yet, we should carefully chew upon it and not make assumptions that there is nothing new to learn from this passage. In excellent Rabbi fashion, Jesus answers the question, what must I do to inherit eternal life, by asking two questions: What is written? How do you read it? The lawyer gives a most perfect answer: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind (Deuteronomy 6:5), and, Love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18). The lawyer should have stopped with this answer. In fact, Jesus tells him to do this and he will live. But the lawyer wanted to justify himself, so he asked another question: who is my neighbor? To this question, Jesus tells the familiar parable of a man robbed and beaten on the road to Jericho. A priest passes by the left-for-dead victim of crime and every Jewish listener expects the priest to help - but he doesn't. A Levite passes by the victim and every Jewish listener expects the Levite to help - but he doesn't.
The listener, spell-bound by Jesus' story, is now wondering who will follow the Law and love his neighbor? Instinctively, they are thinking that Jesus will say an Israelite passed by and stopped to help. But lo and behold, the hero of the story is a Samaritan - an unclean, looked down upon, socially rejected Samaritan - the most unlikely of heroes. Again, Jesus tramples all closely held assumptions and leads the lawyer to chew upon his answer for the rest of his life. As Jesus ends the story, he asks the lawyer the very question the lawyer asked him: who is/was the neighbor? There is only one correct answer: the Samaritan who had mercy on him. Jesus told him, Go and do likewise.
Who will be an heir of eternal life? The penultimate answer of Jesus- not who you would assume. The ultimate answer of Jesus - the one who not only knows to love God and neighbor, but the one who actually loves God and neighbor. Go and do likewise!