For years I’ve struggled with how two gospels seemed to portray the same moment, the same exchange, in such radically different ways. Perhaps there is truth to some peoples’ assertions that each is a different encounter; perhaps truth to the idea that each author recalled the same exchange differently. My struggle has been with the radically different portrayal of the expert/teacher of the Law who asked Jesus about which commandment is the most important, found in Mark 12 and Luke 10.
In Mark, I have always and read that the teacher is portrayed fairly positively. He asks Jesus, Jesus responds, he affirms Jesus’ answer, and Jesus then gives him a positive word:
One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”
“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” (Mk 12:28-34a)
In this telling, the expert saw that Jesus gave a good answer. This seems to inspire him to ask the question burning in his heart (akin to the Samaritan’s woman question about worship in John 4), one he would ask of God if he could. And Jesus answers, and answers well. The expert sees the wisdom, agrees with Jesus, and Jesus speaks a word of affirmation we might all long to hear: “you are not far from the kingdom of God.”
I think these are words we long to hear, like another affirmation Jesus shares elsewhere – “well done, good and faithful servant.” A divine affirmation!
But in the gospel of Luke, I’ve always read/understood the character of the legal expert in a very different way. In this, he stands up to “test” Jesus. Jesus turns it around on him, and while he can answer the question himself, when Jesus affirms him, he seeks to “justify” himself; to prove himself right. In reply, Jesus shares the amazing story of the “good Samaritan”:
On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“What is written in the Law?” he[Jesus] replied. “How do you read it?”
He answered, “‘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, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
(29) But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers…” (Luke 10:25-30a…)
After the story, Jesus asks the expert, “who was a neighbor to the man in distress?” And, of course, the expert responds, “the one who showed mercy.” To which we read Jesus’ exhortation, “go and do likewise.” In short, Jesus shares a story that tells the man “don’t worry about who is your neighbor; go and be a neighbor to others.”
As I prefaced, I generally have read this version from Luke as portraying the legal expert negatively. He was, as were others, trying to catch Jesus up in saying something inappropriate; in violating the Mosaic law, or their existing traditions. When Jesus affirms he does know what he should do, he wants to trap Jesus in sharing that his neighbor would be his fellow Israelites; he wants to “justify” his existing behavior; he wants to prove he is already righteous… because how could Jesus respond otherwise?
And yet, Jesus does respond otherwise. But, when I read Jesus’ response, there is no critique. There is no condemnation upon this questioner as he sometimes places on others who challenge or test him. No sense of exasperation in his response. He answers the question with a telling story, and then exhorts his listener to go and do likewise.
My friend Kevin made a comment in his podcast (LoFi Lectionary) about this story that put me in to researching the Greek word used in v. 29 and translated as “justify”: dikaios (dik’-ah-yos). It can be translated as “just, righteous, impartial” and often is used for “innocent.” It refers to being approved by God, one who observes divine and human laws.
So, it could be read as I have generally read it – that this was another self-righteous Pharisee who wanted to be affirmed that he was holy. BUT… it could be read another way.
I think it could be read, though, that he desired to be righteous; that he wanted to be right with God. Retranslated as such, v. 29 might read:
But he wanted to be right with God, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Doesn’t that change the exchange? Suddenly it is no longer another nefarious Pharisee, but it is someone more like Nicodemus. Someone rooted in a tradition, but truly desiring to know and follow God. And Jesus’ response makes more sense: there is no critique, because none is needed. Jesus answers the question, with a radical and telling story, because here is someone who wants to be right with God, who truly is seeking. And when this one can identify who was a neighbor, Jesus encourages him to go forth and do likewise.
Maybe this reading is wrongly influenced by my own perspective. Maybe I’m reading Scripture, of late, with Pollyanna’s glasses. Perhaps it is because I want to see the good in people – and am tired of the spiritual people of Jesus’ day always being seen only in negative terms – that this slight variation in how a single Greek verb is translated has seemed so insightful to me.
But I find greater hope in the narrative this way. The story of the “good Samaritan” has always been read as intended to be challenging; to present to us the idea that goodness can come from unexpected places and people.
If I’m honest, I am one of those unexpected people. I know myself, my heart, my life; I know to some degree the darkness I’m capable of… and yet, I often find, through my (always growing) faith, sometimes I do good, instead. Sometimes I am patient with the kids rather than just short-tempered; sometimes I am gracious to others instead of just defensive; sometimes I am generous instead of selfish.
And perhaps, too, the expert is one of those unexpected people. Perhaps he, too, contained the seed of goodness – a true, heart felt desire for holiness with God. Perhaps there was hope, even for him. I prefer the narrative this way over just another self-righteous holy man trying to challenge Jesus…