I grew up with a certain set of language to describe what it means to be saved, a Christian, a child of God, born again. As I’ve grown older and have compared more and more of these descriptions to what the Bible says, many of these expressions were often very shallow, sometimes wrong. Certain ideas or truths were not presented with the depth one finds in the Bible and I tended to spout them off like cliches.
In the story of the Good Samaritan an expert in the Torah, a very well respected Bible scholar, decides he should test this unvetted rabbi, Jesus. He jumps right to the root of the matter to find out how Jesus says one can gain eternal life. He says, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“What must I do?”
The text says that he was intending to test Jesus, but in true Jesus form, Jesus becomes the tester. The man answers that to love God with all one’s heart, soul, strength and mind and to love one’s neighbor as oneself is the way to eternal life. Jesus marks his answer correct. Furthermore He told the man that if he did this, “you will live.”
“You will live.”
Immediately the man was uncomfortable and wanted to justify himself. (He hadn’t expected Jesus to get so…personal.)
Now if you have been raised with certain ways of answering theological questions, like me, you want to immediately explain away what appears to be a doctrinal contradiction. Ask us how to inherit eternal life and the answer would be “believe that Jesus died and rose again for your sins and confess your sins, ask for forgiveness, and you will have eternal life.” This is what Paul and Peter and John and others all have taught. Yet why would Jesus give this man this answer? This sounds like ‘works righteousness.’
We are often caught between two ideas regarding faith. One, that it is assent to a doctrinal list, ‘this is what we believe,’ and it is enough to give the list a nod and one is ‘in.’ The other is that faith is somehow feeling an emotion very, very strongly, being caught up in clouds of a mystical ether of visions, dreams and miracles; one tries to never vacillate from any doubting negativity.
Often, others given those two choices come to think they can never have faith. They have known some of those who assent to the first idea of faith to be harsh, unkind or blatantly hypocritical. There is nothing about their ‘faith’ they could desire. It hasn’t made them good. And the second faith seems only attainable by those of a certain kind of temperament or of a mindset that seems not to fit with the world. It hasn’t made them practical. But faith is something different than both of those, although statements of faith and heady spiritual experience may play a part in a life of faith.
The fact of faith is that it is movement in accordance with a word, a message. Faith is moving toward a truth spoken. It is assent to truth or submitting to truth. It is never merely signing a doctrinal statement or having merely a really strong feeling about God. Faith when it receives a message bends to do what it hears. This is why James could say that “faith without works is dead,” a statement that has alarmed many Christians at one time or another. But this idea of bending to the truth is what Jesus says will bring this theologian to eternal life. “Do this and you will live.” So when presented with the atonement of Jesus and the need for forgiveness of sins and our personal wickedness, we bend the knee to that truth and submit to the need to be saved by Jesus. It gets very personal. No signature on a doctrinal statement. Instead it is raw submission to the truth of our need and our condition and Jesus’s provision. Hoist the white flag of faith.
Maybe this will help some of us. Whenever we are presented with ‘what God wants’ and we bend to ‘what God wants’ because He wants it, that action is faith. Actions of faith often (always?) lead to more opportunities to hear truth and bend in faith. So Jesus isn’t messing with us by telling the expert in the Law that eternal life is in loving God and loving his neighbor. He is pointing out that for all his knowledge the man had never listened, submitted, or obeyed simply because it was the Author of Truth who spoke.
There is another parable earlier in Luke (and Matthew) that I think can help us with Jesus’s answer.
“Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say? As for everyone who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice, I will show you what they are like. They are like a man building a house, who dug down deep and laid the foundation on rock. When a flood came, the torrent struck that house but could not shake it, because it was well built. But the one who hears my words and does not put them into practice is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. The moment the torrent struck that house, it collapsed and its destruction was complete.”
Faith, here, is described as building on the words of Jesus. Action is proof of faith. What we say proves nothing. We must bend to the words of truth, of Jesus, of God, so we are not destroyed.
Faith is saying, “if You say so, I will,” and then does.
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 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.”
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. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him,“Go and do likewise.”
Luke 6:46-49; Luke 10:25-37; James 2:17, 26