"And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “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 neighbour as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”
But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbour to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”" - Luke 10:25-37
It's hard to find the right answers if the wrong questions are being asked. This is true in any sphere of life. We can be preoccupied with looking for answers, without realising we might in fact be asking the wrong questions. In this blog series I`m exploring how Jesus engaged people evangelistically & this famous parable is Jesus' creative way of showing an expert in Biblical law he is asking the wrong questions. Evangelizing like Jesus includes carefully & creatively correcting wrong questions in order to help others move closer to the Kingdom.So part of our role is helping people ask better questions; yet as we do this, we do it with a humble awareness that often we also need to ask better questions.
LISTEN CAREFULLY TO PEOPLE’S QUESTIONS
The first step to helping others ask better questions brings us to the idea of listening. We need to listen to the questions people are asking because behind those questions there are assumptions. Behind the lawyers first question there is an assumption about how eternal life is attained & behind his second question there is assumption about who is & is not his neighbour. What are the assumptions behind the questions people are asking? It's not enough to simply throw rehearsed answers at people who are on a completely different wavelength than us. Jesus never did that! There are answers that will satisfy us in our Christian world that will not satisfy people outside of it. People who don't yet trust the Bible have all sorts of different assumptions than people who do. People saturated in a different religious or secular system have very different ideas of God, justice, love, equality & morality. This is the reality of the world we live & witness in & we need to adapt & Jesus' example in the Gospel`s helps us adapt. And it starts with careful listening & this kind of listening takes awareness, discipline & intention.
We should also try to listen to the tone & reasons behind people’s questions. Has something significant happened that has raised a question for a particular person? Is it a question that has been a stumbling block to them coming to faith for years? Or are they simply out to test us like this lawyer was Jesus? This lawyer was trying to catch Jesus out & he was likely also seeking opportunity to show off how much he knew. He asks an identical question to the Rich Young Ruler but the difference is the Rich Young Ruler was genuine whereas this lawyer is testing Jesus. Jesus is aware of this, yet he doesn't take the lawyer any less seriously. He sees an opportunity to engage him & he makes the most of it. This is a reminder to us, that as we follow Jesus we will come across both genuine seekers & those who are simply out to test us. Yet Jesus was able to engage both in such a way that they went away with deep things to consider.
WISELY CHALLENGE FAULTY ASSUMPTIONS
In verses 25-28 we see the lawyer asking a question & we see Jesus asking him a question in reply; "What is written in the law? How do you read it?" In other words Jesus asks him what his interpretation of the law is. The lawyer then gives an answer which Jesus agrees with. Elsewhere Jesus summarises the law in exactly the same way. So Jesus tells him, "You have answered correctly; do this & you will live." Jesus affirms his answer but at the same time challenges his ability to live up to it. This guy knew the right answer but was he able to live up to the right answer? To summarise this Kenneth Bailey writes; "The lawyer asks, "What must I do in order to inherit eternal life?" Jesus replies, "You must jump over this ten foot fence!" The lawyer should be able to see that he cannot jump that high & that he has thereby asked the wrong question." You see the lawyers question was faulty. What can anyone do to inherit anything? Inheritance, by very nature, comes through birth or adoption. This was especially true in this culture. It is a gift from one family member (or a friend) to another.
Instead of getting this however the lawyer "desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, "And who is my neighbour." Again Luke is careful to note the motive behind the lawyer’s question. In his first question he asks what he can do & in his second he seeks to justify himself. He assumes his neighbour is his fellow Jew & he would even have a 'proof text' or two ready to back up his thinking (Lev 19:18). However the problem is there are other verses he seemed to leave out of his 'systematic theology'. Like Leviticus 19:34 which says; "The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, & you shall love him as yourself..." That's the problem with 'proof-texting' & relying too much on theological systems; they can blind you to other parts of the Bible & lead you to wrong assumptions. As one person puts it; "The tendency to read Scripture selectively is an old problem."
So what does Jesus do? He tells the lawyer the parable of the Good Samaritan & then uses it to turn the lawyer’s second question inside out, so he can truly begin to understand the heart of the law. He uses the shocking character of the Samaritan to get his attention as well as the characters of Priest & Levite which he would clearly see himself in. The Priest & Levite would have likewise justified themselves with parts of the law but in the parable they exemplify missing its heart because they ignore the stripped, beaten & abandoned one in the story. They respond wrongly to the one who is stripped, beaten & abandoned! This is a very humbling experience for this expert in biblical law. Jesus is trying to show him that for all his knowledge of the law he has missed its heart. If he gets it his thinking will be totally transformed & he will be closer to the kingdom of God.
CREATIVELY ASK BETTER QUESTIONS
Note that Jesus is indirect in his approach to challenging this man. Jesus crafts a parable to help the lawyer see he is asking the wrong question. The heart behind the law was not to define "who is my neighbor?" so one can draw boundaries around who one is to love. The heart behind the law was to teach God's people how to be good neighbours to all. The lawyer missed this because he was seeking to justify himself. The right question was never "who is my neighbour?" The right question was & is; "How can I be a good neighbor to whosoever?" This was the intention & heart of the law & this expert in the law misses it because he is asking the wrong questions. So at the end of this heart searching parable Jesus gives him a new question to ask; "Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbour to the man who fell among the robbers?" And of course the lawyer acknowledges; "the one who showed him mercy." Then Jesus says; "You go, & do likewise" & is content to leave the man with these things to ponder just like he was content to let the Rich Young Ruler walk away distressed. This law expert should now see he is a lawbreaker & if he does it will lead him to ask better questions. Yet Jesus feels no need to push things any further at this point. He leaves him with the sting of the law; he points him again to that ten foot fence. The focus in the lawyer’s questions has been what he can do & on justifying himself, now he should be realising that for all his knowledge of the law he had missed its heart.
Again think of how Jesus could have handled this differently if he'd only done a course on Evangelism 101. He could have directly told the lawyer he is a sinner, brought the good news that he’s on his way to the cross for him & sealed the deal with the magic prayer. But he doesn't, does he? Jesus doesn't join up the dots for him; he leaves him with stuff to think about, just like he did with the Rich Young Ruler. Jesus simply dismantles his assumptions, gives him a new question & then leaves him to figure it out.
What is Jesus at? I think Jerram Barrs in his book Learning Evangelism From Jesus gives us some help here. He writes; "Jesus does not always confront people head-on... Jesus does not come at this scholar with a full frontal attack. Also known as “direct evangelism,” this method can raise a person’s pride, create antagonism in the heart, and drive him or her further away from the truth if the ground of the person’s heart is unprepared. A straight proclamation and a challenge to faith and repentance can have the effect of raising barriers against the gospel by giving people answers to questions they are not yet ready to ask. Such directness can burn the ground, rather than helping prepare it to become ready soil for the seed of the Word. Instead, Jesus asks questions and tells stories so that he may say things that are difficult for people to hear as direct statements, and so that he can begin to move their heart toward the truth."
IS THERE ANY GOSPEL IN THE STORY?
So Jesus takes the indirect approach here & leaves him with stuff to think about & we also in our evangelism need to know when to stop & entrust people to God. But does Jesus leave any hint of the gospel in his interaction with this lawyer? Well Christian commentators & scholars generally believe he does. Many, including some Church Fathers, identify the Samaritan as a picture of Christlike compassion towards those wounded by sin. The Samaritan is willing to literally risk his life by entering a Jewish town to ensure the man is restored to health... Who does that make you think about?
Let me give you another possible watermark of the gospel in the parable, one I have already alluded to. The NIV Zondervan Study Bible notes that; "Jesus portrays the one lying on the ground as one who falls among robbers and is stripped, beaten, and abandoned. These descriptions match those applied to Jesus when he dies on the cross (22:63-65; 23:32,39; John 19:1-2,23)."
The Jewish leaders would of course by-and-large reject Christ, distance themselves from him, cross over the road if you like. Yet here in the story it's an outsider, a Samaritan of all people, who responds appropriately to the stripped, beaten & abandoned Jew. As well as challenging this lawyer is it possible Jesus is alluding to things to come & the importance of responding properly to him when that time comes? Luke uses very similar language to describe the suffering of Christ later in his Gospel! So a question surfaces; How are you going to respond to the stripped, beaten & abandoned One? This is a question which can be levelled at each of us: How are we responding to the One who was stripped beaten & abandoned for our sins? Are we crossing over the other side of the road, distancing ourselves from him & trying to justify ourselves or are we responding appropriately? Inheriting eternal life depends on our response him!
John Fitzsimmons, pastor at Amazing Grace Fellowship
What would you do if a respectable young man ran up to you, fell on his knees & genuinely asked; "Good Christian. What must I do to inherit eternal life?" How would you respond? What would you think? What would you say? Well let’s listen to how Jesus responded in an equivalent situation in Mark 10:17-27.
“As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honour your father and mother.”’ He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’ Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’ And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ They were greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’ Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.’”
ASK THE RIGHT QUESTION
Perhaps if Jesus was a bit more like you or me he would have got distracted with the complement of being a called a “good teacher”. We all like to think we’re good at what we do & it can be encouraging to hear someone else thinks we’re good at what we do. Yet Jesus doesn’t get distracted & by asking what he asks actually shows he is listening attentively to the young man & therefore is able to begin challenging his assumptions about goodness. Jesus asks; "why do you call me good? No one is good but God..."
Being good seemed to be a thing for this young man. In the story he highlights both that Jesus is a good teacher & that he himself is good person (v20). Yet while feeling he is a good person the young man at the same time is still genuinely unsure if he has done enough good to inherit eternal life. He asks Jesus; "What can I do?" Or as Matthew records; "What good thing can I do..." Jesus quickly discerns all this & it is his loving attention on the young man in front of him that enables him to ask the right question which leads to the right conversation.
GET TO THE HEART
Jesus has truly engaged this young man on his level & now he gets to the heart. Yet before he does Mark is careful to record that; "Jesus, looking at him, loved him." The Message paraphrases it this way; "Jesus looked him hard in the eye, and loved him." Before Jesus brought the deepest of challenges the young man knew he had been heard & that he was loved by Jesus. Let's not miss that. Jesus then gets right to his heart when he says; "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, then follow me."
Jesus does not make it easy for the young man but he does show willingness to commit him when he invites him to follow him. Jesus uses no canned evangelism technique because he is not after a quick decision but a long term disciple. By saying what he says Jesus identifies the idol the young man is presently trusting in, an idol that has him unsure of where he stands with God. The young man is shocked/disheartened by Jesus words & walks away grieving/distressed & Jesus lets him go. Think of how Jesus could have handled this differently if he'd only done a course on Evangelism 101. He could have just directly told the young man he was a sinner etc but that he was on his way to the cross to die for him & then led him in the magic prayer. Yet he doesn't, he simply stops & let us note this is an example of the Master soul surgeon at work! He knows what he is doing.
KNOW WHEN TO STOP
Jesus doesn't join up all the dots for him; he leaves him with stuff to think about. Jesus dismantles his assumptions & gives him space to consider his words. He leaves him shocked, disheartened & grieving. The young man walks away sad, but not angry. The young man came asking; "What must I do?" Now our reading begins to focus on what only God can do. Now turning to his disciples Jesus begins to challenge their assumptions. Note here that Jesus is not only sensitive to where the young ruler is at in his thinking, he is also conscious of where his disciples are at in theirs. I love the presence of mind that Jesus displays throughout the Gospel’s.
The disciple’s assumptions would have simply reflected those of the time. Why do you think the disciples were so perplexed by Jesus' words & why did they say to one another; "Then who can be saved?" Well an assumption of the time was that riches signified favor with God. So if it was so impossibly hard for this respectable young rich man to enter the kingdom of God then what hope was there for anyone else! That's the assumption behind the disciples question & that is why the rich young ruler went away grieving. Likewise it’s important for us to be aware of the popular assumptions our times if we are to evangelize with the loving consciousness & heart penetrating wisdom of Christ. Wisdom that asks the right question, gets to the heart & knows when to stop.
In his book Learning Evangelism From Jesus Jeream Barrs writes; "We cannot be certain of course, but it is very probable that the [young man] came back to Jesus later. The early church seems to have identified Joseph of Arimathea—the rich man who provided a tomb for Jesus’ body after his crucifixion—as the young man of this encounter with Jesus. We will find out for sure one day, but it seems likely that by revealing the secrets of the young man’s heart, Jesus did begin to draw the young man to his love."
In pondering all this I’m reminded of Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 7. Paul is writing to a church & not an individual but I think his words are relevant. I'll quote them in The Message;
“I know I distressed you greatly with my letter. Although I felt awful at the time, I don’t feel at all bad now that I see how it turned out. The letter upset you, but only for a while. Now I’m glad—not that you were upset, but that you were jarred into turning things around. You let the distress bring you to God, not drive you from him. The result was all gain, no loss.
Distress that drives us to God does that. It turns us around. It gets us back in the way of salvation. We never regret that kind of pain. But those who let distress drive them away from God are full of regrets, end up on a deathbed of regrets.
And now, isn’t it wonderful all the ways in which this distress has goaded you closer to God? You’re more alive, more concerned, more sensitive, more reverent, more human, more passionate, more responsible. Looked at from any angle, you’ve come out of this with purity of heart. And that is what I was hoping for in the first place when I wrote the letter.”
I believe Christ was hoping for something similar regarding this young man.
In the forward to Randy Newman's book Questioning Evangelism Lee Stobel tells a story which helps underline the power of asking the right question, getting to heart & knowing when to stop. He writes;
"THE EMAIL WAS SNARKY, with decidedly hostile and mocking undertones. At the end, the person—someone I didn’t know—posed a pointed question: “If your God is loving, why does he allow so much pain and suffering in the world?” I wasn’t in a good mood when I read the missive. Part of me wanted to answer in a similarly negative style, but I quickly realized that wouldn’t be the right approach. So I started to write a detailed five-point answer to the pain-and-suffering question—you know, the kind of theologically sound response you learn when you study Christian apologetics. I paused. I deleted what I had written. Instead, I simply typed, “Of all the questions in the universe, why did you choose to ask that one?” I hit “send.” The answer came the next day. This second email had a totally different tone—the anger was gone, and the writer was much more sincere. He described his impressive academic achievements and how he had climbed to success in his career—only to lose his eyesight and health to diabetes. His job evaporated. His friends drifted away. Now he was living on welfare and food stamps. He was suffering from depression, loneliness, bitterness, and fear. My heart went out to him. As for him, he responded that he felt heard and valued. Suddenly, the door was open to a fruitful spiritual conversation."
This is another beautiful example of asking the right question, getting to the heart & knowing when to stop.
John Fitzsimmons, pastor at Amazing Grace Fellowship