In the first story, a teacher of the Law decides he’s going to have some sport with this itinerant rabbi, and so he asks, “how can I inherit eternal life?” A couple things here with this question. How would one inherit eternal life anyway? Well if you’re a child of Abraham, you likely thought you could – the Children of Abraham, the People of God – because it was passed on by natural birth (didn’t Paul say something about “not by the will of man?”). For now though, let’s pay attention to that question – how can I get eternal life. Don’t lose sight of that question.
Jesus doesn’t say you’re a child of Abraham, so you’re in. No, he turns the question back: what does the Law say? The teacher responds with the two greatest commandments (we’ll be told that combined, all the Law and prophets hang on them as the greatest command), and Jesus says “you’re right!” The second of those two commands is “love your neighbor as yourself.” The teacher is right to be a bit wary of this approval because in his world, neighbor is somewhat constricted. He has probably treated his friends, other teachers, and most Jews of his caste pretty well, but he has a sneaking suspicion that there’s a catch here some place. And so he asks (seeking to justify himself), who is my neighbor?
Jesus again doesn’t answer the question but tells a story this time. We don’t need to review the details here because you know the story, but there are a couple details we want to examine. The first are the two who pass by the victim, the priest and the Levite. The text doesn’t give us much detail about these two or why they crossed the road and avoided the victim. We do know that they serve in the Temple of God in Jerusalem – the priest and the Temple functionaries, the Levite. What is interesting here is the contrast between the jobs of these two and their behavior in relation to this victim. The job of a priest – the definition of the function – is to mediate between God and people; to speak for the people, to lift them up, to help them in relating to their God. The Levite, as a Temple functionary has the same sort of job in a supporting role to the priest. What Luke presents us with here are two people whose very jobs are to intercede for people in their misery and yet they avoid this one; not lending a hand or lifting him up. Contrast the behaviors of these two countrymen whose functions should compel them to help, with a Samaritan. Samaritan are outcasts, marginalized people, unclean and detestable. Jews don’t like Samaritans because they’re not “true Israelites,” and Samaritans don’t like Jews because well, who would like someone who treats your people in the ways that Jews treat your people?
To address the teacher’s question, Jesus asks this question: who is his neighbor? The response again is spot-on – the one who “had mercy on him.” OK, go and do likewise.
Let’s review. The question the teacher asked was, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Our response is likely that of the teacher – keep the Law, do good, get the stuff right.
But that’s not the answer Jesus gives him. Jesus’s answer?
You want to have eternal life?
To people you don’t like – and perhaps more especially – to those who hold you in contempt.
Who is your neighbor? Those guys over there who are spitting on you, that’s who.
Show mercy to them, and gain eternal life.
So now let’s visit Mary and Martha. Jesus comes to town and comes to the house of these ladies. Mary sits down to listen to Jesus and Martha busies herself in the kitchen. It is premature for us to jump from here to lesson application. This story isn’t as neat as, “the better part is to listen to Jesus when he’s in town.” Oh no, Luke didn’t put this story here for such a mundane reason.
How do we know this? Because twice we are told that Martha is distracted and worrying about “stuff.” You see, it isn’t that Martha is fixing dinner – that would be fine. It is that she is distracted and worried. About what? That Mary isn’t helping her. Poor Martha is slaving away in the kitchen to take care of the company – we’re going to really honor this rabbi, and she’s grumbling about Mary’s lack of helping. This is Martha’s problem and this is what blinds her to what is happening in the front room and makes her complain to Jesus. If you’ve raised kids, you can hear this – “Daaaaad! Tell Mary to help me!” And you know, if you were raised with siblings what Martha would have done if Jesus had said, OK Mary, go help your sister. Martha wouldn’t have stopped grumbling. Oh no; she’d be muttering things like “oh yeah, now that the rabbi told you come help, here you are. Why didn’t it dawn on you to help me from the beginning? You just don’t appreciate all the work I do around here. Well never mind, I’ve got it almost finished already – no thanks to you, miss prissy!”
Or some such. You’ve heard it; you’ve probably done it. You’re Martha in this story, believe it or not.
OK, so what’s the connection between these two stories?
You can’t show mercy if your life, your attention, your focus – your pride – is wrapped up in grumbling about other people. Wrapped up in how you’ve been dissed, hurt, ignored, taken advantage of. It’s hard to be merciful when you’re in that frame of mind – or frame of life.
And here’s the rub:
If you can’t show mercy, you can’t inherit eternal life.
Because, if you want to inherit eternal life you have to be merciful – even toward those who don’t like you, to those who insult you by leaving you to do all the work, to those who you think are trying to show you up by currying favor with the new rabbi.
To those who spit on you and call you all sorts of pejorative names.
Want eternal life?