July 14, 2013 –– 15th Week in Ordinary Time
Asking Right Questions
It would be interesting to list all the questions asked in the Gospels. People asked Jesus questions. People asked questions about Jesus. Jesus asked questions. Sometimes the questions were sincere. Sometimes the questions were intended as a trap. Sometimes the questions were an avoidance technique––a ploy to avoid the real issue. Sometimes a question was used to take an issue deeper.
The man in this story was an expert in Old Testament law, and he thought he would "check Jesus out" (he stood up to test Jesus–v25). He was not interested in finding out the answer to his question (which is the most important question there is: What must I do to inherit eternal life?); he was sure he already knew it. We in the Church can be like this Old Testament scholar. We have a faith tradition that is important to us. We need to be careful that we do not make the same mistake this man made: he thought the essence of religious truth was knowing right answers.
There is no disputing that he did know the right answer––he was orthodox. His answer was straight from Scripture: 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. Yet it is not enough merely to give right answers. There's a difference between words and deeds, and both have to ring true for our faith to be valid and worthwhile. If you and I are going to give good answers to life's questions, those who hear our answers are going to expect good actions to go along with our good words. That's why the secular world goes crazy when a church leader breaks moral integrity; it's such a discrepancy of words and actions. Our words and our deeds need to match.
Identifying with God's ways brings certain expectations. There are two ways to respond to the expectations that come out of an outward profession of faith. The first is illustrated by this “expert.” It is a calculated response. It is a self-justifying response. It is a response where a person wants to appear good, competent, and in control. A key disclosure in this story tells us: But he wanted to justify himself.... (v29). So he asked what he thought was an unanswerable question, Who is my neighbor?
Questions are good things when asked by people who are open to learn, but questions can also be a ploy used by devious people as an avoidance technique. When questions are asked for the purpose of avoiding truth rather than seeking truth, no amount of intellectual brilliance can make up the deficit of a moral twist. St Paul, in his second letter to Timothy, referred to depraved people who are always learning but never able to acknowledge the truth (3:7). Putting on a facade of orthodoxy and piety does not absolve a person from the absence of inner graces. Raising question after question to avoid the implications of truth is a maneuver of deceit. "‘Struggling’ [with an issue] can sometimes be a nice word for postponed obedience" (Elisabeth Elliot).
This scholar, in spite of all his right (and very biblical) answers, was living by a minimalist standard. It's an attitude of heart that asks, "How little is good enough?" It's the attitude that turned the Old Testament into legalism. A person could do just enough not to break the Sabbath. Murder and adultery were carefully defined. An offended person meticulously counted the seven times forgiveness was required. And that same calculating attitude is with us today. How much of the truth can we withhold before it's a lie? What is the loosest boundary for sexual activity? How honest does a Christian business man need to be in a dog-eat-dog world? Do I have to go to church every week? If not, how frequently is enough? And how about money? Must I give a tenth? If I do, can I spend the rest the way I want to?
This scholar wanted a faith that was legitimized through right answers and a nice outward appearance. Jesus' story shows the opposite. Jesus never really answers the scholar's question. What it all comes down to is a heart of obedience expressed through mercy. Saying we have trusted Jesus doesn't mean much apart from a life that seeks to follow Jesus.
Yet, there will be questions. A life of faith is a life of genuine struggle, but the struggle and the questions will not come from a motivation that seeks self-justification, nor an attitude that wants to avoid inconvenient obedience. Those are the characteristics of spiritual death. The struggles and questions that come out of spiritual life are marked by humility, and their fruit is love and mercy.
The scholar began with a good and most important question: What must I do to inherit eternal life? For those who truly want to know, eternal life is something that exists right now in the lives of those who will embrace love and mercy. It's a way of life that has not changed, even since the days of the Old Testament when Moses gave the commands the scholar quoted. It's a response to God expressed by the prophet Micah: He has showed you, O man, what is good. / And what does the Lord require of you? / To act justly and to love mercy / and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8).
Are you living in an awareness of eternal life? If you are like “the Good Samaritan,” you love mercy; you act justly; you walk humbly. No, we don’t do that perfectly––but we want to. Jesus has opened the way. One answer to What must I do to inherit eternal life? is our own answer to the question: are you––am I––a neighbor? In Christian Faith, it is Jesus who leads us into the mercy that is eternal life.