There is nothing wrong with talking about theology. Nor is there anything wrong with taking time to debate and discuss important theological questions. There is certainly nothing wrong with asking a question about eternal life.
In Bible terms, eternal life is is the life of what is called the age to come. That expression reminds us that God has a plan for the world. There is going to be new era, a future age. Eternal life is a gift that we receive now and that remains in the age to come. Because it is eternal, it will last forever. Obviously anyone who wants to be sure of life in the age to come would need to know the answer to the lawyer’s question. Without a satisfactory answer, there is no hope for the future.
Later in Luke’s gospel (chapter 18) a rich ruler asked Jesus the same question. He wanted to know how to inherit eternal life. Apparently he was a fairly upright citizen. When Jesus put a list of the commandments to him – do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not bear false witness, honour your father and mother – he was quite confident that he had kept all these requirements throughout his adult life. But Jesus had said nothing about the final commandment – do not covet. That was a different story. It turned out that this rich ruler was very attached to his wealth. The thought of selling what he had and giving to the poor was more than he could countenance. He went away sad. He was disappointed that eternal life was going to cost him more than he was prepared to pay.
It is interesting to note that someone would weigh up the wealth they have, and enjoy, today against the hope of eternal life in the age to come and decide that they would prefer to hold on to what they have today, even if it means letting go of what they could have in the future. That is what that ruler did. And it is what people still do today. They choose to live for now and are prepared to trade their future in the process.
The lawyer in chapter 10 was asking the same question, but Luke questions his motivation. The question is asked as a test. His real interest is to test the theological position of Jesus.
One of the recurring themes during the public ministry of Jesus was the attempt by various religious people to test him. Some of the experts wanted to ask him questions so that they could get him to say something controversial. If they succeeded, they could write him off.
Some of them asked him about whether it was right to pay taxes to Caesar or not. How could anyone answer that question without either offending Jewish nationalists, or leaving himself open to accusations of fostering insurrection agains the government?
Some of them wanted to know what Jesus judged to be the most important commandment. The Pharisees had managed to identify a system with 613 laws: 365 prohibitions and 248 positive commands. Jesus answered with great clarity and precision that the most important commandment was the command to love God and the second was the command to love neighbour.
The legal expert in Luke 10 may well have agreed, judging by his answer to his own question on eternal life.
No doubt Jesus perceived his real motivation in asking the question. The man knew without needing to ask Jesus. He was only asking to see what Jesus would say. So rather than answer, Jesus turned the question back to him.
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.
How will this lawyer inherit eternal life? The answer seems to be by keeping the law; not simply by ticking off the external observance of a list of regulations, but in spirit, by loving God and loving neighbour.
So the lawyer knew all along what he needed to do.
But the issue is not so much about his ability to give the “correct” answer; it’s not about what he knows in theory. The issue becomes what he is going to do in response to the knowledge he has. Nothing in the chapter gives any indication that this man was already living out what he knew to be true. There is no evidence that he was already loving his neighbours: certainly not in the way that Jesus was about to define it.
In fact, once he has answered the question, all he has to do is go home and start loving his neighbour. But he has another question: who is his neighbour? If he is expected to love him, he needs to know who he is. Or perhaps he is more interested in knowing who is neighbour is not. If he knew who his neighbour was, he could love him and forget about everyone else. We could surmise this from the way Jesus tells the story in answer to this second question.
Again we need to acknowledge that it is not an entirely unreasonable question. Should we love everyone? Should we love human traffickers, for example? Should we love terrorists?
I was living in Switzerland at the time of the dreadful events of September 11, 2001. Not long after the attacks, my wife and I were having dinner with some friends. They had invited another guest, a secular Jew who taught international relations. He was a very bright man and was well versed in Christianity, having counted Francis Schaeffer among his friends. In the course of conversation we got talking about 9/11 and Osama Bin Laden. Did God love him? Should Christians love him? He said that he would turn up at any church where the pastor announced that he would be preaching on this question.
The legal expert might not have been thinking of such an extreme (at least in our terms) example. It was probably fairly clear to him that his fellow Jews fell into the category of neighbour. That, of course, was unless the person had become his enemy. Didn’t some of the traditions teach that they were to love their neighbour and hate their enemy (something that Jesus challenged in the Sermon on the Mount)? He probably considered the question of how to treat a Gentile as a bit of a grey area. There was a school of thought that said that you should not plan their death, but nor should you put yourself out if a Gentile fell into the sea!
As for Samaritans, as we shall see, they were beyond the pale.
While all of this questioning was going on, there was little opportunity for the man to be doing the thing he knew he was meant to do. And that can be the problem with theological discussion. It can take the place of action. It is easier to talk theology than to love people.
There are quite a few things that it is easier to talk about than do. It is easier to talk about prayer than to spend time praying. It is easier to talk about what exactly Jesus meant when he told us to turn the other cheek than it is to cultivate a life of grace and non-retaliation when we are provoked. It is easier to talk about using our material resources to promote the kingdom than it is to do without things and live simply in order to do what we are talking about.
It is very easy to find substitutes for action when it comes to loving people. Set up a committee to discuss the theological foundations for loving people. Pray about the findings. Pray for the people whose lives might be improved if the findings were implemented.
As John says in his first letter, “let us not love in word or talk, but in deed and in truth.”
There is nothing wrong with a theological discussion: until it becomes a substitute for action.
Next: It is easier to follow rules than to love people.