There are a lot of passages of Scripture that require careful consideration, nuance, and exploration of context for us to understand them well. Today’s Gospel is not among them. It is among the simplest, most basic Gospel messages, at the core of Christian teaching (and Jewish teaching before it), and yet somehow it’s a message so many Christians, throughout history and today, have failed to digest.
What do we have to do in this life? Love God. Love our neighbour. Full stop. End of story.
A lawyer — not a lawyer like we think of, but a religious scholar — comes up to Jesus and asks him what we must do to inherit eternal life. (We could juts as easily translate this as ‘receive our share in the life of the ages’, which places the outcome in the here and now rather than in some distant future — I think both are likely in mind). Jesus throws the question back at him: “You’re the expert in the Law; you tell me.” The man answers: “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.” Jesus applauds the man’s synopsis: The Law was never about the fine print and stipulations, but about being freed to love God and one another. “Do this,” Jesus says, “and you will live.”
Contrary to what Martin Luther tried to tell us, this is not some radical departure from Jewish thought. Not only do these words come from the lips of a Jewish legal scholar, but there are similar distillations of God’s heart in the Hebrew Bible itself, such as Micah 6.8: “He has told you, o mortal, what is good, and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God?”
But, not entirely satisfied, the man digs deeper, asking Jesus, “But who is my neighbour?” To this, Jesus replies with the famous story of the Good Samaritan, in which a man is robbed and left for dead on the side of the road; two religious leaders from his own faith community walk by but do not help him, but a Samaritan — a man from that group Jews of the time regarded as half-breed heretics — stops and sees to his needs. “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” Jesus asks. The man answers, “The one who showed him mercy.”
So even if the summary of the Law wasn’t enough to convince us that love, not legalism, is the point of religious life (and even the Law itself!), this story should make it clear. ‘Neighbourliness’, that category offered as the criterion for whom we are to love, is defined not by shared features like ethnicity, or religion, and not by any legalistic notion of purity, but by simply being human. Once again, we have evidence of the shared human vocation to honour the image and likeness of God in others.
Legalism is the enemy of the Gospel. Any religion that is based on rules and regulations, lists of dos and dont’s, or which tries to categorize people as ‘pure’ and ‘impure’ based on external considerations of food and drink, or whatever, is not the religion of Jesus and does not reflect the God whom Jesus revealed.
Our theology may be ‘right’, our piety may be ‘right’, our moral ideals may be ‘impeccable’, but if those are not expressed in tangible acts of love, they are worth nothing. Nor can we hide behind such falsehoods like ‘Well, I’m really showing love by not encouraging their bad behaviour.’ That’s nonsense. We aren’t going to be judged on anything other than the love — the grace, mercy, compassion — we have shown to others.
This is a simple message, but it seems to be a hard one for many of us. So let’s all take some time this week to reflect on this and, as Jesus put it, “Go and do likewise.”