A Story Observed

by Larry Barber


In the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), Luke records the interaction between Jesus and a lawyer. This article will explore the teaching of the passage and discuss what this particular lawyer unknowingly revealed about himself.

And behold, a certain lawyer stood up and put Him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (vs. 25)

In the New Testament, the title `lawyer’ was given to a person who knew the Old Testament inside and out and was an expert in the application of the Mosaic Law. A lawyer devoted himself to the task of knowing and understanding the Law of Moses. In order to determine the exact meaning of the Law of Moses so that they could know what activities did and did not violate God’s commandment, lawyers spent many hours diligently studying, interpreting, and discussing interpretations with each other. It would not have been at all uncommon for a lawyer to initiate a theological discussion by asking the kind of question the lawyer asked Jesus: “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”

On one level, the question the lawyer asks Jesus appears to be simple and straightforward. It appears the lawyer may really be interested in what Jesus believes is required to receive eternal life. Luke observes, however, that on another level something quite different is going on. Luke says the lawyer is “putting Jesus to the test.” Although it is difficult to determine from the text exactly how this lawyer was “putting Jesus to the test,” nonetheless Luke records that the lawyer is using his question to play out a hidden agenda; what on the surface appears to be genuine and straight-forward is not at all what is going on in the heart of the lawyer.

Jesus responds to the lawyer with a question of His own (vs. 26): “What is written in the Law? How does it read to you?” And the lawyer responds to Jesus’ question by combining two separate references from the Old Testament Law into one (vs. 27):

…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… (from Deut. 6:5)
…and [you shall love] your neighbor as yourself. (from Lev. 19:18)

The lawyer’s reply describes concisely the inner condition of a truly godly man. Loving God and loving one’s neighbor are united in the same commandment; loving one’s neighbor is clearly connected with one’s love for God.

In verse 28, Jesus responds to the lawyer: “You have answered correctly.” The lawyer has rightly identified the ultimate answer to a critical theological question. He has rightly weighed and summarized the Law. He has done well. He is pleased at Jesus’ assessment of his answer. But Jesus goes on: “Do this, and you will live.” The lawyer is less pleased with Jesus telling him that he must do the Law, not merely demonstrate an understanding of the Law. The lawyer seems to understand that Jesus is telling him that he must actually love his neighbor, not merely be able to articulate the commandment.

In response to Jesus, the lawyer poses a second question (vs. 29): “And who is my neighbor?” Again, if you just look at the question, it appears as though the lawyer is asking Jesus a sincere, straightforward question and that he wants to have an honest theological discussion. It looks as if he is interested in what Jesus thinks about this issue. Again, however, Luke observes that the lawyer has a hidden agenda. Something quite different is going on than what appears on the surface. According to Luke, the lawyer was “wishing to justify himself.” `Justify’ is a legal term used for declaring a person `not guilty’ or `blameless’. The lawyer’s reaction to Jesus’ words demonstrates that he feels a need to defend himself. Jesus has told him that in order to be justified, the Law requires that he be the kind of person who loves his neighbor. Merely demonstrating an understanding of the commandment is not enough.

For a brief moment the lawyer is uncomfortably aware that his own description of a truly godly man does not apply to himself. Something in Jesus’ reply penetrates this man’s heart. Something inside the lawyer tells him that he has not kept the commandment of loving his neighbor as himself. Something inside has informed him that he is guilty of breaking the Law. He is not the righteous man he thought he was and had worked so hard to be.

Rather than face the reality that he has not pleased or loved God, the lawyer attempts to justify himself. Rather than experience the discomfort of the truth about himself, the lawyer distracts himself by drawing his own attention back to an area where he believes that he has loved and pleased God. Instead of responding to his moral waterloo by crying to God for mercy, this man hides from the truth by directing the conversation back to a familiar and comfortable area where he feels confident and has experienced some success, an area in which he can “hold his own.”

The lawyer’s interaction with Jesus exhibits two distinct levels of communication: the content level and the process level. The content level is the actual words and their literal meaning; it is the subjects discussed when people communicate with one another. In this case, the content level is the actual questions the lawyer asked Jesus.

The process level is how people disclose the content, the information, and the subjects they communicate. The process level can be detected by a person’s tone of voice, facial expressions, body language, posture, how they present themselves, and by other non-verbal cues. Although it is unclear from our vantage point how Luke came to know about the interaction between Jesus and the lawyer, something on a process level happened that was significant enough to comment on.

We tell “our story” on the process level. Our story is who we are, what we believe is true, how we think, what our fears are, and what is important to us. All of us have a story that plays an important role in how we relate to the world, to people, and to ourselves. It influences how we feel, what we believe, why we are attracted to particular people and to specific ideas. Many factors–such as the culture we live in, our life experiences beginning in early childhood, the beliefs we develop about the world and ourselves, the decisions we make, and our moral condition—play a significant role in developing our own unique story that follows us throughout our life.

We make known our story not so much by the words we speak, but by how we communicate those words. In the lawyer’s case, what he communicates about himself on a content level is not congruent with what he reveals about himself on a process level. On a content level, the lawyer’s question to Jesus regarding eternal life and his knowledge of the Law appears to indicate that he is interested in truth, a man who pursues righteousness very seriously. On a process level, however, the lawyer tells a very different story. In response to Jesus’ words, “Do this and you will live,” the lawyer attempts to justify himself. He hopes to use his knowledge of the Law and his ability to articulate and discuss “the truth” as a means to avoid the discomfort of his guilt and his failure to keep the commandment. He doesn’t want to look at the reality nor experience the emotional turmoil of the fact that he is not a man who has pleased or loved God.

Without realizing it, the lawyer tells a story very different than he imagines. Nonetheless, his story is visible to Jesus, and it is to us through the pen of Luke. In spite of his words to the contrary, the lawyer is not the man he appears to be or sees himself to be. What he really believes, what kind of person he is, and what is most important to him, clearly manifests itself on a process level in his interaction with Jesus.

Just as Jesus will not let the lawyer retain a blind, self-sufficient confidence that his ability to articulate an understanding of God’s Law can somehow adequately substitute for being the kind of person who lives it out, so Jesus does not let the lawyer escape the moral pressure of His words. Jesus does not respond to the lawyer’s second question by entering into a theological debate about the definition and limits implied in the word `neighbor’ as understood in the Law. Rather, Jesus responds to the lawyer by telling a story. He creates a fictional reality into which he invites the lawyer to enter.

A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho; and he fell among robbers, and they stripped him and beat him, and went off leaving him half dead. And by chance a certain priest was going down on that road, and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. And likewise a Levite also, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, who was on a journey, came upon him; and when he saw him, he felt compassion, and came to him; and bandaged up his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them; and he put him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And on the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper and said, “Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I return, I will repay you. (Luke 10: 30-35)

In the course of the story, an anonymous man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho becomes a victim of violent thieves who leave him helpless and in great need. Two men, both religious individuals with whom the lawyer might have more naturally associated himself, pass by the injured man. Their “tradition” did not consider the injured man to be a neighbor. Jesus introduces a third man into the narrative, a Samaritan, considered a despised individual by people such as the lawyer. Yet, it is this “inferior” individual who was willing to trouble himself on behalf of the needy man.

In contrast to the religious individuals, the Samaritan was the kind of person who was committed to loving God and who expressed that commitment by making the difficult decision to love his neighbor as himself. The Samaritan clearly inconvenienced himself to help the injured man, quite possibly at personal risk to himself, and certainly with some effort and expense. He demonstrated mercy and compassion to the man in need.

After completing the parable, Jesus gives the lawyer’s question back to him in an altered form (vs. 36): “Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the robbers’ hands?” The question has been conditioned by the story’s circumstances. The lawyer’s only real option is to acknowledge the Samaritan’s compassion and mercy (vs. 37): “The one who showed mercy toward him.”

By showing the religious men in the story to be people who could have aided the injured man but didn’t, Jesus leads the lawyer to see himself and these theologically correct individuals in a different light. Their theology did not lead them to act mercifully. Instead, it allowed them to justify ignoring the urgent need of a fellow human being. Jesus gives the lawyer an opportunity to consider and evaluate his own values and beliefs and to see himself and the people with a theology like his own from the perspective of the man whose need was ignored. In response to Jesus’ story, the lawyer again answers “correctly,” and again Jesus tells him that a man who truly loves God does not merely articulate and understand the correct answer; he must live it out.

This lawyer had never had a conversation like this with anyone before. Little did he know what was in store for him when he first posed his question to Jesus. Little did he know the theological, moral, and personal crisis that awaited him in this interaction. Little did he realize what he would reveal about himself when he initiated what he thought was a simple theological discussion with this carpenter’s son from Nazareth.

The encounter between Jesus and the lawyer teaches that righteousness is measured by our actually living as we should, not by our knowledge of how we should live. We must not hide from our failure to do what is required of us by taking pride in the fact that we know what is required. It is easy to avoid the truth about our moral failure by hiding behind the pretense that knowing how I should live and understanding what I should do makes a significant difference with respect to my standing with God. Ironically, this lawyer, who by profession had the responsibility to defend and teach the truth as revealed in the Law, uses his knowledge of the Law and his ability to articulate the Law as a means of hiding from the truth about himself and the demands of the commandment.

In this passage, the process level is the most revealing. At this level, the lawyer discloses what kind of person he is and what is most important to him. The lawyer “tells his story” at the process level. In spite of his words to the contrary, the lawyer’s interaction with Jesus demonstrates that he is not a man open to the truth. His inability and/or unwillingness to be open to the truth about himself and to recognize his need for mercy translates into an unwillingness to extend mercy and compassion to others in need.

Although our stories may differ somewhat from this particular lawyer’s story, nonetheless we tell our stories in the same way he did. We make known our stories not so much by the words we speak, but by how we communicate those words. Whether or not we realize it, we communicate who we are, what we believe, and what is important to us whenever we interact with others. And like the lawyer in his interaction with Jesus, what we say on a process level can be very different from what we communicate on a content level.

Copyright May 1996 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

Larry Barber