What if Jesus didn’t “switch questions” on the lawyer in Luke 10? What if the parable Jesus tells is a precise answer to the lawyer’s question? I’ve been thinking about that possibility today.
Let’s begin with the lawyer’s supposed frame of mind and motivation in posing the question. Most commentators assume that the lawyer comes with hostile intent – that his plan to “test” Jesus was in fact a desire to trap Jesus in a major theological faux pas. There are reasons behind that assumption. Others who “test” Jesus in the Lukan account and elsewhere are generally up to no good. In this view, the testing is an extension of Satan’s attacks on Jesus in the wilderness.
That assumption – that “testing” is an indication of malice – is not, however, a certain conclusion. Richard Swanson suggests that the lawyer “acts in this scene as a building inspector. He probes to determine Jesus’ solidity,” Swanson continues. “Jesus does well in this test, which is a good outcome for all concerned” (page 162). A test can be an evaluation without hostile intent. It can be a measure of limits, tolerances, capacities, and constitution. It is possible to read the lawyer’s frame of mind in this way.
Levine and Witherington make a strong case for the lawyer’s malevolence. However, the points they make could just as easily point to the lawyer’s curious neutrality as to his active antipathy. The lawyer refers to Jesus as “Teacher” rather than as “Lord” or “Master.” That may indeed be a way to disrespect Jesus. But it could also be a way to simply withhold judgment. The lawyer’s question about eternal life could be a trick question that may produce an unorthodox answer. Or it may be a genuine inquiry.
There may be some of both motives in the question – some hostile pushback and some real curiosity. In the Lukan narrative, our text comes immediately after Jesus tells the disciples that they see and hear and know things that have been kept from “the wise and the intelligent.” The lawyer is a case study in this “wise and intelligent” cohort. The narrative seems to indicate that Jesus’ critique of conventional wisdom and intelligence was a public pronouncement as opposed to the private revelation to the disciples in Like 10:23-24.
Perhaps the lawyer resembles Jesus’ remarks in Luke 10:21-23 and wants some further conversation on this indictment. It would be understandable if the lawyer was somewhat offended by those comments. It is commendable if the lawyer responds by asking more questions rather than responding with rejection or violence. Perhaps the lawyer takes a deep breath, gathers himself, and releases his need for hitting back verbally or otherwise. Instead, he moves toward his discomfort and invites a theological dialogue.
“This is not a conflict scene,” writes Richard Swanson, “This is an argument scene. Argument is what people engage in if they respect each other and attempt to dig out the truth” (page 165). He suggests that this interaction is more like brainstorming than boxing, more like a “joyful competition that calls for a hug and maybe a beer afterward” (page 167). We don’t know if the interaction ends that way in our text. But we also don’t know that it doesn’t.
Jesus’ response indicates, according to Capon, that Jesus treats the question as a sincere inquiry rather than as a theological trap. I know that my psychological wiring predisposes me to assume that most questions are efforts to make me look stupid or to prove me wrong. I’m not suggesting that this is the actual case with most questions I get. I am saying that this is my default response – a default I’ve had to battle for a lifetime and which I work to discipline and tamp down all the time. I also think it’s a default response that is at least as much cultural and sociological as it is psychological.
It’s not a stretch to say that good questions were valued among first-century Jews. It’s accurate to say that answering a question with a question was and is regarded as good and necessary rabbinic practice. Jesus is not evading a response to the lawyer’s question. Jesus is accepting the invitation to debate and dig deeper. As an aside, we can learn a great deal from this reminder for our own lives in our churches. Jesus loves good questions (and the dialogue and debate produced) far more than supposed “good” answers. If only our theological (and political) life together in the Church shared this Jesus value set! We wouldn’t “know” anymore, but our life together would certainly be much more interesting.
Capon argues that by the time Jesus gets to the actual parable, he has chosen to drop his guard and put his suspicions on hold with regard to the lawyer’s motives. “As I read him,” Capon writes of Jesus, “he has decided to deal unsuspiciously, if provocatively, with what he takes to be a mind honestly curious about the mystery of lostness” (Kindle Locations 2650-2651). If Jesus takes the question of the lawyer as a sincere one, then it would be dishonest to switch that question and answer another.
Another critique of the lawyer’s malevolent motives is based on the words in Luke 10:29. The lawyer is reported as wanting to “justify himself” (in the NRSV rendering, for example). Any whiff of the odor of “self-justification” provokes a five-alarm theological emergency for us who are heirs of Luther and his reformation. Immediately, we assume that the lawyer is guilty of “works righteousness” and is certainly on the wrong track.
Swanson notes, however, that this translation is – at the least – unusual. He reminds us that neither the Lukan author nor Jesus is or was a Lutheran. The word translated as “justify” here needs attention. “In Jewish contexts,” Swanson writes, “the word is best translated as ‘be strictly observant.’” In other words, we can read the text as saying that the lawyer wanted to make sure he was getting things right theologically. So, he asked another question.
Swanson observes that the Greek verb is translated in the middle voice by most editions. In the middle voice, the action of the verb is taken for the benefit of the actor. We don’t have an English equivalent. But it would be far more typical to translate the verb as passive, with the action happening to the actor. “If the verb is passive,” Swanson argues, “it means that he wishes to be justified, not that he is seeking to justify himself.” Jesus’ parabolic response, as opposed to an outright rejection, indicates that Jesus hears the question as a need for deeper understanding rather than a desire to be a smart ass.
Richard Swanson puts it this way. “The middle voice creates a picture (for Protestant Christians, in any case) of a person who exhibits all the diagnostic signs of the basic theological misunderstanding that plagues human relations with God: asserting our own righteousness rather than accepting God’s forgiveness. The passive voice does the exact opposite,” he continues, “now the picture is of a person who has recognized that God’s grace is a free gift” (page 163).
Therefore, let’s move to Jesus’ response at the end of the parable. “Which of these three, do you suppose,” Jesus asks, “became a neighbor of the one who fell among the robbers?” The lawyer answers, “The one who did mercy with him.” Jesus concludes with the advice, “Go, and you do the same way” (Luke 1036-37, my translation).
We tend to read this as advice to do mercy to the wretches we find along our own roads. But that’s not really how the narrative works, in my opinion. The question the lawyer poses is, “Who, then, is my neighbor?” The answer Jesus gives is, “The one who does mercy to you, even if that one is a hated, despised, and dangerous enemy.” The action appropriate to the lawyer’s question is to be willing to receive neighboring from just such a one when it is offered.
My neighbor is not merely the one who is like me and whom I like. My neighbor may well be one who is completely other and whom I despise. I may find myself in place where I must accept neighboring from such an Other or die in a ditch, naked and alone. If we are invited first of all to identify with the man who fell among the robbers (and I think that’s the case), then this may be the answer Jesus offers to the lawyer’s question – sincerely put to Jesus or not.
I cannot avoid making a connection, now, to Romans 5:10. “For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son,” Paul writes, “much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life” (NRSV). Paul describes human beings as weak, sinners, enemies of God – and all in desperate need of healing, ransom, and rescue. We have fallen among robbers, are lying half-dead in a ditch. The One who can save us is the Wholly and Holy Other. And that One does.
As Jesus would ask, “What do you read?”
References and Resources
Capon, Robert Farrar. Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Kindle Edition.
Hultgren, Arland J. “Enlarging the Neighborhood: The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25–37).” Word & World 37, no. 1 (2017): 71-8.
Levine, Amy-Jill. Short Stories by Jesus. HarperOne. Kindle Edition.
Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: Pilgrim Press, 2006.
Tranvik, Mark D. “The Good Samaritan as Good News: Martin Luther and the Recovery of the Gospel in Preaching.” Word & World 38, no. 3 (2018).