What Must I Do?

Apostles Anglican Church

Fr. John A. Roop

19 May 2021

(Deuteronomy 20 / Ps 45 / Luke 10:25-42)

Collect

O God, the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: Do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. 

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

WHEN A NOMINEE to the United States Supreme Court comes before the Senate Judiciary Committee for confirmation hearings he/she knows that there will be certain “litmus test” questions asked, questions about landmark Supreme Court decisions:

Where do you stand on Obergefell v. Hodges, the ruling that the 14th Amendment guarantees same-sex couples the fundamental right to marry?

What about the Roe v. Wade decision that declares constitutional protection for a woman’s right to have an abortion:  do you support the majority opinion?

The Brown v. Board of Education ruling determined that in public education “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” and thus violate the 14th amendment.  Racial segregation was disallowed and the states were ordered to desegregate public schools “with all deliberate speed.”  Do you consider this super-precedent, law settled beyond any future challenge, or would you be willing to revisit it?

Is the 2nd Amendment right to keep and to bear arms absolute, or may states impose reasonable restrictions?  And what would constitute reasonable?

These questions will certainly be asked and, just as certainly, the carefully vetted and coached nominee will deftly refuse to answer. 

Are such questions reasonable?  Is it impertinent or proper for a committee member to probe the nominee for his/her judicial doctrine before voting to confirm or reject the nominee?  What do you think?

Well, closer to home, suppose someone tells Fr. Jack that he feels a calling to the priesthood and would like to be ordained.  Would it be impertinent or proper for Fr. Jack to ask this person probing questions —  questions about his background, preparation, nature of the call, understanding of the priesthood, etc. — before moving him forward in the ordination process?  Would it be impertinent or proper for a parish discernment committee and the Canon to the Ordinary to examine this person thoroughly to ascertain his psychological, theological, and pastoral suitability for the priesthood? What do you think?

In both these cases — Supreme Court nomination and priestly aspirancy — a certain caution and thorough examination are warranted.

Now, let’s cast ourselves back to the first century.  A new rabbi has emerged, one who is teaching authoritatively in his own name, one who is putting a new spin on Moses, one who heals people and exorcises demons, one who sits rather loosely in his observance of the Law — one who seems to disregard the Sabbath routinely, for example.  Suppose, further, that you have some official or accepted quasi-official position in the religious hierarchy.  Would it be impertinent or proper for you to examine this rabbi, to ask some probing questions to test his orthodoxy?  Very proper, it seems to me, and that was, in fact, the custom.  One rabbi, or his disciples, would come to another rabbi and ask very challenging questions.  A typical one was this:  What is the greatest commandment?  This probes a rabbi’s understanding of the Law, the heart of the Law that encompasses all the “minor” details.  A related question might be, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

This is exactly the question a lawyer — not a civil lawyer but a Mosaic scholar (not that there was much difference) — poses to Jesus, specifically in order to test Jesus.  Now, the point that I’ve been making all along is that there is nothing impertinent or improper about such a test.  It is what the lawyer should have done.  It is what we should do when we are presented with a novel understanding/presentation of the Gospel or with a radical approach to social justice or with a different definition of spiritual anthropology or human flourishing.  St. John commands a certain holy skepticism and examination:

1 John 4:1 (ESV): Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.

Jesus gives a very conventional answer to the lawyer’s question, couched in the form of another question, but conventional nonetheless.  He points the lawyer back to the Law.  “What is written in the Law?  How do you read it?”  When the lawyer quotes the two great commandments — love God completely and love your neighbor as yourself — Jesus agrees:  “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”

So far, so good:  but, now comes the twist in the story, a twist that bring us right back to the Senate Judiciary Committee.  Have you ever noticed — if you bother to watch such hearings — that the senators ask questions mainly to justify their own positions or to show their political or moral superiority over the nominee, the other party, Mr. Rogers and Mother Teresa?  Their questions are almost always directed toward self-justification and not honest inquiry.  And that is just what we see with the lawyer standing before Jesus.  “But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’”  It is a small but dangerous step from proper questioning to impertinent self-justification, and the slope is steep and slippery from there on.  That path does not lead to eternal life.

Now, I interrupt the story here.  You know it well and you’ve heard many lessons and sermons on the parable Jesus tells in reply — the Good Samaritan.  I probably have nothing to add to what you already know.  What I want to do instead is to compare and contrast this lawyer’s encounter with Jesus to a very similar incident, one we call the Rich Young Man or the Rich Young Ruler.  Here is the text from St. Mark:

Mark 10:17–22 (ESV): 17 And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’ ” 20 And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” 21 And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 22 Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. 

St. Mark simply notes that a man ran up to Jesus.  St. Luke adds a detail; the man was a ruler, likely the ruler of a synagogue.  You might think of him as the senior warden of a parish, someone with an official position of spiritual and administrative authority in the synagogue, a person of some importance.  He asks Jesus the same question that the lawyer had posed, but with a very different spirit.  The lawyer stood before Jesus, treating Jesus as equal.  The ruler knelt before Jesus, treating Jesus as superior.  The layer called Jesus “teacher.”  The ruler called Jesus “good teacher.”  The lawyer came testing.  The ruler came seeking.  The lawyer came with a quiz:  “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”  The ruler came with cri de coeur, a cry of the heart:  “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Same question, very different spirit.

As with the lawyer, Jesus refers the ruler to the Law:

“You know the commandments:  ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’”  

It is interesting — and I think it is significant — that Jesus lists those commandments that relate specifically to interpersonal relationships.  He doesn’t summarize the commandments — love God supremely and love your neighbor — as did the lawyer.  There is nothing abstract here; there is a specific, detailed checklist for self-examination.  The ruler responds — apparently with integrity, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.”  The next statement is one of the most touching in Scripture:  “And Jesus, looking at him, loved him.”

So far, so good:  but now comes the twist in this story.  The ruler has been scrupulous about keeping the law — the externals of the law.  Now he is ready for the heart of the law.  He is ready to love the Lord his God with all his heart, with all his soul and with all mind, and to love his neighbor as himself.  What must he do to inherit eternal life?

And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing:  go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”

Now, I interrupt the story here.  You know it well — how the ruler goes away sorrowful because he had great possessions or because his great possessions had him — and you’ve heard lessons and sermons about the dangers of wealth.  I probably have nothing to add to what you already know.

But these two men intrigue and challenge me.  Neither — apparently — was able to follow Jesus:  the lawyer because he was unwilling to recognize and love his neighbor, and the ruler because he was unwilling to love God completely by disposing of his idol — his great possessions.  Each ran afoul of one of the two great commandments.  There are two great sins in these stories, sins presented in all their sorrow and destructiveness:  justification, which is self-righteousness, and greed, which is idolatry.  And here is the caution, the warning in these stories.  It is possible, like the lawyer, to be an “expert” in all matters religious and yet to miss the very heart of the law.  It is possible, like the ruler, to keep the details of the law perfectly and yet to miss the very heart of the law.  Eternal life is not merely a matter of knowing the right things.  Eternal life is not merely a matter of doing the right things.  Eternal life is first and foremost a matter of faithfulness to Jesus.  Now, I don’t want to be misunderstood.  This is not some fuzzy, abstract, me-and-Jesus feel good relationship.  This is the very demanding path of discipleship, discipleship that costs everything.  It is taking up the cross daily and following Jesus.  What that looks like in your life is between you and Jesus:  not an answer for me to give you, but a question for you to ask Jesus, to ask on your knees:  “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  

My suggestion is that we hold a comprehensive view of this notion of eternal life:  not just as heaven when we die, but rather as the life of the ages — life in the kingdom of God — begun and lived here and now and then even more fully in the resurrection.  Good teacher — Lord Jesus Christ — what must I do here and now to begin living the eternal life that you have promised to all who love you and keep your commandments?  That’s a question worth asking.  Amen.

About johnaroop

I am a husband, father, retired teacher, lover of books and music and coffee and, as of 17 May 2015, by the grace of God and the will of his Church, an Anglican priest in the Anglican Church in North America, Anglican Diocese of the South. I serve as assisting priest at Apostles Anglican Church in Knoxville, TN, and as Canon Theologian for the Anglican Diocese of the South.
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