Proper 10C: Testing Jesus
By: Hannah Adams Ingram
When we look at this gospel passage and see the story of the Samaritan, it is easy to think we know it all already; after all, it is a favorite childhood tale. What more could possibly be gleaned from this story? In itself, it is great, isn’t it? While the audience expects the status quo to prevail, we see Jesus making things topsy-turvy. We also see an example of our greatest commandment (or second greatest, according to Matthew): “‘Love your neighbor as yourself.” It preaches well and it preaches easy. Right?
Sometimes in the study of scripture or the preparation of sermons and teachings, we must encourage ourselves to read with new eyes or an empty slate—to read slowly; deliberately; thoughtfully. In my own practice, I try to read the scripture aloud, imagining what it might have been like to hear it for the first time. When I went about this practice with this scripture, I was bowled over by the first line: “Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus [emphases mine].”
The lawyer in this context is no Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird or Alicia Florrick from The Good Wife; instead, this story is likely referring to an expert interpreter of Scripture. He was pretty sure he knew it all, sure enough to test Jesus. Lest we be too quick to scoff at this fool for testing Jesus, let us remember that the people Jesus came into contact with didn’t have the benefit of 2000+ years of public witness of the Christ. He knew Jesus was a teacher, and he was going to put him through the paces.
Jesus asked the lawyer what he thought the way to eternal life was, and as a brown-nosing know-it-all student (not unlike Hermione Granger—or myself), he gave the correct answer. I like to imagine him straightening up with a self-assured grin, then reciting the Shema, one of the great prayers commanded in the Torah: “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 neighbor as yourself.” And of course, that was the correct answer. After all, Jesus did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. But how does Jesus fulfill the law? By pushing this lawyer further, even after the lawyer pushes back.
The lawyer asks who his neighbor is because he wants to justify himself. By this time, my fresh reading with a vulnerable spirit leaves me identifying with this man, who seemingly doesn’t realize what he’s gotten himself into. On my worst days, I find myself doing the mental calculations of what is required of me in order to stay in favor with those around me, or even God. Must I say yes to this plea for help? Must I attend this church meeting, too? Could I read a novel instead of doing something more productive, and still be loved by my God and my family? There is a seemingly endless list of requirements, and it’s tempting to look for the minimum—what can I stop with and still be alright? I feel resonance with the lawyer’s persistent question: what’s the least I can do for the most gain? I’m doing what I have to, right? Because yeah, I love God. If that’s all I have to do, sign me up.
Jesus never lets us off the hook that easily—at least, he doesn’t let those of us who think we are righteous and “good enough” off that easily. That’s one of the things I love about Jesus: he offers mercy and grace to those who are down on themselves, exalting them, while he knocks the proud down a few pegs. He goes on to describe the Samaritan man who helps a man who had been robbed and beaten. While the other travelers were religious leaders, they did nothing to help this man in need. They may have talked the talk of loving God, but their words and status did not lead them to care for another person. The true neighbor, then, was the humble Samaritan who did everything he could and then some to help this man. No reason for his help was given. He did not boast of his great faith or status, but rather, he simply cared, and in doing so, he showed a true love for neighbor.
What must I do to be saved? I must love the Lord my God with all my heart, with all my soul, with all my strength, and with all my mind, and I must love my neighbor as myself. And who is my neighbor, I ask? As long as I keep insisting on my own righteousness, it seems as if my neighbor is always slightly beyond my reach, so that the goal is always ahead of me. Perhaps the lesson I take from this story this time around is that not only is my faith shown by my loving actions, but by my humility in the loving acts, so that the love is not about me and my own justification, but on behalf of something so much greater.
Hannah Adams Ingram is a PhD candidate at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado, with a research focus in public practical theology. She is seeking ordination in the United Church of Christ. She is excited it is finally summer and plans to read for fun, cook for nourishment, and write for graduation.
 Matthew 5:17
 If you’re into that sort of thing, here’s a footnote shout-out to the Enneagram Type 2s out there.