Proper 10(C): “First, Kill All the Lawyers”
By: The Rev. Kim Jenne
Antipathy toward those in the legal profession has been around for a long, long time. Even Shakespeare had one of his characters in “Henry VI” proclaim, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” Luke, the author of today’s Gospel lesson also seems to lack affection for those in the legal profession. But, I don’t think this parable is specifically about lawyers, nor do I think all lawyers are bad. In Shakespeare’s play, Dick the Butcher was referring to corrupt, unethical lawyers. Shakespeare meant it as a compliment to attorneys and judges who instill justice in society. And for those in Jesus’ early audience, lawyers would have been considered positive figures. Lawyers, at that time, studied Torah for their interpretation of the law. Their close connection with Torah would have been a good thing. So, this story is not about whether lawyers on the whole are good, but the foolishness of this particular lawyer (and those like him). Consider the following depiction of the lawyer in this scene.
First, the lawyer calls Jesus “Teacher.” The very first political campaign I got interested in was the candidacy of my political science professor for Missouri’s 27th Senatorial District Seat. My professor, active in Democratic politics in southern Missouri, was up against the Republican incumbent, a lawyer by trade. I remember attending one of their debates in the fall of 1996 on campus. The incumbent had a funny way of referring to my professor, a tenured faculty member, as “Professor” throughout the debate. I and my classmates referred to him as Doctor Althaus as a sign of respect and deference for his experience and credentials. When the state senator referred to him as “Professor,” I quickly realized he didn’t mean it as a sign of respect; he meant it as a sign of contempt. When the lawyer calls Jesus, “Teacher,” it’s in a similar way that the Republican incumbent referred to his Democratic rival as “Professor.” It was meant to establish a power dynamic. If you read much of Luke, you begin to realize that for gospel writer, “Teacher” is only used when someone does not understand what Jesus is saying or when they do not respect him. For Luke, the better title for Jesus is “Lord.” Strike one.
The second negative against this lawyer is his reason for engaging Jesus in conversation in the first place. He doesn’t ask his question to gain knowledge, but to test Jesus. The fact that he is testing Jesus aligns him with Jesus’ critics and opponents. They are likely trying to catch Jesus in a mistake. Strike two.
And finally, the question the lawyer asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (NRSV) is the wrong question. The verb tense used here suggests a single, limited action. The lawyer thinks that this is just something to scratch off his to-do list: say a prayer, offer a sacrifice, put a $100 bill in the offering plate and “bada-boom, bada-bing, you getcha some eternal life!” Strike three.
Typical of Jesus, he responds to the man with a question of his own, forcing him to reply with something the lawyer should know, the law, and yet, in response to Jesus’ second question, “What do you understand from it?” The man fails to see the law’s full meaning.
Now, Jesus is a teacher even if Luke considers it a slight. He is a great teacher. And, standing before him is a man who is failing to understand today’s lesson plan so the lawyer “is about to become the recipient of a parable.” As Jewish scholar Amy Jill-Levine says, we know “that if a parable is directed to a particular individual, the individual is likely to come to an unwelcome realization.” This lawyer is not likely to enjoy the short story Jesus is about to tell.
The modern understanding of the term as a synonym for a charitable “do-gooder,” sometimes takes the power out of the story. In order to fully appreciate Jesus’ parable, a skilled preacher will help a congregation realize that Samaria was an actual place in time and history and that Jews and Samaritans had a complicated relationship to say the least. Emphasizing that the two groups saw one another as mortal enemies will help congregations understand Jesus’ dramatic teaching.
Despite a common heritage through the ancestor Jacob, Samaritans were in no way good in the minds of first century Jews. They are people to be avoided at all cost. Samaritans were not righteous in the eyes of Jewish law. You could not scrub them hard enough to make them clean or holy. In John 8:48, the religious authorities call Jesus a “Samaritan” and a demon! Portraying a Samaritan, any Samaritan, as “good” would have been a shock to Jesus’ original audience. It would have been as contradictory as referring to someone as a “good murderer” or a “nice rapist.”
So, Jesus uses a shocking perspective in order to teach the lawyer in Luke an important lesson about what it means to be one’s neighbor (Lk. 10:29) according to the law. Ceremoniously unclean, socially outcast and religiously a heretic, the Samaritan is in all ways the very opposite of the lawyer asking the question. For first century Jews, lawyers were the ones who studied Torah all the time. They were considered among the most righteous of the community. By using the very opposite of the lawyer as the principal figure in his story, Jesus forces the lawyer to investigate a deeper understanding of the law. This is a theme that Jesus comes back to, time and time again. When he heals on the Sabbath, Jesus is choosing mercy over following the law to exactness (Mk. 3:1-6, Lk. 13:10-17). And here, he is asking the lawyer – one who is obsessed with rule-following – what is the better answer? For Jesus, that answer is always mercy marked by love. Love marks one as a disciple (Jn. 13:35). Love is the lived example of eternal life.
Jesus’ short stories are meant to incite action, to propel us toward something, to force us to question what we know of God and ourselves. Jesus’ story tells us of another way to live as one resurrected – as one who is living as an inheritor of eternal life and not as someone just trying to scratch something off their salvation list. That way of living is as the Samaritan in this story – as one who has no reason to serve another save for the love that you have for God. It is that kind of love that spills out into the world as mercy, kindness and compassion for those are overlooked and hidden from our world. Love is how believers do good in the world. Jesus has given us permission to not solely be moved with pity. Jesus tells us to move it into action. Take care of those battered in your community as you might your own flesh and blood: bandage their wounds, anoint them with healing, share your food with them and provide them shelter. This is the true meaning of neighboring in a God-filled world. Jesus tells his audience and now us to “Go and do likewise.”
 William Shakespeare, “Henry VI,” Part II, act IV, Scene II, Line 73.
 Amy Jill Levine, “Short Stories by Jesus,” 87.
 Jn. 4:12.
 Jn. 4:7-10: Jesus and the woman at the well. The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)
The Rev. Kim Jenne is the Director of Connectional Ministries for the Missouri Annual Conference. The Office of Connectional Ministries is responsible for Boundaries, Conferencing, Communications, Discipleship Ministries, Safe Sanctuaries, and Leadership Development through the Nominations Committee. Before her current appointment, Kim served as senior pastor of Webster Hills UMC in St. Louis. She is a die-hard St. Louis Cardinals fan, loves NASA, and is sorely disappointed we aren’t already living on Mars. She considers herself an inconsistent but persistent disciple of Jesus Christ.