The question raised by the lawyer is a matter of eternal significance, and it surely gets at the heart of the gospel. The stakes could hardly be higher. So it is worth paying very close attention to Jesus’ answer.
To the lawyer’s apparent dismay, Jesus replies not with a doctrinal formula but with a simple three-part command: Love your God, your neighbor and yourself. What could be clearer? “But wanting to justify himself, [the lawyer] asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
On the question of how he might inherit eternal life, Jesus’ answer was too simple, or perhaps it was too hard, for this legally minded man. Or perhaps for him love simply did not seem to be enough. And so Jesus gives him, and he gives us 21 centuries later, the story we know as the parable of the Good Samaritan.
For many Presbyterians in this particular time, this story resonates powerfully. The simple answers of Jesus to life’s deepest, hardest questions do not seem to be enough for our church today.
In place of Christ’s three-part command, we want something more, something different. We want our faith to be about a singular understanding of complex theological formulations. Or we want it to be about intellectual conformity to our historic confessional standards. Above all, it seems, we want it to be about getting our doctrine right.
Ironically, the push in this direction comes from leaders who are concerned that the church is straying from its faithful adherence to Scripture. Ironic because, as this story helps us see, these well-intentioned folk may be moving the church away from, not toward, the primary standard of a faithful life given to us by our Lord Jesus himself.
For Jesus, love was the final apologetic of the Christian life, both its ultimate test and its final proof: “By this shall all men (and women) know you are my disciples: if you have love one for another.” This is effectively the last thing he tells his disciples before his death. From the start it is really the only thing he asks of them, the one thing that matters above all else.
But consistent to the last, the disciples don’t get it. The moment he leaves them, fights ensue about polity, practice, doctrine, membership. The first half of the book of Acts is essentially a running commentary on the disciples’ ongoing struggle to make Jesus’ astonishingly simple, love-based community a reality.
As it was for the lawyer and for the disciples, perhaps the program is still too simple for us. Or too hard. Or not enough. But it evidently was enough for Jesus. Like a diamond with a hundred facets, nearly every story in every Gospel reflects the truth that love is the final criterion of our discipleship — the one thing that matters above all else.
In this story, the lawyer’s question is, as we have seen, a matter of eternal significance. Christ’s reply is clear: the answer has to do with practice more than doctrine. If that’s true, then surely our practice remains, in ways we do not fully understand, a matter of eternal significance.
But today our practice is also a question of enormous social consequence. Nowadays animosity, not love, is doubtless the word most people would use to describe relations between Christians. What that is doing to the church’s stature in the world, and to church attendance throughout the country, is simply impossible to measure.
A growing coalition of well-intentioned Presbyterians is working hard to unite our diverse membership around doctrinal and confessional formulations. Unity is always a laudable goal, of course. In working toward it, these various groups perhaps rightly believe they are fulfilling one of our ordination vows: to work for the purity of the church.
But our vows wisely place the peace and unity of our body ahead of concern for its purity. And so, in light of this ancient story, starring a lawyer and a Rabbi, one is compelled to wonder about our future together. Are we moving closer to, or farther from, the vision of Jesus for his church, his startlingly simple, love-based community? And if we’re not, what must we do?
Many things, of course. And one hopes the millions of faithful Presbyterians who love the church and care about its future will think of and do them. But ultimately what might happen if conservatives, moderates and liberals alike were to unite, not around intractable theological or doctrinal questions, but simply around our love for Jesus, our neighbors and ourselves?
What might happen is that our neighbors would sit up and take notice. You can argue doctrine until the Second Coming, but you can’t argue with love. It is the most powerful, wonderful and redemptive force in the world. When you feel it, when you know you are loved, the need to fight and win, the need to be right, the need to justify yourself — these all simply go away. What remains, simply and beautifully, is peace and unity.
Suppose we were to focus our time and energy on obeying Jesus’ three-part command. Surely then the light of our love would burn for all the world to see. And by that — beyond question or doubt, beyond theology or doctrine — would all women and men know we are disciples of Jesus.
Posted Nov. 26, 2003
Steve Runholt is associate pastor, Grace Covenant church, Asheville, N.C.
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