What must I do?
In the Gospel Reading, a lawyer asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus says to the lawyer, Well, how do YOU read the law? Without hesitation, the lawyer gives Jesus the answer, which he, the lawyer, already knew: Love God wholly and your neighbor as yourself.
Right!, Jesus tells him. You do that, and you’ll live.
But wait, the lawyer says, who is my neighbor?
And then Jesus tells the lawyer the parable of the bad priest and the bad Levite and the good Samaritan. Then Jesus finishes with another question to the lawyer: which of these was the neighbor of the robbery victim?
The lawyer gives the answer he has to give: the good neighbor was the Samaritan.
The more you think about this story, the more peculiar it seems.
For example, notice the oddness of the lawyer’s first question. He doesn’t ask: what is best way to soar in love of God? He asks: what must I do to inherit eternal life? He is looking for the minimum necessary to get into heaven, isn’t he?
But eternal life is a union, a marriage, with God. Who would want to get married to someone who said, “what’s the minimum I can do for you and with you and still get you to marry me?”
So Jesus gets the lawyer himself to answer his question, and the lawyer gives the right answer. What you have to do, the minimum necessary, is everything. Love God wholly, and love your neighbor as yourself.
This is a disconcerting answer, of course, because in this life none of us is ever going to do everything. So if everything is the minimum necessary, then none of us is getting in.
And so the lawyer expresses his original anxiety with a variation on his odd question. Who is my neighbor, he asks? He wants a definition of neighbor which gives him the minimum number of people to count as the neighbors he has to love.
But Jesus upends the lawyer’s continuing desire for a minimum by giving him another maximum: everyone you can love is your neighbor. If you can do good to him, he counts as your neighbor.
And that is why what we must do to inherit eternal life is come to Christ, as Christ tells people elsewhere in the Gospels (John 6:27-38). The lawyer’s own answers to his questions are right. But giving everything in love for God is a holiness we can find only through Christ’s unstinting outpouring of love for us which transforms us into the body of Christ.
Eleonore Stump is Professor of Philosophy, Saint Louis University
**From Saint Louis University