Another Look at the "Loving" Expert on the Law

Reading Time: 4 mins

The law had to have its way with the expert to bring him around (and back) to Abraham's response.

On one occasion, an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he asked, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" "What is written in the law?" he replied. "How do you read it?" He answered, "'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, "Love your neighbor as yourself.'" "You have answered correctly," Jesus replied. "Do this and you will live." But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" (Luke 10:25-29).

We often overlook this incident in the life of Christ in exchange for Luke 10's conclusion: the parable of the Good Samaritan, which shows the nature of true love for one's neighbor.

But as we read above, the attorney's initial question was not about love, who to love, or the quality of that love. The question at the outset was about salvation: "How do I inherit eternal life?" It was not "How do I keep the law" nor "What is the summary of the law" nor "How do I love God and neighbor through my loving acts?"

Jesus answers him, in rabbinical fashion, with another question, "What is written in the law?" This was an open question, for, at times, the entire body of the Old Testament was considered "the Law." The attorney could have gone to many passages from Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms for an answer. Jesus gave him a wide-open field to choose the answer to his own question, "How do I inherit eternal life?"

Obviously, the attorney had come prepared with a go-to answer to his own question. He went to the Shema (Hear Oh Israel): "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength" (Deut. 6:5). And demonstrating his knowledge of the law, the expert added "Love your neighbor as yourself" from Leviticus 19:18. 

"Done!" said Jesus. "You got it! Keep on doing that, and you will live!"

However, neither the Deuteronomy nor the Leviticus texts talk about inheriting eternal life through obedience to the law. Jesus gave him a "pass" on that one and didn't point out this fault in his use of Scripture. Jesus knew the attorney's real intent was to justify himself, so Jesus allowed him to trip up on that one. Part of the "tripping up" was in going to a Scripture that did not include "inheriting" eternal life.

But where else in "the law" could the attorney have gone to answer his question, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" What portion of Scripture contains a discussion of inheritance, justification, and life?

How differently this pericope would read if the expert in the law had concluded with another passage:

"And Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness" (Gen. 15:6). 

Abraham and God had indeed been locked up in a conversation about inheritance. God assured him that he would receive an inheritance. Abraham had his doubts. He did not have an heir, so he could not have an inheritance. But then God talked to him about a Seed that would come from him that would be as numerous as the stars of the sky and provide a blessing like no other for all nations! And at the mention of the Seed, "Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness." The summary? The inheritance is received by believing in the Seed.

A reference to Abraham's faith would have been the perfect response to "What must I do to inherit eternal life?"

The law had to have its way with the expert to bring him around (and back) to Abraham's response. 

But it didn't happen that way. At that moment, this loving expert of the law needed more law. He wasn't ready for a gospel answer. In fact, he was blind to the offer of justification arising from Abram's experience. He only sought to justify himself through the keeping of the law. The law had to have its way with the expert to bring him around (and back) to Abraham's response. 

However, we cannot chide the expert with his law response to salvation. He had to trip up on his own stumbling block: believing the law brought him justification and eternal life. He would have to trip up on his inability to love his neighbor. And Jesus led him to that stumbling block through the parable of the Good Samaritan. 

The stumbling block in the parable is not just that he should love the wounded, the dying, the one who could not respond in kind, even the stranger. The biggest stumbling block to the expert on the law was that he should love like the Samaritan! He could not find that love within himself. According to Jesus, the expert first had to justify the Samaritan's love as the norm of love. But he could not even bring himself to say "Samaritan." Instead, he refers to the Samaritan as "the one who had mercy on him [the stricken man]." He first had to love the Samaritan, for the law commanded him also "to love the stranger as himself" (Lev. 19:34). This he could not do. Thus, he could not justify himself. For justification, he would have to reference Abraham's faith. For it was Abraham's faith and not his works of love that were counted to him as righteousness. It was Abraham's faith that not only granted him righteousness but an eternal inheritance through the promise of the Seed. 

However, the lawyer of our story could not see the Seed for he was blinded by the law. And yet that Seed was standing right in front of him. In our mind's eye, how we wish he would have said what another Gentile said "Lord, I believe, help thou mine unbelief!" (Mark 9:24). 

But Scripture is not written for the fulfillment of our wishes, not even of our best desires and intentions. The passages of the Scriptures "were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come" (1 Cor. 10:11). 

And what warning comes to us through the pericope of the "loving attorney"? It is this: Any attempt to justify ourselves by even the highest intent of the law (love God, love neighbor) is nothing more than an attempt to justify ourselves through our own works, and by the works of the law, no flesh shall be justified (Rom. 3:20). 

Thus, regardless of our love, its quality, or whether we have any love at all for God or neighbor, we receive our eternal inheritance only through faith and faith alone in the promises of the Seed. Such faith in the Seed, which is also given to us, is counted to us as our only righteousness!