Salvation—From what? [Jesus story #9]

Ted Grimsrud—May 3, 2021

When the angel Gabriel told Mary that she would have a baby who would bring salvation to the world, he also told her, “his name will be Jesus.” Now, this was not just a random name—the kind of name that has no obvious meaning until it is attached to the person who makes it famous, like “Barack” or “Waylon” or “Zsa Zsa.” No, the name “Jesus” already had lots of meaning. The Hebrew version was Joshua. The word itself means “God saves,” and the first Joshua was indeed an agent of God’s salvation—leading God’s liberating work for the Hebrew people.

When we ask, why do we pay attention to Jesus, certainly one of the most obvious answers is that we pay attention because we recognize him as our savior. But that answer leads to other questions: What kind of savior is he? What kind of salvation are we looking for? What do we learn about salvation when we ask what we are to be saved from? What does the Bible seem to say we need to be saved from? Let’s look at a few texts:

The Lord inclined to me and heard me cry. God drew me up from the desolate pit and set my feet upon a rock. Happy are those who make the Lord their trust, who do not turn to the proud, to those who go astray after false gods. Do not, O Lord, withhold your mercy from me; let your steadfast love and your faithfulness keep me forever. For evils have encompassed me without number; my iniquities have overtaken me, until I cannot see; they are more than the hairs of my head, and my heart fails me. I am poor and needy, but the Lord takes thought for me. You are my help and my deliverer; do not delay, O my God. Psalm 40

Thus says the Lord, who created the heavens, who formed the earth and made it: I am the Lord, and there is no other. Draw near, you survivors of the nations! They have no knowledge—those who carry about their wooden idols and keep on praying to a god that cannot save. Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. Only in the Lord, it shall be said of me, are righteousness and strength. Isaiah 45:18-25

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8:35-39

A lawyer challenged Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responded, “What is written in the law?” The lawyer answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus said, “You have given the right answer.” But the lawyer asked Jesus, “So, who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise, a Levite. But a Samaritan stopped; when he saw him, he he was moved with pity. He bandaged the wounds, put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he gave money to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” Luke 10:25-37

Background to a familiar story

I want to focus my reflections on this last text, a familiar story. Jesus responds to a question about “eternal life” with the story of the Good Samaritan. First, though, let me note a few background points. We have three people here who are identified by their category—a priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan. “Priest” and “Levite” are both the same kind of thing, religious leaders, people who enforce the law, symbols for the people of Israel as a whole. The kind of the people the lawyer who questions Jesus would surely identify with and look up to.

However, the third category, “Samaritan,” is something altogether different. The Samaritans descended from Jews who six hundred years before Jesus were separated from other Jews after Babylon destroyed the Jewish kingdom. Mainstream Jews remained loyal to Torah and the memory of the temple and sought to sustain a pure Jewish identity; the Samaritans had inter-married with non-Jews and rejected the rebuilt Temple. They held on to their own version of Torah. They existed as geographical neighbors to the Jerusalem-centered Jews but as religious enemies. This hostility had been sustained all those years, exacerbated by the geographical closeness.

It’s like numerous religious enemies throughout history. They reserve their bitterest enmity for those they split off from. They share many important things in common but see each other as heretics. It’s like the old joke I like to tell of the guy who’s about to jump off the Golden Gate bridge. He’s stopped by a rescuer who focuses on all the beliefs they have in common—until the rescuer learns that the other guy is part of the wrong group of Reformed Baptists and pushes him off the bridge.

So, Jesus bringing the Samaritan into this story is provocative. The question, “who is my neighbor?” takes an ominous turn when Jesus brings into the story the kind of person the lawyer surely would hate the most—the heretical Samaritan.

Another background point is the common perspective among the prophets of sharp criticism of religious leaders in Israel. Going back to the first great priest, Moses’s brother Aaron, and down through the leaders of the temple, all too often in the prophets’ view the religious leaders stood in the way of faithfulness among God’s people. The religious leaders stood in the way even as they were called to help people to follow God’s ways. Religious institutions were always subject to prophetic critiques—the temptation being to put the institutional status quo ahead of Israel’s prophetic call.

A third background point is that in the world of Jesus, all too often the lot of the common people was to suffer at the hands of a heartless world. In a genuine sense, the guy who is mugged on the road to Jericho stands for what life was like for most of Jesus’s listeners—violence, exploitation, and maybe most hurtful of all, heartlessness. The organized religion of the day too often turned away from people in need.

The role of the lawyer

Let’s look at the story itself. We start with a “lawyer” speaking to Jesus. What is meant by “lawyer”? This is not a lawyer like we think of today—a person with a law degree who has passed the bar exam and hangs out a shingle. Here, “lawyer” was a teacher, an expert on the law of Moses. This guy was a rabbi, an insider, a learned man with power and status. However, he shows a touch of vulnerability. The lawyer “tests” Jesus but doesn’t seem hostile. He seems genuinely to care what Jesus thinks. And, as we see by the end of the story, he respects Jesus’s teaching.

Maybe the lawyer sincerely wants to know, “Is there room for me in this world Jesus is creating?” In Luke, we have seen the gradual emerging of Jesus’s message of jubilee, of God’s welcome, of turning power and status and at-homeness in God’s kingdom upside-down. The lawyer sees this too. When Jesus “sets his face to go to Jerusalem” (9:51), we can almost hear the background music shift to a minor key. It’s an ominous moment—Jesus says: “Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed” (9:44). His way of genuine, restorative justice will lead to big problems. As we find out, it even leads to his execution by the powers that be.

However, at this moment in Luke 10, it would seem that the lawyer may mainly be aware of Jesus’s power for healing that his followers also express. Just before the lawyer’s question, we read of Jesus’s followers themselves exercising great power like his. Jesus says to them: “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.”

Probably, Jesus could have included “lawyers” with “prophets and kings.” The very next verse begins, “Just then, a lawyer stood up.” I’d like to think that the lawyer is interested in being part of this blessing. He asks the big question. How might we attain eternal life? He doesn’t mean, “how might we go to heaven after we die?” but rather, “how might we find harmony with the eternal God and live the life God has for us?”

I think the lawyer’s openness is born out when Jesus plays Socrates with him (or, more precisely, talks to him rabbi to rabbi). Well, what would you say?, Jesus asks. The lawyer answers in all seriousness as an expert in the law. He summarizes in a brief few words the heart of Torah: You find true life when you love God with your entire being. This love is most clearly born out when you love your neighbor with the same kind of automatic and instinctive love that you have for your own self.

The lawyer’s belief was widely shared. He quotes Deuteronomy and Leviticus. The faith of Israel is a faith based on love—life follows love, love for God and love for neighbor. And Jesus says, Amen! “You’ve given the right answer; do this, and you will live”—you will inhabit eternal life right now.

The lawyer’s core question

Next, we come to a key point in our reading of the lawyer. I think his response, again, is sincere and reflects his desire to connect with Jesus; maybe also his anxiety (as if he thinks, “I want to be sure to understand”). He does not try to distance himself from Jesus but truly to get Jesus. He asks, “Who is my neighbor?” Isn’t this the main question? It’s not so much a question of “who should I love?” as a question of “who am I allowed not to love?” This gets at the heart of Hebrew religion, but also certainly of Christian religion and probably all other religions. Aren’t religious believers all too often thinking about who we don’t have to love? Isn’t the point of religiosity all too often about being inside some circle of salvation that draws its meaning from having those who are outside that circle?

I am reminded of a couple of things I heard years ago that have stuck with me. I had a college professor who was a renowned sociologist of religion, an expert on how religion works (though keeping his distance from faith). He said once, in all seriousness, what’s the point of having heaven if you don’t also have hell. What good is it to find salvation if at least some don’t receive damnation? I thought even at the time that this was pretty accurate as a description—but horrific as a theology.

About that same time, I spent some time at our Mennonite seminary in Indiana and learned to know a quite likeable Canadian pastor. He told me about losing two pastoring positions due to his belief in universal salvation, that everyone is saved. I heard from someone else later that this was true; the guy was an excellent pastor, but his too open theology simply was not acceptable.

For the lawyer, almost certainly, many of the core aspects of his religious system would have centered on limiting the scope of neighborliness. The unclean, the Gentile, the Samaritan—there were so many who were outside the circle. We may imagine that he is well aware that Jesus challenges that kind of circle—so he wants to know. Maybe it’s like, hey, I like what you’re doing but it’s kind of scary. Make it clear.

Jesus’s story theology

So, as he does so often, Jesus proceeds with a kind of story theology. This is a big, philosophical, theoretical question. Who is my neighbor? Which is, in a sense, asking where might I see God? Jesus tells a fascinating story. A guy going down from Jerusalem to Jericho gets mugged, robbed, and left half-dead. Probably the lawyer and the other listeners knew about that road and its dangers. This kind of crisis would have touched their own fears. You would assume they could easily put themselves in the shoes of the mug-ee. They would be sympathetic and think automatically that this guy should be helped.

It’s like the parable that the prophet Nathan told King David about the poor man who had one beloved lamb that is taken from him by force by the powerful rich man. David sympathizes and says, that rich man is awful and must be punished. Nathan goes on to say, well that rich man is you, David. This is what you did when you stole beautiful Bathsheba from her husband. Here, Jesus does something similar, though more subtle.

Two people who the lawyer would have closely identified with, a priest and a Levite (two other religious leaders) don’t help the beaten man. They are heartless and avoid loving their neighbor. Perhaps the lawyer, were he self-aware, would recognize that he, too, could easily imagine passing the beaten man. And that this disregard was in violation of Torah. Leviticus makes it clear—you must love your neighbor, especially the vulnerable one, the widow, orphan, resident alien. So, the lawyer is feeling uneasy.

However, then Jesus ups the ante in a provocative, even shocking, way. Someone does stop to help—to the listeners this would have been a big relief. I can imagine being beaten, and I can imagine being passed by (partly because I can imagine passing by myself). But when I put myself in the place of the beaten man and feel the pain a little, it is terrifying to think of being passed by. Finally, a rescuer does come. There is hope for goodness in the world.

Wait! Who is this rescuer? He’s a Samaritan. Remember, the hated Samaritans. If there is indeed anyone who deserves to be outside the circle, it’s the Samaritans. If there is anyone whose hellish fate makes my heavenly fate pleasurable, it’s the Samaritans. But, man, I really do hope I would be rescued were that me on the Jericho Road.

Now, the lawyer’s sincerity and willingness to learn from Jesus are borne out. “Which of the three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” Jesus asks. I think in light of what I have been saying, we should feel a great deal of suspense at this point. We don’t know what the lawyer would say. Can he go against his training and lifelong prejudice and acknowledge the humanity of the Samaritan—not just the humanity, but the godly, exemplary humanity?

Think back to a similar story in the Old Testament. The prophet Jonah hates the Ninevites. God turns him every way but loose and finally Jonah obeys, preaches the gospel to those hated people. As he fears, the people repent and God, being a gracious God, brings healing. Then the suspense, how will Jonah respond? We are not exactly told, but the story ends with Jonah still quite angry with God. However, the lawyer is different. This is his answer to Jesus’s question: Who is the neighbor? “The one who showed him mercy” (10:37). That is, God be praised, the Samaritan! The enemy is the neighbor. The dehumanized is human. The one outside the circle is actually within.

So, let’s go back to our big question. What do we need to be saved from? What does this story tell us? It’s a story clearly meant to address the most fundamental elements of our faith—the question of eternal life, the question of the character of God, the question of how we are to live. Based on this story, what we maybe most of all need to be saved from is our tendency to limit our love.

Ultimately, the worst kind of bondage, the aspect of life we most need to be freed from, to be saved from, is to limit our sense of who deserves love, to limit our sense of who is fully human, to limit our sense of who truly is our neighbor. Jesus indeed is our savior—he overcomes these limitations in his own life and empowers all who trust in his way to overcome them too. “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37) indeed!

More posts in the series “Jesus story” plus others related to Jesus

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