Sunday, November 14, 2010

In Defense of St. Luke’s “A Certain Lawyer” (Luke 10:25-37)

By Keith Massey, PhD Connect with me on Google+ and Twitter. Explore my novels at Lingua Sacra Publishing.

We’ve been working our way through the Gospel of Luke in the Eastern Orthodox Lectionary. Today we heard the beloved and familiar Parable of the Good Samaritan.
The set up to the parable is the exchange between Jesus and a person asking about the central tenets of the Law.
But in Luke the person suddenly seems like a total jerk and asks an additional question of Jesus merely because he was “wanting to justify himself” (Luke 10:29).
BOO!! HISS!! Bad Lawyer! Trying to justify yourself. How dare you?
But when I listened to the account this morning, I came to the conclusion that he’s gotten a bad rap. I’m going to argue here that this passage has been completely misunderstood. This guy’s okay with Jesus after all.
A similar exchange is recorded in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, with minor variations. In Matthew and Mark this person comes off as generally positive.
So here’s the scenario. Someone comes to Jesus with a question. “What must I do to inherit Eternal Life?”
In Matthew (19:16-26), he’s just described as a “young man” (νεανισκος/neaniskos [verse 20]). When he learns the lesson that he is to keep the basic commandments, including to “love your neighbor as yourself,” he replies that he’s done all that.
So Jesus then tells him he should give away all his possessions and then follow him. The young man, whom we now learn “has many possessions” (εχων κτηματα πολλα/echon ktemata polla [verse 22]), hears this and he goes away sad.
This is the set up for Jesus declaring that “It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven” (verse 24).
But even the Disciples interpret this as generally bad news for everyone, asking, “Then who can be saved?” (verse 25).
And the story concludes with a bit of grace and good news even for the rich young man. Jesus declares that “With people it is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (verse 26).
Mark’s version (10:17-27) is even more positive about this young person.
Same set up. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus informs him of some basic tenets of the law which, however, do not include “love your neighbor as yourself” but do include a direct quote from the Deuterocanonical Ben Sirah (AKA Ecclesiasticus), “Do not defraud” (μη αποστερησης/me apostereses [Mark 10:19; Ben Sira 4:1]).
Now, some editions of the Bible put quotes from the Old Testament in italics or boldface.
The unwillingness of some Protestant commentators to admit that Jesus himself quoted from a book as if it were Scripture but which is not in their Bible (since, after all, that would mean their Bible is not complete) leads to the laughable situation of Bible translations putting that little “Do not defraud” line in normal font right in the middle of boldfaced or italicized phrases.
As if Jesus was quoting Scripture:
And then, on a whim, just gave some sound, though unscriptural, advice:
Do not defraud
And then went back to quoting the Old Testament:
Ridiculous. It’s better just to admit he quoted from Ben Sira and adjust your Bibles accordingly.
Anyway, Mark writes that Jesus, before telling the man that he should give away all his possessions, looked at him and “loved him” (ηγαπησεν αυτον/egapesen auton [verse 21]).
So in Mark Jesus loves the guy! He seems to be quite a guy. We should love him too, apparently.
Then we come to Luke (10:25-37).
Same set up. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
But one difference is that the guy asking the question is described as “a certain lawyer” (νομικος τις/nomikos tis [verse 25]).
After learning that he should love God and love his neighbor as himself, the lawyer, “wishing to justify himself” (θελων δικαιουν εαυτον/thelon dikaiouv eauton [verse 29]) asks “Who is my neighbor?”
Here’s where commentators have interpreted this man quite negatively. And this is where I think he has been completely misunderstood.
The English idiom “to justify yourself” carries the connotation of trying to make yourself look good before others. That, combined with the fact that the guy’s a lawyer in Luke, has led to him being interpreted as not a positive character.
But why is this generally a good guy in Matthew and Mark and such a bad guy only in Luke?
I argue that Luke never meant that phrase to imply the negative connotation we have been reading into it.
Commentators have assumed that “to justify oneself” is a bad thing because of the phrase in Luke 16:15, where Jesus rebukes Pharisees and says that “you are those who justify yourselves before others” (υμεις εστε οι δικαιουντες εαυτους ενωπιον των ανθρωπων/umeis este oi dikaiountes eautous enopion ton anthopon). 
But even there, we wrongly import into the phrase a preconceived negative connotation about Pharisees. Yes, these Pharisees where trying to make themselves right. And, yes, they were intentionally doing it so as to be seen by others.
But trying to do the right thing publically does not mean that doing the right thing is wrong.
“To justify” means simply “to make something right.” We still use the term typographically to refer to making margins equal. Theology calls “Justification” the process whereby people get “right” with God.
The lawyer was not trying to show off. He was merely asking “Who is my neighbor?” And he wanted to know so that he could do the “right thing” accordingly. That is all Luke means when he says the lawyer was “wanting to justify himself.” A better translation would be “wanting to make sure he did the right thing.”
So he’s just as positive a character in Luke as in the other Gospels. And indeed, the story concludes with Jesus, after telling the Parable of the Good Samaritan, asking the lawyer who was the neighbor.
“The one who showed mercy,” the lawyer answered (verse 37).
Right answer, Certain Lawyer.
Jesus then tells the lawyer, “Go and do the same” (πορευου και συ ποιει ομοιως/poreuou kai su poiei omoios [verse 37]).
So, Certain Lawyer, sorry if we misunderstood you and vilified you for two thousand years. Are we cool?