What Can We Do to Inherit Eternal Life?

by Susanna Mak

One of the most profound questions in the New Testament is none other than the question about eternal life: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”, posted by a scholar of the law to Jesus in this week’s gospel reading (Lk 10:25). Similar questions also appear in other parts of Luke and the synoptic gospels, for instance, the rich ruler seen in chapter 18 of Luke and the rich (young) man portrayed in both Matthew and Mark also beg Jesus for the answer to this very important question (ref. Lk 18:18-25, Mt 19:16-30, Mk 10:17-23). What does Jesus say to each one of them? Not surprisingly, Jesus doesn’t launch into a profound theological exposition on the meaning of life but simply tells them to love God “with all your heart … being … strength … and mind” and love “your neighbour as yourself”; “know the commandments”, “sell your possessions … give to the poor”; and “follow me” (Lk 10:20,27, Mt: 19:21, Mk 10:21). Jesus’ answer is always straight-forward, simple, and cut to the chase: put God first, bear God’s commandments in our “mouths” and “hearts”, love our neighbours, and follow Him (Dt 30:14). Jesus’ words are, indeed, sharper than any sword forged by human hands, “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12)!

What does it mean to love God with all our heart, being, strength and mind? How much love is sufficient? How could we demonstrate our love for God? In other words, how could we be instruments of God’s love in this world? Is it even possible to love our neighbours as ourselves? The answer is hidden in the parable of “The Good Samaritan”. In this story, a man who is travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho falls victim to robbers. Beyond the fact that both parties are on a journey, readers don’t know much about either the victim or the robbers: Are they Jews? Gentiles? Is the man attacked because he is deemed an outsider, appears to be wealthy, or because of his skin colour? What warrants such a violent attack on him? All we know is that he is “stripped”, beaten, and left “half-dead” (Lk 10:30). Then comes the interesting part of the story. Two individuals walk by the victim: a priest and a Levite. Both individuals hold positions of authority, command a certain level of respect, and possess privileges enjoyed only by a few in society. What do these so-called leaders of society do? Both individuals deliberately ignore the man lying in the middle of the road and pass by “on the opposite side” (Lk 10:31,32). Why on earth would they not stop and help the victim? Their peers may say they have good reasons to avoid the bloody mess in front of them for fear of contamination by the victim’s blood. Or perhaps, are they simply too preoccupied with their own busyness and self-importance? Though their hands are not the ones that rob and punch the traveller, they are, nonetheless, bloodied by their willful negligence. More importantly, they have missed out on an opportunity to truly live out God’s commandment of “love God” and “love your neighbour”. There is no doubt that they have good knowledge of God’s “commandments and statutes that are written in this book of the law”, unfortunately they fail to “carry it out” (Dt 30:10,14). After the priest and the Levite comes a Samaritan, someone who would have been unwelcome by the priest and Levite, and most people in the Jewish society of the time. This outsider, “moved with compassion at the sight”, “approached the victim, poured oil and wine over his wounds and bandaged them” (Lk 10:33-34). One would think his action has more than fulfilled what we consider charity; however, he doesn’t stop there. He settles the victim at an inn and pays extras for the innkeeper to continue caring for the man. Indeed, he has gone out of his way to care for a complete stranger along his journey. In the story, neither the priest nor the Levite has proven himself to be a neighbour for someone; only the Samaritan has truly carried out God’s commandment of love.

Though this parable seems to be a cheeky response to the scholar’s question of “Who is my neighbour?”, Jesus’ intention is not to dismiss the scholar nor his spiteful challenge, rather, Jesus wants to offer even the toughest audience the opportunity to truly understand the law, thus, opening his mind and transforming his heart. Such is Jesus’ love and compassion that knows no boundary. By the same token, Jesus also recognizes the hardness of our heart. He wants us to understand that He is, indeed, the Good Samaritan for each one of us. Not only does he heal our wounds by pouring “oil and wine over [our] wounds and bandag[ing] them” over and over again, He has also poured out His own life in exchange for ours. Further, Jesus is also asking us to do the same for each other, “Go and do likewise” (Lk 10:37). It is certainly important to know and understand God’s commandments, but the real challenge is whether we are willing to put in actions the commandments of love God and love our neighbours in our everyday decisions and interactions.

Jesus’ words pierce our heart and soul, and challenge all of us to live and love as He has done: love one another without price; love those who look different; love those who may be difficult for us to love; love those who disagree with us; love those who hurt or hate us; love to the fullest under all circumstances.