Love, and the Law: A Meditation

And because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold
(Matthew 24:12)
.

In my devotional reading this morning, this verse stood out for me, specifically, the relation between love and the law. Many contemporary Protestants think in terms of the incompatibility of love and law, that love and the Law are ‘antithetical.’

But this verse in Matthew suggests we revisit this relation. Matthew is very concerned that we consider the abiding validity of the ancient law: ‘until heaven and earth pass away’ not ‘the smallest stroke or letter shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished’ (Matthew 5:18).  And, of course, scholars continue to debate the meaning of what Jesus meant when he said he came not to abolish but to fulfil the law. Jesus, in Matthew 7:23, also excludes those ‘who practise lawlessness’ from his eschatological salvation (cf. 13:41).

It is clear that in his own life and teaching Jesus was dedicated to the law, although he also interpreted it idiosyncratically, in accordance with the Israelite prophetic tradition, and called his disciples to faithfulness with respect to this vision. He was concerned that they adhere to and practise the ‘weightier matters of the Law’ (Matthew 23:23), while not neglecting the other provisions. His teaching in Matthew 5:21-48 shows that he approaches the Law as instruction that points God’s people toward an understanding of God’s righteousness which is far more demanding than a mere adherence to its various stipulations. It is clear that Jesus also considered some aspects of the law as passé, at least as Mark understood his teaching (see Mark 7:14-23).

All this background should be considered when approaching this verse and its context in Matthew 24. In my meditation this morning it seemed to me that love and the Law are closely integrated with one another, and not at all set in opposition. This is not to say that the law is love, or even that the law can produce the desired love, although the Law certainly commanded God’s people to love their neighbour (Leviticus 19:18), and even the alien amongst them (v. 34). The law regulates human life and society, providing boundaries and restraint for the self. Remove these restraints—let lawlessness increase—and love grows cold, says Jesus. Lawlessness as an ethos, gives free reign to the self, and it is this that is antithetical to love, for love’s first concern is for the other.

Jesus’ words should challenge the kind of Christian antinomianism that finds no place at all for the Law. Frederick Dale Bruner agrees:

One of the best criteria for distinguishing false from true teachers will be the treatment of God’s law: false teachers will reject it, while true teachers will honor it, especially as it is interpreted messianically by Jesus (The Churchbook: Matthew 13-28, revised & expanded edition, 488).

Playing a Long Game

I came across this quote in a recent newspaper article in the aftermath of George Pell’s conviction for sexual abuse of two children. It is a prediction made by fellow Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, who looks a great deal like Senator David Leyonhjelm, who died of cancer in 2015, and who predicted hard times for faithful church leaders in an increasingly aggressive secular western culture:

“I expect to die in bed; my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilisation, as the church has done so often in human history.”

We might ask whether this exhibits a pessimistic or fatalist attitude, or is otherwise an exhibition of gross arrogance and a delusion of grandeur. Is western society actually on such a downward trajectory that it is heading for ruin? Might this be the pessimistic ‘hope’ of a churchman mourning the loss of public acknowledgement and position, one whose vision of the Good has been thoroughly superseded by social progress in the modern era?

I suspect that many voices would argue that this is in fact the case. The myth of progress is still deeply entrenched and virile in the western imagination. And Cardinal George was promoted to the position by John Paul II, a recognition of his traditionalist understanding of central Roman Catholic commitments.

Nevertheless, I also suspect that his prediction might contain a more realistic appraisal of the contemporary situation than such critics allow, even if his suggested time frames prove to be inaccurate. He anticipates, probably rightly, an increasingly hostile confrontation of the church by the surrounding culture in years to come. He also believes, rightly or wrongly, that the present trajectory of the culture will lead to its ruin in years to come. Finally, he is convinced that the church will not only endure but survive the ignominy of its cultural rejection, and will be present in the midst of the coming cultural and civilisational crisis to ‘pick up the shards of a ruined society, and help rebuild civilisation.’

What I liked about the quote is his multi-generational vision. Cardinal Francis George was playing a long game. And in this, he was fundamentally correct. If the church today is focussed only on its own ‘success’ and growth, and is not also the church of the martyrs, and a community of humble service, I wonder whether it will survive the coming days.

See: Tess Livingstone, “‘Faith, innocence’ sustain stoic leader in darkest hour” The Weekend Australian, March 2-3, 2019, 18.

See also the appreciative eulogy on Cardinal Francis George by George Weigel.

Scripture on Sunday – James 3:15

James 3:15
This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic (NASB).

Such ‘wisdom’ does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil (NIV).

In this verse James continues his contrast of the behaviour that stands opposed to his understanding of wisdom presented in verse thirteen. The way of jealousy, envy, and selfish ambition may have an appearance of wisdom, but it is not that wisdom which is ‘from above.’ Indeed, for James, it is not even ‘wisdom’ at all (note the scare-quotes used in the NIV). Literally James says, ‘This is not the wisdom from above…’ (ouk estin hautē hē sophia anōthen; οὐκ ἔστιν αὕτη ἡ σοφία ἄνωθεν), where the this is a demonstrative pronoun referring back to the behaviour of those he is chastising in verse fourteen. James refuses to use the term wisdom to describe this manner of life.

James describes this manner of life using three graphic adjectives, which are listed in an order of increasing alienation from God (Davids, 152; Vlachos, 123). First, it is earthly (epigeios, ἐπίγειος) as opposed to that which is ‘from above,’ heavenly, of the earth or belonging to the earth, or arising solely from human existence. Second, it is natural, the Greek word psychikē (ψυχική) referring to the life in which human feeling and human reason reign supreme (Moo, 134). It has to do with that which is governed by the senses or sensual appetites and as such, refers to life apart from the divine Spirit—‘unspiritual.’ Finally, demonic (daimoniōdēs, δαιμονιώδης) simply means that which comes from or pertains to demons.

Where jealousy, envy and selfish ambition are the order of the day, the manner of life is not that which is from above, divine in origin and nature, meek and full of good works (v. 13). Rather, it is human or even demonic in origin and character, although it seems better to assign this wisdom a human rather than demonic origin. This person might be better described as selfish, as ‘worldly-wise,’ rather than demonically inspired, although the latter is possibly the case in some circumstances. Moo’s comment, however, is insightful:

The wisdom that does not produce a good lifestyle (v. 13) is, in sum, characterized by ‘the world, the flesh, and the devil.’ In each of these ways it is the direct antithesis of ‘the wisdom that comes from above’—heavenly in nature, spiritual in essence, divine in origin (134).

James is evidently contrasting two types of teachers (3:1) or two types of leadership, and aligning them with two types of wisdom. The fulcrum between the two seems to lie in the fundamental impulse at work in each model. Is the leader’s activity, work and motive directed toward the self (self-promotion, improvement, or aggrandisement), or the kindliness of God toward others, and the promotion and benefit of their welfare? Most leaders are not under the thrall of demons, but their leadership may have characteristics that are opposed to the purposes, way and wisdom of God, and detrimental to the welfare and common good of those people for whom they are responsible. Further, while many religious teachers and leaders claim to be spiritual, if their manner of life is that described here by James, they are in fact unspiritual and devoid of the Holy Spirit. ‘“You claim,” says James, “to have the Holy Spirit. Impossible! You are inspired, all right—you are inspired by the devil!” (Davids, 153).

In the contemporary world of organisations (including churches and other Christian agencies), we have much leadership technology—technical knowledge and skill; depth of understanding with respect to the pragmatic dynamics of leadership in diverse communities, contexts, and human affairs; skill in diagnosis, management, and application; a vast range of tools, resources, and equipment to enhance our capacities. Is such technology ‘wrong,’ or something to be avoided? Perhaps not. But James focusses on the character of leadership in verse thirteen (and also verses seventeen and eighteen) contrasting it with the alternate mode in verses fourteen to sixteen. To the extent that leadership technology subverts kingdom priorities such as those enumerated in 2:5 or 1:27—personal engagement with the lowly and apparently ‘insignificant’—it is ‘earthly, natural, and demonic.’

A Prayer for Sunday


Lord, teach me to be generous,
to serve you as you deserve,
to give and not to count the cost,
to fight and not to heed the wounds,
to toil and not to seek for rest,
to labor and not to look for any reward,
save that of knowing that I do your holy will.

(Attributed to Ignatius of Loyola,
but likely appeared much later,
perhaps inspired by his life and work)

The following prayer, however, was used by Ignatius in his Spiritual Exercises:

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding,
and my entire will,
All I have and call my own.

You have given all to me.
To you, Lord, I return it.

Everything is yours; do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace,
that is enough for me.

A Prayer for Sunday

Lord,
In this bounded space of just a few days,
As I begin a process of temporary withdrawal
from the world of endless activity and pressing engagements;
As I begin, too, a withdrawal from the endless noise and distraction of the world,
and an addictive attachment to its bustling ‘importance’ and allurements—
ephemera at best;

In this liminal space of just a few days,
Still my heart and quiet my soul
And let my whole self be centred afresh and anew in you.
Open my heart to God—Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier, and
Open my soul to all that is good and true and beautiful
in this world, my companions, and my neighbour.

Speak, Lord, and give me the hearing heart of a servant.
Amen.

Scripture on Sunday – James 3:14

James 3:14
But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth.

The juxtaposition of and sudden shift from verse 13 to verse 14 indicates that James is contrasting some others with those who are wise and understanding. In place of good conduct, and works done in the meekness of wisdom, he finds envy, bitterness, selfish rivalry, ambition and strife.

The word translated ‘jealousy’ (zēlos; ζηλος) can have either positive or negative connotations. Positively, it might refer to zeal, ardour, or enthusiasm; negatively, it might speak of indignation, envy, or jealousy. Literally, it means to have ‘ferment of spirit’ (Friberg), signifying an inner life active and generative, boiling and bubbling away; but what is being produced? James obviously uses the word in its negative sense, pairing it with another word pikros (πικρος, cf. v. 11)—bitter—which has the sense of being pointed and sharp, and used figuratively as it is here, refers to a resentful attitude that may also be harsh or cruel.

‘Selfish ambition’ (eritheia; ἐριθεία) means just what it says, though it also carries the sense of rivalry or factionalism. Moo notes that it is a comparatively rare word:

In its only pre-New Testament occurrences (in Aristotle), the word refers to the selfish ambition, the narrow partisan zeal of factional, greedy politicians. This meaning makes excellent sense here in James (Moo, 133).

Together these terms portray individuals or even groups within the congregation at odds with one another, striving not with but against one another, seeking an advantage over the over, and jealous or resentful of any success that the other may achieve.

James sees these attitudes and attributes as lodged in the heart, at the centre of one’s personality. Vlachos (122) notes that James’ language indicates that his listeners are ‘harbouring’ these attitudes in their hearts. If this is the ‘spirit’ at work in a person’s heart, they are actually far from wise and understanding. Rather, these attitudes are evidence of an ‘arrogance’ or ‘boastfulness’ that James prohibits (mē katakauchasthe; μὴ κατακαυχᾶσθε), an expression of the belief in one’s superiority over others, and as such the very antithesis of the ‘meekness of wisdom.’ Such a person claiming to be wise and understanding is in fact ‘lying against the truth’ (pseudesthe kata tēs alētheias; ψεύδεσθε κατὰ τῆς ἀληθείας): their very attitudes and resulting actions betray them. It is not surprising, then, that James prohibits these attitudes. He is calling upon his hearers either to stop this behaviour, or more generally, to avoid becoming these kinds of persons at all (Vlachos, 122-123).

It is worth pausing for a moment to consider the little word zēlos which is used by James. Zeal in itself can be a commendable quality, if one is zealous for the right things in the right way. Titus 2:14, for example, exhorts believers to be ‘zealous for good deeds.’ One can be zealous for the things of God, for his word, his truth, his justice, and his mission, in ways that are life-affirming and kingdom-oriented. But it is also possible that this commendable zeal might tip over to become the kind of harsh and bitter zeal that James condemns here.

The problem is that zeal can easily become blind fanaticism, bitter strife, or a disguised form of rivalry and thus jealousy; the person sees himself as jealous for the truth, but God and others see the bitterness, rigidity, and personal pride which are far from the truth (Davids, 151).

How does this occur, and how might it be avoided? James would teach us that if we become convinced of our own rectitude in such a way that we are now against others, if we become partisan and competitive, angry and jealous, ever more determined to press our understanding upon those with whom we disagree, we have already passed beyond the tipping point. James would call us to return to the meekness of wisdom that displays itself good works kindly intended and executed.

Scripture on Sunday – James 3:13

James 3:13
Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.

James 3:13 begins a new little section in this epistle, following a long teaching on the power of the tongue which seems to have been directed at those in James’ congregations who sought to be teachers (3:1). The verse starts with a rhetorical question, literally, “is anyone among you wise and understanding?” Vlachos (120), however, suggests that the question functions as a conditional clause along the lines of, “If any of you are wise and understanding…” James intends to teach his readers what true wisdom actually looks like, and in so doing, adds to his statements in 1:26-27 about the nature of ‘true religion’ or what we might call ‘authentic spirituality.’

That sophos (‘wise’) has a moral sense in James is clearly seen in the description of wisdom that follows in these verses. Wisdom is not merely intelligence or knowledge. Richard Bauckham has suggested that wisdom is “the God-given ability of the transformed heart to discern and to practice God’s will. It is the way in which Torah is internalized, so that outward obedience to Torah flows from an inner understanding and embracing of God’s will expressed in Torah” (Bauckham, James: Wisdom of James, Disciple of Jesus the Sage, 152). God’s will as expressed in Torah is not merely known, but understood and embraced, and so brought to expression in one’s life, and in ways which go beyond a mere adherence to the letter of the law.

‘Understanding’ translates epistēmōn, which denotes the possession of expertise: “being knowledgeable in a way that makes one effectual in the exercise of such knowledge” (BDAG, 381). Together the terms portray the truly wise or spiritual person who understands both what the will of God is, and how it might be applied in the contingencies and circumstances of everyday life, and who actually applies it in this discerning way.

James’ question seems to assume that there are some among them who are actually ‘wise and understanding.’ Certainly there seem to be some in the congregation who claim to be wise, just as there are those who claim to be spiritual, to have faith, and perhaps, who boast in their riches. To those who would make a show of their wisdom, James counsels: display (deixatō, ‘show, demonstrate’ [cf. 2:18]) your wisdom by your good conduct. Make a show of your wisdom by and in your works. This verse, like James 2, contrasts words and works. True wisdom, like true faith, is revealed in works. Wisdom is displayed and recognised rather than claimed. Wisdom is revealed in the ‘beauty’ and ‘attractiveness’ of one’s life—the adjective kalos (‘good’) likely retaining here something of its classical meaning (Vlachos, 121). Just as true wisdom has its source in the good and generous God, so it shows itself in a good and generous life.

Such wisdom is also meek (en prautēti sophias). Wisdom does not parade itself with ostentatious boasting, or merely with words. It does not boast great things for itself, but quietly and consistently works. Many English translations speak of the gentleness of wisdom. Since it is likely that the phrase is qualifying the works which express wisdom, it indicates that these works are gentle, kindly intended and executed, and good.

There is a possibility that this verse is referring back to the first verse of the chapter, and thus to James’ warning about teachers. The role of teaching in the early Christian community provided an opportunity to display one’s wisdom in the performance of the rhetorical art. If we accept this interpretation (see Davids; cf. Moo), it has the advantage of holding the whole chapter together, and of elevating the significance of the teaching role either for good or for ill.

But the teacher’s wisdom is demonstrated and displayed, not in their rhetorical performance, nor in their mastery of the content, but in their character and relationships – do they bless or curse those made in the image of God (v. 9)? Is their tongue a fountain of goodness, justice and righteousness, or does it set the world aflame with the fires of Gehenna (v. 6)? Is their wisdom that which is revealed in humble and gentle service and the generous use of riches? James’ words provide a means of assessing whether or not those spiritual leaders and teachers in our midst are truly wise.

We can ask similar questions of our own lives and our own practice of Christian spirituality. Are we genuinely wise and understanding, in the sense set forth by James? Is our spirituality characterised by an active life of good works undertaken in gentleness and humility?

 

Scripture on Sunday – Luke 24:44-46

There is much in Luke 24 that we could speak about: Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, the discovery of the empty tomb by the women, the failure of the disciples to believe the women, the revelation of Jesus to the disciples at Emmaus, and so on. What I want to focus on particularly, however, is a hermeneutical move made by Jesus toward the end of the chapter.

Now He said to them, “These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and He said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.

This text is an expansion of an earlier text in the chapter, where, with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus Jesus says:

And He said to them, “O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?” Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures (vv. 25-27).

In the earlier passage Jesus instructs the disciples ‘beginning with Moses and with all the prophets.’ In the later text he adds the Psalms to the Law of Moses and the Prophets. By adding the Psalms to this list, it is possible that Jesus is referring in an abbreviated way to the three major divisions of the Hebrew Bible: the law, the prophets, and the ‘writings,’ of which the Psalms were a major part. In other words, Jesus seems to be saying that the whole Old Testament had been written about him.

In these passages Luke, through words attributed to Jesus himself, is giving his readers a christological hermeneutic. This hermeneutic works in two ways. First, the life and ministry of Jesus is to be understood and interpreted in accordance with Old Testament categories; it is the framework by which we seek understanding of his life. This is important for it is not unusual for scholars to seek the understanding of Jesus in accordance with the milieu of the early church, or according to Greco-Roman categories, or even philosophical ideas and contexts from the modern era which may or may not have any real connection to first century Palestinian Judaism, and the biblical traditions that shaped and informed it.

Second, it has implications for how we read and understand the Old Testament itself. Luke (Jesus) suggests that the Old Testament serves as a witness to the divine activity that finds its telos and therefore its ultimate meaning in Jesus Christ. If this is the case, Old Testament interpretation cannot be content merely with a reading that seeks a historical reconstruction of the text, and its plausible meaning in its original context. Nor again with a reading which to a greater or lesser extent is unconcerned with the ancient historical and literary context, preferring a construction of meaning in accordance with the concerns and context of the modern reader.

The Old Testament is not merely a document in itself (and, of course, not merely “a document” but a collection of many and diverse documents), but a part of a movement toward a climax and a goal. This movement is not, of course, merely a literary movement, but a movement of faith grounded in the historical existence of a people of faith who regarded these particular writings as sacred, as “Scripture.” Jesus, too, regards them as Scripture, as prophetic, and as finding their telos and fulfilment in him.

Many other passages in Luke’s gospel indicates that Luke clearly read and understood the Old Testament in this way—and are suggestive that Jesus himself lay at the root of this practice: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). And the same approach to the Old Testament is found in Matthew, John, and Paul.

On the road to Emmaus the two disciples failed to recognise Jesus; indeed, their eyes ‘were prevented’ from recognising him (v.16). Later, after Jesus revealed himself to them at the table, their eyes were ‘opened’ and they recognised him. And they recalled how their hearts ‘burned within them’ as Jesus explained the Scriptures to them. The eleven disciples, too, needed their minds to be ‘opened’ to understand the Scriptures (v. 45). Their hearts, their eyes, their minds: all needed to be opened to hear, to see, to understand the centre, the meaning, the truth of the Scriptures—Jesus Christ himself, crucified and risen.

We—modern readers and especially scholars—are sometimes critical of those who in previous eras “misread” the Scriptures, introducing “theology” into the text, and thereby doing injustice to its original authors, provenance, context, and audience, etc. (Though we are often prepared to do just that in the interest of modern idiosyncratic or ideological readings of the text!)

Luke, however, cites Jesus as reading in just this way. I suggest that following Jesus includes also following the manner in which he was devoted to Scripture, submitted to Scripture as an authority to which God’s people are subject, and also interpreted it as we see him do so here in Luke 24. We often applaud his interpretations: “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” “The weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy, faithfulness.” “Can you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes through the stomach and is discharged into the sewer?” But Jesus also says some things that we are not quite so sure about.

We might not read the text just as Jesus did—would that even be possible? But perhaps there is more here for us to learn, if we would be disciples of Jesus.

Scripture on Sunday – Luke 13:22-27

Only one thing is needed.
Mary has chosen what is better (Luke 10:41-42)

Of the many good things that one can do, only one is necessary; only one is better. Mary received this commendation from Jesus because she had sat at his feet and listened to his word. Thus, we have a major problem when we fail to take the opportunity to do just this.

But we have a different kind of problem when we do listen, to some degree at least, to Jesus’ word, but then for one reason or another, fail to take him seriously. We are adept at side-stepping his words, choosing only those words which agree with our own perspective, explaining away the words if their challenge is too direct, and so on. To truly listen to his word requires not merely the act of hearing, but reflection on those words so that they might become part of our thought and decision-making processes, and so issue in life-action on the basis of those words. To truly listen to his word is to become a “doer of the word and not a hearer only” (James 1:22). Jesus declares those blessed who “hear the Word of God and do it” (Luke 11:28).

Last week I gave an example of how an Evangelical Christian might be tempted to explain-away the teaching of Jesus, because it seems to contradict their doctrinal conviction. In the interests of fair play, today I consider another saying of Jesus which a more progressive Christian might want to sidestep or explain away. In answer to the question, “Lord, are there just a few who are being saved,” Jesus responds:

Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. Once the head of the house gets up and shuts the door, and you begin to stand outside and knock on the door, saying, ‘Lord, open up to us!’ then He will answer and say to you, ‘I do not know where you are from.’ Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in Your presence, and You taught in our streets’; and He will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you are from; depart from Me, all you evildoers.’ 

It is likely that these words are addressed to Jesus’ contemporaries to warn them that genuine repentance is required if devastating judgement on Jerusalem and the Jewish nation generally is to be avoided. This is a theme of Luke’s gospel, and is found earlier in this same chapter (cf. Luke 13:1-9).

In this chapter we are face-to-face with a stern Jesus, a no-nonsense Saviour. There is no universalism here, no salvation-lite, no complacency, no easy approach to sacraments or a take-it-or-leave-it approach to Jesus’ teachings. Here Jesus warns of exclusion and judgement; here he calls for a genuine repentance from our sinfulness; here he declares that we either come to him on his own terms or we do not come at all. These terms include what we read last week: do this and you shall live! They also include the stern words of Luke 14:25-27, 33:

Now large crowds were going along with Him; and He turned and said to them, “If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple. Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. … So then, none of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions.

Those who would follow Jesus must ‘hate’ all other relational claims on their lives, and even their own life as well. We cannot cling to our ‘loves’ if we would follow Jesus. Rather, we are called to take up the cross daily—die!—and follow Jesus. There is a cost to discipleship which will cut to the very core of our existence, including the giving up of all that does not belong in his kingdom, and of all that challenges our sole allegiance to him, whether our ‘possessions’—literally and figuratively—our loves, or our relationships.

If it comes down to a choice between Jesus’ words and a response whereby we ask, “Yes, but what about…?”, go with Jesus every time.

Scripture on Sunday: Luke 10:28

At the end of Luke 10, the evangelist records Jesus’ visit to Martha and Mary’s house in which Mary sat at the Lord’s feet and ‘listened to his Word’ (NASB). Jesus commended Mary saying that “only one thing is necessary” and that “Mary had chosen the good part.” The most important thing for any disciple is to do what Mary did: to hear—and then do—Jesus’ word. This is the foundation of Christian life and mission.

Many and perhaps even most Christians would agree with this sentiment. In practice, however, it is possible that our theological convictions might make this harder than we initially imagine. This may be the case especially for Protestants, and specifically for those evangelical Christians who, like myself, consider careful doctrine an essential aspect of Christian faith and life.

A case in point is found right here in Luke 10. Immediately preceding the story of Martha and Mary is the story of the Good Samaritan, which Jesus tells in response to a question posed by a ‘lawyer’—an expert in the Mosaic Law:

And a lawyer stood up and put Him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 And He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How does it read to you?” 27 And he answered, “You shall 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 your neighbour as yourself.” 28 And He said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.”

The lawyer’s question is focussed on the issue of obtaining eternal life, and Jesus directs him back to Scripture, and appropriately in the time and context, to the Law. When the lawyer answers, Jesus commends him, “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.” The lawyer then takes it further, asking, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ and Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, elaborating on what it means to love one’s neighbour. The Samaritan stops, sees, serves, and sacrifices; he gets involved personally and acts, even to one who typically would despise him. This is an active, practical love that ‘costs’ the Samaritan in terms of time and money—though the ‘cost’ of such love is not even raised in the parable. And Jesus instructs the lawyer to “go and do likewise,” for this is the way to eternal life.

Do this and you will live!

The difficulty for Protestants and many evangelicals in particular, is that we have such an investment in a Pauline-Reformational doctrine of justification by faith, that Jesus’ words sound like a form of ‘works-righteousness,’ and as such, stand in tension with a doctrine of salvation in which we are ‘saved by faith and not by works.’ The great temptation, then, is perhaps to overlook Jesus’ words, to bypass them, explain them away, harmonise them to Paul’s teaching, or in some other fashion, to side-step and avoid them—precisely the opposite of what we hear in the Martha and Mary story.

This we must not do! The one essential thing is to hear Jesus’ words, let them stand, let them be heard, let them challenge us, let the tension remain unresolved if necessary, even if Jesus’ words and teaching challenge our most cherished doctrines.

(I note here I. Howard Marshall’s judgement that “There is all the difference in the world between the loving service of God commended here and the salvation by works of the law which Paul condemned”—The Gospel of Luke [NIGTC], 440).

Do this and you will live!

Here, in shortest possible compass, we have an instance of Jesus’ doctrine of salvation: love God and love your neighbour—and to do so in the most concrete, personal, and engaged sense imaginable. Certainly a systematic theology may legitimately seek to understand the relation between Jesus’ words and Paul’s, but never at the expense of setting either aside, or diminishing the force and impact of Jesus’ teaching. Certainly we might argue that Jesus’ command here presupposes faith in God, even if it is a faith before the cross and resurrection. But if it comes down to a choice between Jesus’ words and our doctrine, go with Jesus every time.