Jesus' Surprising Answer
was asked the question, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" , the conversation leads to an answer that most Christians would find
unacceptable, or at least confusing - it sounds as if by obeying the commandments,
or even by loving God and our neighbor, that we can somehow earn our own
We read this conversation in Luke 10:
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." Luke 10:25-28
One common explanation for Jesus' response
is that because the law expert is testing Jesus out of hostility, Jesus
is deliberately affirming his "wrong" answer, so that later,
when he realizes his inability to keep these commands perfectly, he will
see that he must lean on God's grace and just believe. This answer suggests
that Jesus is playing a game with the lawyer, and that his words must
be read knowing that no one ever could actually do what he just said to
do. While this has satisfied some Christians, having additional information
from Jesus' first century Jewish context can lead to a different reading
of this text that explains why Jesus accepted the answer without hidden
We should start with the assumption that many times when other rabbis "tested" Jesus, it was not done with hostile intentions. The
rabbinic style of public discussion from Jesus' time even up to the present
has been to pose a difficult question with the expectation of debate.
A story is even told of a rabbi who greatly mourns the passing of his
strongest adversary, because he had lost his best way to sharpen his intellect.(1)
We have tended to assume that every conversation between Jesus and religious
thinkers was antagonistic, and hear their questions as legalistic or manipulative.
But several questions, like whether divorce was permissible, or what was
the "greatest commandment" were actually important discussions
already permeating the rabbinic community of Jesus' time.(2)
Love the Lord Your God
The key to understanding Jesus' affirmative response is to look at the
context of how the lawyer's response was understood in that time. The
first line of his answer says,"Love the Lord your God with all your
heart and soul and strength and mind", and comes from Deuteronomy
6:5. We hear it as an expression of mental affection, and it does mean
that. But in Hebrew, the verb "love" means more than that, including
action - a display of commitedness to another. It is to "act lovingly
toward" or "to honor and be loyal to". It was even used
in covenants between kings after a war, that the one would promise to
"love" the other, meaning to show uncompromising loyalty to
Why is this important? Because then the statement "You shall love
the Lord..." then becomes a statement of life commitment to God,
and faithfulness to a relationship with him. This is very close to the
Christian understanding that we need to have a personal relationship with
God for salvation. Interestingly, the rabbinic term for this idea - to
commit yourself to a personal relationship with God, was to "receive
the kingdom of Heaven", very close to what Jesus referred to in his
preaching. Why? The word "kingdom" refers to God's reign or
authority, and "Heaven" is a respectful euphemism for God. When
we receive the reign of God, what we actually are doing is enthroning
him as our king, committing our lives to be under his reign. This gives
us a clue as to why Jesus spent so much of his ministry proclaiming the
"kingdom of Heaven", in the sense that he had come to open the
way for all people to have a relationship with God through the atonement
by his blood, and that relationship could be described as "entering
under God's reign".(4)
Another important thing about the lawyer's response was that he was quoting
from the Shema, the "pledge of allegiance" that Jews said as
a statement of commitment to their relationship with God. The first line
is "Hear, O Israel, the Lord is your God, the Lord alone." According
to the Jewish Publication Society, the emphasis is not actually on proclaiming
that "God is one", a creed of monotheism (as is often said),
but on the demand of utter loyalty between God and his people - he alone
is their God.(5)
Obedience Follows Relationship
It may be surprising to some that rabbinic thought of Jesus' time embraced
the idea that salvation comes by faith rather than by works, and they
even saw that expressed in the Shema. They understood that the relationship
with God must always come first, and only after we have that do we obey
God's commandments. In the Mishnah (6) there is a little sermon based
on the traditional recitation of the Shema, in which a person always begins
by saying, "Hear O Israel, the Lord is Your God, the Lord alone"
at the beginning, before the next section that starts with the words,
"So if you faithfully obey the commands I am giving you today...".
The rabbi said, "Why do we always talk about God being our Lord before
we say the part about obeying the commandments? Because we must first
receive the kingdom of Heaven (meaning "enthrone God as our king",
or establish our relationship with him) and only then take on the yoke
of the commandments."(7) We do not earn our relationship, we receive
it as a gift from him, and the laws are not for earning God's favor or
getting into heaven, but for learning how to live to please him. One creative
rabbi imagined that King David may have been thinking that when he wrote
King David said, "Some trust in their
fair and upright deeds, and some in the works of their fathers, but
I trust in you. Although I have no good works, yet because I call upon
you, you answer me."(8)
Love your Neighbor as Yourself
The other commandment that the lawyer mentioned in Luke 10, "love
your neighbor as yourself" also has special significance. It is a
quote from Leviticus 19:18, and it was singled out in ancient Jewish culture
before we hear it from Jesus. It has a rare word, ve'ahavta, ("and
you shall love") in common with that of words of the Shema that shows
total commitment to God, "And you shall love the Lord your God...".
Even before Jesus' time, those two verses were thought to be linked, in
a poetic way, so that the way you expressed your total love and commitment
to God, who you can't see, was by showing love to your neighbor, who you
can see. This is certainly a central teaching of Jesus too, and the overwhelming
importance of this command is echoed in the rest of the New Testament.
Peter says "above all, love one another" (1 Peter 4:8), and
in the letters of John, that "this was the teaching you have heard
from the very beginning - to love one another" (1 John 3:11).
It appears that this idea may have already been circulating in Jewish
culture before his time, and the lawyer was repeating it to Jesus. If
Jesus also had the first century understanding that loving your neighbor
was the clearest expression of your commitment to God, he would have accepted
the lawyer's words as a way of describing how to live out your relationship
with God in obedience and authenticity, by showing God's love to those
around you. Thus, the lawyer gave a very good answer, using first century
Jewish terminology to say that we need to commit ourselves to the Lord
and live our faith out wholeheartedly. And Jesus responds, "Yes,
Then the questioner goes on to ask, "who is my neighbor", which
also was a legitimate question that was debated at the time, and Jesus
gives brilliant insight to this too.(9)
The Challenge of A Different Understanding
Although this may be a challenge to our traditional Christian view, it
suggests that there was some brilliant thinking going on before Jesus'
time, as God was preparing his people for the coming of his Son. Certainly
if Jesus was going to raise up a congregation of many thousand followers
out of this Jewish nation (Acts 21:20), God needed to be preparing their
hearts for their Messiah. Studying their thinking allows us to see Jesus'
answer as straightforward and clear. he affirms that we need to have a
personal relationship with God, and show our commitment to him by loving
others in the world around us.
This essay is based, in part, on a talk given by Dr. Randall Buth at Mars
Hill Bible Church on October 17, 2003. It is also available in the En-Gedi
audio series, Jesus the Master Teacher, recorded in 2001 and available
to purchase online.
(1) Page xiii, Jesus the Jewish Theologian, by Brad Young. Hendrickson,
(2) See the article, "Divorce and Remarriage in Historical Perspective" by Steve Notley at www.jerusalemperspective.com (Premium Content) and the talk "What be the Big Commandment of the
Torah", also on the En-Gedi audio tape series, Jesus the Master Teacher
by Randall Buth.
(3) JPS Torah Commentary on Deuteronomy, by Jeffrey Tigay. Jewish Publication
Society, 1996, p 77.
(4) See the En-Gedi Bible commentary article, "What
is the Kingdom of Heaven?".
(5) Excursus 10: The Shema in the JPS Torah Commentary on Deuteronomy,
(6) The Mishnah is a book of legal rulings and commentary on the Torah
written down about 200 AD that is record of sayings that go back to before
the time of Jesus.
(7) Berachot 2.2, Mishnah.
(8) Midrash Psalms 141 (ed. Buber, pp. 530-531).
(9) See the En-Gedi Director's article, "Loving
your Neighbor, Who is Like You".
Lois A. Tverberg, Ph.D.,
OurRabbiJesus.com. All rights reserved. This article is copyrighted and may not be redistributed without the express written consent of the author. To request permission for use, contact Tverberg@OurRabbiJesus.com.