I had the blessing of sharing evening prayers with a dear friend this evening, and the two lessons from the lectionary readings were very powerful. The first was from Ezekiel 18: 19-32 and the second from the gospel of Luke 10:25-37. Here are these passages in full, first Ezekiel and then Luke:
19 “Yet you say, ‘Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?’ When the son has done what is just and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live. 20 The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.
21 “But if a wicked person turns away from all his sins that he has committed and keeps all my statutes and does what is just and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die. 22 None of the transgressions that he has committed shall be remembered against him; for the righteousness that he has done he shall live. 23 Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live? 24 But when a righteous person turns away from his righteousness and does injustice and does the same abominations that the wicked person does, shall he live? None of the righteous deeds that he has done shall be remembered; for the treachery of which he is guilty and the sin he has committed, for them he shall die.
25 “Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way not just? Is it not your ways that are not just? 26 When a righteous person turns away from his righteousness and does injustice, he shall die for it; for the injustice that he has done he shall die. 27 Again, when a wicked person turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is just and right, he shall save his life. 28 Because he considered and turned away from all the transgressions that he had committed, he shall surely live; he shall not die. 29 Yet the house of Israel says, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ O house of Israel, are my ways not just? Is it not your ways that are not just?
30 “Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, declares the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin. 31 Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? 32 For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live.”
25 And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” 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 neighbor as yourself.” 28 And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”
29 But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side.32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion.34 He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”
One of the things I like most about the lectionary readings is how they so often fit together thematically. Today's lessons certainly do so. I was struck by two main things as we read these passages together and discussed them afterwards: first, how salvation in both passages seems to depend on righteous action in response to and reflective of God's heart ("to do justice and to love mercy") and how Jesus uses a religious outsider as representative of love of neighbor in the gospel reading.
First, both passages call into question the Reformation notion of salvation by faith alone, especially if faith is not combined with right action. Luther had such an aversion to "works" that he wanted to rid the New Testament of the book of James. It begs the question: does most modern Christian Protestant theology follow the Apostle Paul via Luther over Jesus? It's not a new question by any means. I've read the gospels in their entirety many times, and I cannot find any instance of Jesus' direct teaching on salvation apart from right action, or works of justice and mercy. Certainly, there are parables that portray God as so extensively merciful to accept any and all who come to Him and even those who don't (prodigal son, lost sheep, etc). But when asked explicitly what eternal life, or salvation, entails, Jesus always expresses love of God and neighbor in one way or another. There is no notion of simple belief - or faith without works - anywhere in Jesus' understanding of salvation.
Second, and perhaps much more subversive, is Jesus' example of a "righteous actor" who inherits eternal life. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, in which Jesus is presumably speaking to Jewish hearers, he uses a Samaritan (whom the Jewish people would have thought of as a dog, a religious infidel) to represent the one who will obtain eternal life - not because of his religious belief or theology, but because he was merciful to one in need. Period. He does not go on to say that the Samaritan represented orthodoxy or correct beliefs about theological abstractions. It is simply that he saw a person in need and helped him. In our modern context, if heard among relatively conservative Protestants, Jesus could just as well have told the story of the Good Muslim or Good Hindu or Good Buddhist. Or among certain conservative evangelicals, the story of the Good Central American (Illegal) Immigrant. Or among mainline liberal Protestants, the story of the Good Trump Supporter. Whoever it is we think is least likely our neighbor, that is the one Jesus portrays as most likely to teach us something about God, because it's not just a story of the Samaritan being a neighbor to the (presumably Jewish) victim along the roadside, but also a story of the victim being a neighbor to the Samaritan. There's a neighborly interdependence among two people least likely to consider themselves neighbors.
My takeaway from these passages: it's less about what I (or others) believe and more about how we act - orthopraxy over orthodoxy. An uncomfortable lesson for those married more to their beliefs about God than love for God and neighbor, but what's the gospel if not that good news which moves us from comfort to eternal life?