The Law of Love: Reflections on Luke 10:25-37, Part 1

The Law of Love: Luke 10:25-37, Part 1

      This week I’ll be doing a two-part blog on this passage from Luke 10. In the first piece we will look at vv. 25-28 and in the second vv. 29-37, the well-known parable of the “good Samaritan.” Let’s jump in!

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 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.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

      For those of us who are Protestants, we have often ascribed to a certain reading of Paul that gives us a healthy fear of that dreadful three-letter word: Law. Baptist DNA can be traced back to Martin Luther, the influential reformer who stood up to the Catholic Church over what were, in his view, legalistic ‘works of the Law.’ For Baptists, reformed England was still too “Catholic,” resulting in further denominational splits for the sake of freedom in Christ. We may think that this is all well and good until we hear the very Christ in whom we are set free say “What is written in the law?” in response to an inquiry about how one can inherit eternal life. What’s going on here? Was Jesus being sarcastic? Was he simply speaking on the wrong side of the resurrection, not realizing that the Law would soon be done away with? 

      We sometimes forget that Jesus and Paul, the two primary founders of Christianity, were Jewish. Jews typically believed that the Law was a good thing that God had given to his people in love. Jesus himself says that he did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it; and in his words, the essence of that which he came to fulfill boiled down to loving God and loving others as oneself (Matt 22, Mark 12). In case we fear that there is some major discontinuity between Jesus and Paul, we hear the Apostle say in Galatians 5:13-14, 

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’

      We might be tempted to think that this view of the Law as being oriented around love was totally unique to Jesus and Paul and thus cannot really be considered “Law” in the same ways that the Jews viewed it. That Law must be very different and wrong, we might think. But, interestingly, it is not Jesus who provides this love-based interpretation of the Law in Luke; rather, it is the lawyer — the law expert trying to test Jesus -- who describes the Law as being based on love. “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”, asks Jesus. The law-expert replies, “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.” Jesus’s response is a simple affirmation, and lines up well with what we hear from Jesus’s own mouth elsewhere. “You’re right,” he says. “Do this and you will live.”

      We do not have space to tease out what aspects of the Law Jesus was comfortable disregarding, what Paul had in mind regarding “the works of the law,” or other relevant questions. What we can conclude, however, if we trust Jesus’s words, is that the foundation of the Law was good and always had to do with loving God and loving others, whatever people may have done (or failed to do) with it. If one doubts this, the prophets and the Psalms will quickly remind us that the Law was not about legalism but love (— Psalm 119 displays this nicely). Paul himself, despite his reimagining in what ways God’s Law is/is not applicable, asks, “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law” (Rom 3:31), and again, “We know that the law is good if one uses it properly” (1 Tim 1:8). Jesus too warns his listeners, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matt 5:17). This makes sense to us as we consider the real heartbeat of the Law, to love God and to love others. Of course we are no longer bound by the entirety of the Law — especially as non-Jews — but this essence of the Law, to love God and others, is something Jesus and Paul both supported whole-heartedly.

I’ll end with two points of practical application based on these reflections:

      (1) We should be wary of disregarding all Jewish people as “legalistic” merely because they adhere to something God gave them in love. We remember that, regarding the Pharisees, Jesus says, “Do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach” (Matt 23:2). Hypocrisy was a big problem then and continues to be a problem in the Church today; but this is no excuse to flippantly disregard an entire people or the Old Testament as a whole. However we read Paul’s apparent disregard for the Law (and more specifically, Paul’s two letters to the Romans and Galatians), we must also deal with the positive affirmations we have elsewhere that the sum of the Law is love. We may think the consequences of wrong ideology here are not actually too problematic, but we must remember that the events which caused WWII did not happen in a void; they were preceded by centuries of Protestants (including our beloved Luther) disregarding Jewish people.

      (2) We should not be surprised that the essence of God’s commandments to his people has always been about love. The author of 1 John reminds us, “God is love” (4:8). We will address the other side of the coin in our next post (love your neighbor as yourself), but we must not rush over the great commandment that we love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, strength, and mind. Too often we live as though we fulfill this commandment in a merely passive way. We might think that as long as we’re being kind to people, going to church, doing our jobs well, and so on, we’re loving God already. While those things are important and no doubt have to do with loving God, our love for God must be more intentional than this — after all, God is a person. God’s love for us is passionate; it is the kind of love that pours out blood, sweat, and tears for his beloved. The kind of love that counts every hair on our heads. The kind of love that listens closely every time we pray and whispers to us when we will listen to him. It is out of this loving relationship with God that we are empowered to love others. The love that the Spirit pours into our hearts (Rom 5:5) overflows, enabling us to love God and others with all that we are. Stay tuned for part 2!


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