How Much Does It Cost?
When I was in law school, I took a federal income taxation class. An adage my professor quoted has stayed with me: “No man is required to arrange his affairs so as to pay the largest possible amount of tax.” Of course, the principle he was really suggesting was that every man naturally will go to great lengths to see that he pays the lowest tax possible, short of risking prosecution. I have often used that adage as an example of how lawyers are trained to think, especially when a legal obligation is perceived as arbitrary, not linked to any compelling personal motivation. In such cases it is rational to want to know precisely what the obligation is so we can comply in a formal sense while minimizing the accompanying pain or cost.
There is a marvelous example of “lawyer-think” in Luke 10. A legal expert asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus responded by asking, “What is written in the law?” The man correctly replied by stating the two great commandments. Faced with the open-ended obligation to love his neighbor as himself, however, and seeking to justify his own life, the lawyer asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” The question seems perfectly reasonable from our worldly point of view, even if we haven’t been to law school. The commandment doesn’t seem realistic unless we strictly limit the category of neighbor.
In response, Jesus tells the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Everyone agrees that the parable is sublime, but how does it answer the lawyer’s question? It answers the question by saying that the lawyer has asked the wrong question. One does not inherit eternal life by following rules. Rules always invite the question, What is the cheapest way of complying or seeming to comply? To ask that is to miss the point of Jesus’ teaching. The Samaritan does not have to ask how to inherit eternal life because he already has it. The parable invites the better question, How can I be at least in some way like that? The answer to that question might have been, “You must change the habits of your heart.” A man whose attention is fixed on that possibility will probably tumble into eternal life without having to worry about how to inherit it.
For just over a year I have been writing a book about finding the right questions to ask about every problem or controversy, and this labor has bred a habit of mind that I find helpful in approaching Bible difficulties as well. For example, the Parable of the Unjust Steward in Luke 16 has led my wife’s faithfully Christian father to speculate that some teachings of Jesus might be better forgotten. I have pondered the same point that bothers him. Why would Jesus cite the example of such a rascal, and with apparent approval?
The steward is explicitly labeled a “child of darkness,” but the parable is meant for those of us who consider ourselves children of light. What should we make of the fact that such a wicked man at least had the good sense to know that he would soon be in need of grateful friends and to take action accordingly? If that was the wisest use of an unrepentant rascal’s ill-gotten gains, then what use ought we children of light to make of our own resources, obtained in socially approved ways? When our own time of reckoning arrives, perhaps we will find that everything that is socially approved does not qualify as righteous, and we also may be glad to find that we have many grateful friends.
When I thought, not long ago, that I might be approaching death, I was greatly moved by re-encountering the story of Jacob Marley’s ghost in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Although Marley’s money was gained by socially approved means, his ghost’s torment is that, while he was alive, he had spurned numerous opportunities to perform kind and generous deeds. Such deeds would have created happiness that would be a joy for him to contemplate now, when he can see only the missed opportunities but can no longer do anything to pursue them. Probably Marley, like a well-trained lawyer or accountant, went through life asking what the applicable rules required him to do. That was not the kind of question Jesus invited, and probably the links of Jacob Marley’s chain were so many wrong questions that missed the point.
The one thing Marley’s ghost could do at the end was to warn Scrooge of his peril, which he did with spectacular effect. Then the nighttime encounter with the three ghosts of Christmas taught Scrooge how miserable he already was in hoarding his wealth, and the final scene with the Cratchits showed how much happiness he gained from spreading it around. Like all the best fantasies, it is quite practical. I know a few “Good Samaritans,” and they all seem to be getting a lot of fun out of life.
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