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When Jesus Turns over the Tables
By Diane Eaton June 2005

Based on Luke 10:25-37

One day a distinguished man approached Jesus seeking the answer to the most important question in life – the one that would determine his eternal destiny. He asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life? Lk. 10:26 It seemed that he was asking how to be saved? Any conscientious evangelical would be thrilled to receive this question, and would be well armed with answers.

But, wait a minute! Let’s learn more about this man before we start giving advice: Apparently, this man was an “expert”. Now have you noticed that when an expert asks you a question it is not always because he (or she) doesn’t know the answer? He sometimes asks you a question to check you out.

So it was with this “expert of the law”. This lawyer wanted “to test Jesus”, to cross-examine him in light of the Judaic Law. And why not? After all, it was his profession to protect his community from law-breakers.

Notice also that the man “stood up”, no doubt in the midst of his religious peers. Here was a perfect opportunity for them to see how wise and discerning he was, how careful to sift out and expose the false teachers. I suspect that he was hoping Jesus would publicly condemn himself by giving an answer that defied the Law. If Jesus could be proved guilty, then the lawyer, including everyone present, could discredit everything Jesus said. Then the lawyer could safely maintain his authority among the people.

Jesus did not allow the conversation to be controlled by this skillful lawyer. Nor did he take a defensive position. Instead, he took authority, and steered the conversation directly to the man’s own conscience. Let’s examine Jesus’ strategy:

First of all, Jesus responded to the question by asking the man another question: “What is written in the Law?" By asking this, Jesus “turned the tables”. He reversed the roles. Now Jesus was the examiner, and the expert was the examinee.

Of course the lawyer knew the answer, “Love the Lord 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.Deut. 6:5, Lev. 19:18

Jesus agreed, saying, “You have answered correctly”. Then Jesus drove the point deeper with a command, “Do this and you will live.” He may as well have said, “You already know the answer, sir. Now you must practice what you know so well, and then you will have eternal life. There is no other answer to your question. End of discussion!”

I can hear a few protests: “But Jesus, you have more to say! “What about justification by faith, and NOT by observing the Law?” Rom. 4 and 5

The lawyer also wanted Jesus to say more, also about justification. “He wanted to justify his actions.” Lk. 10:29 NLT. In other words, he wanted to be sure he was innocent of any crime against the law. No doubt he couldn’t bear to live with a sense of condemnation hanging over his head. (Who can!) Jesus must have stirred up a twinge of guilt, causing him to realize that he wasn’t as loving as he should have been. No doubt he was trying to appease his conscience with such thoughts as: “I do love all those whom I should be loving! I really am a good person! Those sinners out there, the lepers, the Samaritans, and the poor are not my neighbors, and so I don’t have to love them.” So he asked Jesus: “And who is my neighbor?” He was trying to justify himself.

This man was no different than any of his peers, the other Pharisees. At another time Jesus had said to them, “You … want to justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your heart.” Lk. 16:14 The lawyer was one of the gang - just like his buddies.

I suspect most of us have at times had the same motive for our actions, our words, or our quests. I sure have! I admit, I have asked questions so that others could see that I was a serious Christian. I hate to imagine how often I asked questions, NOT so that I could be become more honest before God, but in order to learn how I could improve myself, so that I could be justified in the eyes of my community and society, so that they would accept me as a good Christian. That was my way of avoiding the intolerable sense of guilt or shame.

For many years I was not aware of my selfish, destructive motives, but God knew, and he helped me see it. Likewise, Jesus knew that the lawyer was blind to his motives, and so he helped him see it.

Did you notice that Jesus refrained from pointing out his faults? That would have been counterproductive - as you, no doubt, have discovered. Think, for a moment, of a time when you tried to correct a proud person, or tell him his wrongs. Instantly his thinking shifted into high gear, and in a flash he presented you with a sharp defense - a logical reason why he was not wrong, and you had misunderstood him. He tried to justify himself in your eyes, and you ended up being the one who needed “correction”. In fact, all your efforts to take the “log" out of his eye worked in reverse. You inadvertently encouraged him to reinforce his own rigid wall of self-defense. Your attempts to correct him actually moved him further away from seeing the inner truth about himself. You sent him off in the wrong direction – away from seeing his need for divine mercy, and thus, away from Christ.
Jesus could handle resistant sinners better than any of us can. Instead of pointing any fingers at this man, he employed a shrewd tactic to get him to point his own finger at himself. And it worked. Within one minute, through a fictitious little story about a “despicable”Samaritan, Jesus demolished the expert’s sense of righteousness. The man clearly saw himself as the villain of the story - that cold-hearted Levite who walked right past the wounded man lying in the ditch. He was the guilty one! The parable had convicted the lawyer of crime! Not only that, the hero turned out to be a Samaritan – the one who should have been the villain.


Next Jesus used a leading question to let the man publicly convict himself: “Which of these three do YOU think was a neighbor?" In other words, “You answer your own question, sir. Which one obeyed the law?”

The answer must have been painful to admit, “Aaaaaah, well, I guess it’s …mmmmm …the man… ahhhh…… who….. had mercy on him”.

You can see that this lawyer had never before realized that mercy was an integral component of God’s law – the law of love towards fellow man.

Now imagine the next time that the expert went to the synagogue. He likely did not stand up in the crowd as eagerly as before to display his clever skills. He likely did not act quite so haughty. In fact, after his encounter with Jesus, his entire life would have become filled with dilemmas that he had never before experienced. Imagine the next time he passed by a beggar, a leper, or a foreigner – how his conscience would have troubled him. He probably entertained such thoughts as, “ A leper! Oh, dear, I should be giving him some attention. But what if my peers would see me! They may cast me out! …..No, no, I don’t want to give away my best robe to this wretched undeserving beggar! …Oh, no! I don’t want to stop to help this woman with her load! What if I’m late for the meeting! Oh, dear, I am so miserable now that I have encountered this Jesus!”

If would not have taken long for this man to realize that it was both very costly and very impossible to keep the Law. And after that realization, he would need to make a choice – a very difficult one – the one that would determine his eternal destiny. Ultimately he would need to decide which way to go - either humbly admit his crime and acknowledge his need for divine mercy, or cling to his pride and harden his conscience, thus distancing his heart from Christ. Jesus offered no middle ground – as he once said, “He who is not for me is against me.”

We do not know the final outcome of this man, but the greater possibility is that he chose the wide path of life – the one that most people take. He probably could not let go of his dignity and his pride. Perhaps he later joined the mob who cried out, “Crucify him!” And he would have felt very justified for exterminating the troublemaker – for indeed, Jesus had troubled his conscience.

Knowing the Law is not enough

This expert of the law had dedicated his entire life to the Judaic Law. He knew every letter of it - better than anyone; and he was accustomed to examining others in light of the Law. However, he was immunized against it. It had never burned a path to his conscience.

All his life he had used the Law to justify himself – that is – until he encountered Jesus who “turned the tables over”. Jesus had dared to use that very same law to convict him of crime against God!

The lawyer reminds us of the danger of familiarity. Being familiar with God’s law does not, in itself, draw us to Christ. By the time it gets filtered through our self-justifying, self-righteous mindsets, it has lost its power to convict us. Instead, we end up using it to justify ourselves.

This can easily happen to us who are well churched. We can become familiarized by constant exposure to sermons, Bible readings, hymns, and meditations. We can nod our heads in agreement. We can shout “Amen, Alleluia!” to the truths that we hear or preach. We can study the Bible and other Christian books in order to become better, more dedicated Christians. And we might very well succeed. Our church might even justify us by affirming our success.

However, like the expert, we may have become immune to God’s highest laws, and blind to our crimes against God and fellowman. Eventually the very beliefs and practices that we use to justify ourselves may very well convict us – just as they convicted the lawyer.

The lawyer must have been shocked to learn that in order to love God with all his heart, all his soul and his entire mind, and love his neighbor as himself, he would need to give up everything that was more precious to him than God.

It was no different for the rich young ruler who came to Jesus, “asking, “What must I do to inherit eternal life.” Jesus had instructed that man, “Go sell all you have, give it to the poor, and then come follow me.” That was a pointed way of saying, “Love God with your entire heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.

And now, with different words, Jesus said the same thing to this lawyer: “Go and sell your robes. Give up your dignity, your expertise, your importance, and your self-righteousness. Surrender your need to be right. Give up your desire to be in control. Let go of the hold that all those things have on you. And then you will be free to love God and your neighbor – and even “love your enemy”. And then you will have treasure in heaven.

Jesus’ one-minute parable was a deathblow to the lawyer’s entire value system – his status, his position in society, his Jewish lineage, and his education. Jesus had essentially challenged him, “Do you love me more than all these?”

The apostle Paul, who also had those things, gladly forfeited their importance in exchange for something far better. He said,

"But whatever was to my profit,
I now consider loss…rubbish,
that I may gain Christ....
I want to know Christ…”
Phil. 3:7-11

Paul had found eternal life.

Encountering Jesus
This expert did not come to Jesus broken-hearted, needy, and humble. He did not come begging for mercy. He felt no need. He came to Jesus filled with righteousness. He came to Jesus justified, but Jesus sent him away unjustified.

That is still the way Jesus works through his Spirit. Somehow or other he reveals divine law and justice to the impenitent sinner so that they can see that they are guilty. On the other hand, the Spirit reveals mercy and forgiveness to the penitent sinner who humbly seeks him. He lifts away their guilt and justifies them by his grace.


I doubt that any of us can ever approach Christ with totally pure unselfish motives. But God’s Spirit, nevertheless, works within us to help us see the truth about ourselves. And then we can either humbly choose his mercy, or we can maintain our pride and resist his generous offer of a better way.

In the Bible, Jesus’ methods of dealing with people sometimes seemed harsh, offensive, and even shocking - like when he turned over the tables in the Temple. But it was the way of love. It was the way to uproot all that stood in the way of his divine love and mercy for humanity.

And still today, the Spirit relentlessly works in our lives – turning over our tables, toppling our precious wares and all our cherished values. We may be offended when the veneered surface of our lives - the shiny side, is turned upside down. We may object that the ugly side is showing for all to see. We may even blame the devil for causing such discomfort to us. Nevertheless it is the way of divine love. It is the way we see our need for Christ.

A Message for all
The well-known parable of the Good Samaritan is one of the most convicting stories in the Bible. It can speak to the consciences of anyone in the world, regardless of who they are. Atheists can understand it. Children can understand it.

It reminds the world that God’s divine law transcends all religion, race, or status. It exposes prejudice and also religious, cultural, and racial superiority. It helps all the world to see that they are guilty of violating the highest law of the universe - the Great Command. In this way, it points the path to God - his mercy and forgiveness. This is the path to eternal life.


The Bible: God’s finger pointing at me

In a sense, the Bible is like an exploded version of the Good Samaritan Parable. It contains descriptions of the truly righteous, and many more descriptions of the unrighteous. I am so thankful that God divinely preserved all those references - especially the many about the religious hypocrites. As I read about them, I could see myself - my own hypocrisy. That is what helped me see my need to change.

Ultimately, through the Spirit and the Word, and through many “turned-over tables” God led me to his Son who has become my eternal life. And I know that I will praise him for all eternity.



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© by Diane Eaton
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