“That looks like a Bible you’ve got there, young fella” Jesus said.
Waving the black book to which Jesus had pointed, the lad declared, “Yep, it’s the inspired and inerrant Word of God, infallible and perfect in every way.”
“Sorry?” Jesus said.
“It’s the inerrant Word of God,” the lad repeated.
“Let me see,” said Jesus.
The lad handed the Bible to Jesus, who took it, opened it, shook it, smelled it, then returned it to the youngster. “Who says it’s inerrant?” he asked.
“God says,” the youngster replied.
“Where does God say that?” asked Jesus.
“In the Bible,” the youngster replied.
“But that doesn’t answer the question,” Jesus said, “it begs the question. It’s circular reasoning to say that the Bible is inerrant because in the Bible God says that the Bible is inerrant. What you claim to be true you’re assuming rather than proving. Which is a logical fallacy, which is bad apologetics, which shames our faith.”
“You what?” said the lad, completely discombobulated. “Are you trying to trick me?”
“Of course not,” said Jesus. “It’s just that you’re brandishing that book like it’s an assault weapon rather than a surgeon’s scalpel, and I suspect that you read it rather unimaginatively, one-dimensionally, as if it were a cook book rather than a love story, and listen to it as if it were a collection of notes rather than a magnificent symphony. You search it for answers, but you don’t allow it to probe you with questions. You look for closure when you should pray for critique. God certainly speaks to us through the scriptures, but interpreting the Bible is rarely a simple matter, let alone an open-and-shut case. We should expect to be surprised and disturbed, to have our fixed views challenged – and our settled selves changed.”
But the young man had that impatient, I’m-not-listening-to-a-thing-you-say look on his face. “Just answer the question,” he demanded: “How do I get eternal life?”
“Ahem,” sighed Jesus (not “Amen”). “Let’s turn to the Bible then. What do you say it says?”
“It’s obvious,” replied the youngster (rather smugly, it must be said): “You must love the Lord with all your heart and soul, mind and strength, and you must love your neighbour as yourself. Leviticus 19:18 and Deuteronomy 6:5. End of.”
“Excellent. So all you need is love,” said Jesus, pretending to be impressed and persuaded. For he suspected that the lad had an agenda, that he would try to embarrass and expose Jesus as an unreliable teacher. And Jesus was right.
“Ah,” the lad said, “but who is this neighbour I must love?” Of course he knew the answer: according to Leviticus and Deuteronomy, the neighbour is my fellow believer. But rumour had it that Jesus was mixing with all sorts, pervs and quislings and folk of other faiths, so how would he answer the question?
But Jesus didn’t answer the question, or at least he didn’t give a straight answer. Instead he told a story. “One night a man was walking to town when he was attacked by some thugs. They beat him up, took his wallet and iPhone, then ran off, leaving him half-dead. A minister happened to be walking along the same road, but when he saw the man, he checked his watch and hurried past him. A priest followed a few minutes later (he and the minister had been at a conference on theological ethics). He also saw the man, left some change, but stepped around him. Then two strangers to the area, oddly dressed, came upon the man, and when they saw the state of him they were overwhelmed with pity and compassion. They held him in their arms, stopped the bleeding, called a cab, took him to a local public house, and stayed with him all night. The next morning, they gave the landlord £100. ‘Look after him,’ they said. ‘Call a chemist and get some bandages, Savlon, and Ibuprofen. We’ll be back in a few days and reimburse you for any extra expense.’ Now,” concluded Jesus, “who were the good guys?”
The youngster was nonplussed. “The ‘good guys’? What’s that got to do with getting eternal life?”
“I’ll get to that,” Jesus replied. “But first, answer my question.”
“Well, the minister and the priest – what denominations were they?”
“Who cares?” said Jesus.
“And were they born again?”
“Does it matter?” asked Jesus
“And those two other guys – are you sure they weren’t gay?”
“And if they were?” said Jesus.
“And why didn’t they call 999 for the cops and the paramedics?” the youngster continued his third degree. “Had they been drinking? Were they on drugs? They sound like foreigners. Were they migrants, even illegals?”
“What is this, a sketch from Life of Brian?” suggested Jesus.
“And the man who was mugged – where was he going, what was he doing? It all sounds very suspicious to me.”
“I …” began Jesus, quite flabbergasted.
“And …” interrupted the youngster.
“Look,” counter-interrupted Jesus, “Leviticus and Deuteronomy don’t have the last word on defining ‘neighbour’, and eternal life isn’t a matter of your church, theology, or religious experience, nor do you ‘get’ it, you live it, starting now, with simple human decency: being truthful and thoughtful, kind and generous, acting justly, practicing mercy – and not just to your own, to fellow citizens and co-religionists, but to anyone in need, especially strangers, whatever their ethnicity, faith, or sexuality. If they’re hurting, they’re your neighbour, and if you help them, you’re their neighbour. We are called to help even those who hate us, and one day you might find someone you hate helping you. Eternal life is another life, but it’s hidden in this life.”
“Well,” harrumphed the youngster, “I’ve heard enough. You’ve said nothing about getting saved. You’re clearly unsound.” But feeling sorry for Jesus, he added, “I’ll pray for you.” Then he handed Jesus a leaflet and started to walk away.
Suddenly, however, he stopped, as if struck by lightning. But the sky was blue, though a cottony cumulus cloud had just passed the sun, which winked, flashed, then glowed benignly, like a huge egg yolk, on the two people below. The young man turned around: “I’ll think about what you said.”
Jesus waved and picked up his fishing rod.