Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity

Readings: Proverbs 4:10-23 | Galatians 5:16-24 | Luke 17:11-19

Text: Luke 17:11-19

A young man I know who just turned five said the other day, “We don’t give anything to God.  He gives everything to us.”  This warmed my Lutheran pastor heart to hear!  Out of the mouth of babes you have prepared praise!   Already wiser than Pelagius, Erasmus of Rotterdam, and John Wesley.   And this is true, when we are talking about repentance and justification.  As our Lord put it so succinctly, “Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God…unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3-5).

But to say that we don’t give God anything isn’t actually the case.   We actually do give God things, and this account in the Gospel demonstrates that.

A couple misconceptions should be cleared up first.  First of all, none of us can repay God for what He gives us.  Jesus, at the Pharisee’s house in Luke 14:12-14 says, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” This is to magnify what God has done to for us—that for which we can never repay Him!

The second is a point which Martin Luther made in His 1535 Galatians commentary.  It’s often paraphrased, “God doesn’t need our good works, but our neighbor does.”[1]  Unlike the manmade religions that our sinful minds concoct, there is nothing we can offer to God.

Now, to what we do give to God.  This is something which you’re already familiar with.  Martin Luther wisely expressed this in the explanation to the First Article of the Creed.  After a fairly exhaustive list of all the good gifts from our Heavenly Father, the Catechism concludes: “…for all this, it is my duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him.”

The Samaritan leper exemplified this.  His response went above and beyond the Law (just like we heard last week).  If the two Gospel lessons are considered together, we can take home the message that our works of the Law can never promise favor with God and eternal life—only faith in the mercy shown in Jesus Christ can do that.  Then, recognizing the saving work God’s Son rightly breaks out in thanksgiving and praise!

Here are ten men who are cast out by the Law, excluded because of their sinful condition (not that we typically think of that aspect of diseases nowadays).  By faith, they cry out to Jesus for Him to heal them.  And the faith of all ten results in their healing.

But the faith of the Samaritan is more fully formed than the other nine.  This phrase was misapplied during the Reformation: “a faith formed in love” (see Apology, IV 100).  This was the papists’ way of saying that faith alone doesn’t save, but there also had to be love for the faith to save. But that’s clearly not the case, since all ten were healed, and the Lord at the end says, “Your faith has saved you.”  But the Samaritan is held up by Jesus to show a faith that has deeper roots, that is bearing fruit in acknowledging just how much the Lord has done.

So back to Luther’s explanation: “…for all this, it is my duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him.” This man does give something to God-in-the-flesh: Thanksgiving from a renewed heart that recognizes the undeserved goodness that He has received through the hands and mouth of Jesus.  It’s more than the polite manners our parents taught, that we should say thank you when we get a gift.  This goes back to the heart of how we were created to be in fellowship with God.  Thanksgiving is the natural response to realizing what generous and loving gifts God showers us with!

Think about how He has created you in all that wonder, how He daily provides for you even in perplexing times, how He protects you from danger, all that He has done so that He receives you as His child forever through the blood of Christ!  If the thanksgiving doesn’t just gush out, then perhaps the faith needs some increase.

What also flows from faith is the praise of God: “Hallelujah!” as the Psalms so often teach us to say. That is, when we realize what great gifts the Lord has given, it overflows into our lives.    Teaching our children to thank God, acknowledging our failures and rejoicing that the Lord forgives and heals us, wearing our faith on our sleeve (so to speak) or around our neck, and being ready to share with others why that cross is so beautiful.

A thriving faith also wants to serve God.  Think about another man whom the Lord healed, who had a legion of demons possessing and tormenting him.  The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him, but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” And he went away, proclaiming throughout the whole city how much Jesus had done for him.” (Luke 8:38-39) He naturally wanted to serve the Lord who had freed him from the demons and restored him to sane humanity.  So, Jesus sent him back to his home as a witness.

Our faith will likewise lead us to ask, “How can I serve the Lord?”  Rarely does this mean, pack up and go to the seminary or enroll in a church worker program (but obviously for some it does).  Rather, as Luther alluded to, we most often serve God by serving our neighbor.  Think about your vocations, the relationships God has given you and go and do that in His Name.  Listen to how St. Paul describes this as he speaks to the vocation of slaves:

22 Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. 23 Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, 24 knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.” (Col. 3:22-24)

Imagine that! Their serving the Lord looked like being good slaves, because their faith taught them that while immediately, they were serving their master, but by faith they were in fact serving the Lord Christ!

Serving the Lord is also lived in light of the Judgement on the Last Day.  Remember, this is a judgment that is determined by faith, but consider how that faith is to be lived out:

37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’” (Matt. 25:37-40)

And finally faith renders obedience to God.  The Lord says, “Blessed…are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” and His instructions to the Church say, “teaching them to observe (keep) all that I have commanded you.” (Luke 11:28; Matt. 28:20)  That word “keep” is more than just “you told me to,” but a joyful and willing obedience. Faith treasures the Word of our Creator, our Savior, by which the Holy Spirit has wakened us and renewed us. 

So, to obey God is to strive to live your days doing what is pleasing to Him.  Your body is yours from God, so use it as a thankful steward and care for it as best you can.  Your income is a gift from God, so designate a portion of your income to support the Gospel.  Your spouse and children are gifts from God, so love your neighbor right in front of you.  Confess and do not deny Christ before men, and He will confess you before the Father in heaven.

Your faith has saved you, and now let the Holy Spirit work on you to renew your whole life as an offering to God and in service to your neighbor, and in the end inherit eternal life.  In the Name + of Jesus. Amen.

[1] Original quote: “Thus a man is a Christian in a total sense: inwardly through faith in the sight of God, who does not need our works; outwardly in the sight of men, who do not derive any benefit from faith but do derive benefit from works or from our love.” (Commentary on Galatians 5:6; LW 27:30)

Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity

Readings: 2 Chronicles 28:8–15 | Galatians 3:15–22 | Luke 10:23-37

Text: Luke 10:23-37

It may surprise you that Martin Luther did not invent the question, “What does this mean?”  Teaching the faith by asking questions is as old the Exodus, “And when in time to come your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall say to him, ‘By a strong hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery.” (Exodus 13:14)

That’s the pattern which the Israelites continued to use (which is still preserved to this day in the Passover Seder).  Asking questions is what Jesus was doing in the Temple at 12 years old (Luke 2:46) and in His ministry, He was often met with questions.

Now, this parable of the Good Samaritan usually gets the take-away, “If you want to be saved, be good like the Samaritan.”  But that horribly misses the point, and even preaches the opposite of what our Lord is saying.  To sort this out, we’re going to be like good Lutheran and Jewish learners and follow the questions and their answers.

Jesus has told His disciples that they are seeing what the prophets and kings of old have longed to see and hear, but were not able.  They are witnesses to the fulfillment of what God had begun doing since the Creation and sin and death coming into the world.  Now, they had front-row seats.  We, too, on this side of Pentecost, have even better seats, and from this vantage, Jesus will teach us by conversation:

“Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” This man is asking life’s biggest question: When all of life is said and done, how can I be sure of God’s favor and an eternal home?  This lawyer may have been asking it to put Jesus to the test, but it’s actually a fundamental question for him.  He’s dedicated his life to Torah; he’s a teacher of Israel [see John 3:9]. Not only his career, but also his hope as a son of Israel depends on having the right answer.

“What must I do to be saved?”  It’s been asked in various ways down to our own day.  I was once asked in college by another student, “If you died tonight, would you go to heaven?”  It was meant to get me, a 19-year-old, thinking beyond homework, my job, and girls.  At that time, I decided that, while the question was important, I wasn’t ready to answer it.

Saving that question for the end of life is what most people do.  Sparked by a funeral of someone close, or a grave diagnosis, that’s when it’s time to cancel your recreation and get serious about facing this God question.

To answer this question, we tend to take an approach like winning something at a silent auction: Here’s my bid. I hope it’s good enough.  We tell ourselves, I’ve lived a pretty good life, held a job, raised a family, loved my children, made a positive impact in the world.  That’s good enough, isn’t it?

Well, instead of just giving this student of the Law exactly the answer he’s expecting, the Lord asks him a question:

“What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” Jesus points him to something he knows very well: the Law of Moses (that’s why he’s called a lawyer).  What has God given in the Law?  How do you read it, is like asking a pastor, What do you teach in Bible study?  It has the sense, “How do you read it publicly in the congregation?”Effectively, Jesus is asking him something he knows by heart.  It’s part of the Shema, or the Israelite creed from Deuteronomy 6.  To this, Jesus then says:

“You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” This is what the Law of Moses says, isn’t it?  “You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the Lord.” (Lev. 18:5). There’s the answer in black and white. 

But that answer doesn’t satisfy this man’s conscience.  “Do this, and you will live” directs him back to his own performance. So, you preach that, but can you do it?  Why does it give you no assurance?

God made it very clear what must be done to live.  So, examine yourself to see if you can be assured of eternal life: Love God with…All your heart? All your soul?  All your strength?  All your mind?  Is your every waking moment devoted to God, so that you can say you’ve never thought or done evil?  Even the Psalmist, King David, prayed, “Enter not into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you.” (Ps. 143:2)

How are you doing on loving your neighbor as yourself?  Exodus and Deuteronomy made it pretty clear how demanding loving your neighbor was.  Have you never, even in childhood, despised or angered your parents? Never hated your brother so that you wished he wasn’t around?  Never glanced a fantasy about one who was not your spouse? Always acted to defend your neighbor from losing his property? Not only refrained from slander, but defended your neighbor against unjust judgement? And have you never, ever, not even once, been envious of another?

The lawyer has painted himself into a corner.  He came to Jesus asking what one must do to inherit eternal life, expecting an answer that involves his success at doing the perfect Law of God.

Everyone understands this, even if they don’t give credit to God for the Law.  At the end of this life, there is a judgment for all people—whether you think that it’s in the eyes of others or in the eyes of a higher being, the sum total of your life ought to be more than null.  Famously, this is behind the system of karma, which purports to determine your status in the “next life” based on the good you did in this life.  It’s also this certainty of judgment but uncertainty in one’s merits that drives Islamic terrorists to sacrifice their own life, because they’re promised this is great proof of you fighting in the cause of Allah.

But if you prefer to avoid the concept of the divine there’s always “the judgment of history” and the opinions of others.  They will credit you for raising up minority voices, giving power to the disenfranchised, treating the planet with respect.

For all things there must be some justification.  That’s a technical word for, How do you make up for those you hurt, those you failed to help, the natural resources you wasted, and how you fell short of the judgment—whether it was from other people or from God?  That’s where the lawyer finds himself, when he asks, “And who is my neighbor?”

This is when we hear people say, “Nobody’s perfect; Who is God to demand so much?; Let’s relax some commands, because God would understand.”  Even, “God helps those who help themselves” is a way of saying, they weren’t really worth helping.  This we do to absolve ourselves with a gospel of excuses.

So, the Lord Jesus tells this Parable:

“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. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. 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. 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.’” (vv. 30-35)

The lawyer would revere the priest and the Levite for their adherence to the Law, but the Samaritan would be the villain of the story.  The priest and the Levite had godly excuses: I have to stay clean to perform my duty to God.  After all, the Law tells us not to associate with the dead, so it’s only out of faithfulness to God that we steer clear of the man in the ditch.

But who is this Samaritan?  He comes as the despised outsider, and sees to the man in his need.  At his own expense, he is encumbered with the man’s condition.  It doesn’t matter what the man did which got him into this situation.  Although this man in the ditch is a stranger, the Samaritan comes and loves him truly.  He cares for him in sickness, brings him to a place of safety.  He pays what is required: two denarii equals two days stay, implying that He will return on the third day.

“Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?”

With such hints as this, Jesus is demonstrating that He is the Samaritan.  The Law could bring us no assurance, no peace, because it demands of people what they cannot give: perfect obedience unto life.  The generations before Christ longed to see and hear these things and were not able.  But in Christ, there is a Man who has done the Law perfectly.  There is a Man who has redeemed us from our weakness and failure.  He has taken the just accusation against us and made it His own. He has borne the cost, written the check that pays the debt you and I incurred.

This is the Gospel of the Lord, and it is the only message which has the power to save.  No Law, whether from God or man, can give life to those who are born in sin.  Our Confessions explain,

“Paul says (Rom. 4:15), “The law brings wrath.” He does not say that by the law men merit the forgiveness of sins. For the law always accuses and terrifies consciences. It does not justify, because a conscience terrified by the law flees before God’s judgment.” (Ap. IV 38)

Lex semper accusat: The Law always accuses.  Christ is telling this man that the Law will not give him the eternal life he seeks, unless he seeks his hope in the Samaritan, God’s own Son, despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief (Isa. 53).

Jesus asked these questions to lead him to the conclusion: If you want eternal life, you won’t get it by your effort.  God will find you dead in sin, and He will do what is required.  He will be your righteousness, your justification, and so He will be your peace.

Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”
And that is the true fulfillment of the Law.  It was never meant to bring us to God: “For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.” (Gal. 3:21-22). Salvation and eternal life are off the table when it has to do with our works.  They are to be a gift, given in Christ.

Nevertheless, there is the receipt of this mercy! Consider how God has received you when you had nothing to offer him, only filthy rags (Isa. 64:6).  He had mercy on you, even in your disobedience, and saved you from death, wrath, and the eternal agony of hell.

Out of that mercy received, flows the mercy that sees others in the same dreadful condition.  It’s more than just a medical situation, but a spiritual one.  “Go and do likewise” isn’t a more demanding calling of the Law, but an outgrowth of the Gospel.  You have received love so boundless that it must flow to others—a love which sacrifices, which doesn’t count a person’s worthiness against them, which is free to give generously as God has richly blessed you with the storehouse of heaven in Christ.

This is the mercy which God has showered upon you, so see Him as your Samaritan, your Savior.  In Him alone do you have eternal life.  Now go to your life with that mercy, and freely give as it has been freely given to you. In the Name + of Jesus. Amen.

Twelfth Sunday after Trinity

Readings: Isaiah 29:17–24 | 2 Corinthians 3:4-11 | Mark 7:31-37

Text: Mark 7:31-37

How are you doing? How have you been feeling?  This is how we greet people we care about.  But how do we answer this question?  We probably have an ideal that we’d judge by, kind of like if a medical professional told us, on a scale of 1 to 10, where you do you think you are?  So, what is the ideal? The 10?  Is that finally overcoming cancer or being pain-free?  How about paying off the credit card?  Is it having a healthy frame and a sound mind?

This ideal is what we arrive at from our own experience, and what we’ve been told by others we should expect.  But God would have us look for more.  In this section of Mark’s Gospel (as I mentioned on the last Sunday in July (Trinity 7)), the Holy Spirit is demonstrating Jesus to be the King of Creation, come to restore—to overcome the evil powers which oppress it, to free those in bondage to decay, and to properly rule as God over His people.  This particular healing takes place in a Gentile area—“the region of Tyre and went through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis.”  Pagan influences abound, and that’s important to keep in mind as we see what happens there:

32 And they brought to him a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment, and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33 And taking him aside from the crowd privately, he put his fingers into his ears, and after spitting touched his tongue. 34 And looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35 And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.

Here is a man who’s bondage to the decay of this world shows up in ears that cannot do what they were made to do—hear.  More than that (and perhaps related), his tongue isn’t able to properly do what the mouth is for.  The exhortation at the end of the Psalms shows this: “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!” (Ps. 150:6)  This goes beyond the borders of Israel, because this world’s decay is worldwide.  In mercy, the Lord has also come to this man.

The Lord, recall who formed this man in his mother’s womb (Ps. 139), now takes him anew to set right what sin and death had corrupted.  The Lord Jesus put his fingers into the man’s ears, touched his tongue with His spit, and the Son of God looked up to heaven from where all good comes, and commanded this divine creative word (in plain human language): Ephatha, that is, “Be opened.”

When God set out to redeem this world, He did it by the very place through which corruption had come into the world: mankind.  Like we confess weekly in the Creed, “For us men, and for our salvation, He came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, and was made man” (Nicene Creed).  And in His holy body, Jesus touched this man’s ears that He might take deafness on Himself.  By the water of His saliva and at His Word, He touched the man’s tongue to restore his ability to speak.”  And, “Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness.” (Ps. 51:14)

And once the man was healed, it resulted in his praise, but also that of the crowd:

36 And Jesus charged them to tell no one. But the more he charged them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37 And they were astonished beyond measure, saying, “He has done all things well. He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”

This charge not to tell others about the healings is often given by Jesus.  It means nothing more than that the Lord did not want the healing to be seen in isolation, a personal miracle for one victim of sin, another there.  (If so, the “Healed by Jesus” club would be pretty small and eventually die out!)  All of His mighty works were aimed forward toward His cross and resurrection, where He gained for us a healing that is far more expansive than repairing this jalopy of a body we now know.

This is where we must look into the greater salvific meaning behind this healing.  This isn’t to allegorize and thereby diminish the miracle which Jesus did, but to show that it means so much more than “Jesus healed this man; He will heal your body too.”

And this salvific meaning is all over the Scriptures, especially highlighted by the inspired poetry of the Psalms and Prophets.  One such example is the Old Testament lesson,

17Is it not yet a very little while until Lebanon shall be turned into a fruitful field, and the fruitful field shall be regarded as a forest? 18In that day the deaf shall hear the words of a book, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see…23For when he sees his children, the work of my hands, in his midst, they will sanctify my name; they will sanctify the Holy One of Jacob and will stand in awe of the God of Israel. 24And those who go astray in spirit will come to understanding, and those who murmur will accept instruction.”” (Isaiah 29:17-18, 23–24)

It’s not just the deafness that audiologists treat, but the deafness to God’s Word of sin which silences the voice of the Creator in the hearts of His human creatures.  That takes a far greater restoration, which will be demonstrated in the days of Messiah.  This is what the Lord is demonstrating here in Mark 7.  And this hearing of the words of a book—the Word of God—sets right what was crooked.  In ears that did not hear the Word of God, hearts that were indifferent both to the call to turn from wickedness and slow to trust in the Lord as Savior, the Word has done its work: “They will sanctify My Name…and stand in awe of the God of Israel.”  Even those who go astray will come to understanding and those who murmur will be catechized.

And this transformation St. Paul marvels at in the Epistle, when he discusses the veil that is over those hearers of Moses.  The very Words of the Book of the Law are read in their hearing, but a covering is over their hearts.  Though they have the powerful Word of God in their midst, that by itself isn’t enough to accomplish the renewal.  Christ and His Holy Spirit must be added, or all is in vain.  That is its own reaching of Christ into our ears to open them to rightly hear, and Him touching our tongue to declare His praise. “O Lord, open my lips; and my mouth will declare Your praise.” (Ps. 51:15)

Something also to note about this spiritual restoration is that it does not first take place in the body.  It takes place in the soul—where the hearing in faith is, of keeping the Name of God holy, of melting the opposition to God’s instruction.  And that is where God is most concerned, because “man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” (1 Sam. 16:7)  This is why faith-healers are hacks, because they confuse this.  They say God gives sudden bodily healing, but then if the healing doesn’t “work,” they blame the person’s insufficient faith.

Christ has come to reverse the course of the world as we experience it.  When we are asked about how we are doing, we usually answer according to our earthly conditions, those things which are subject to chance and change.  Our God, however, is working salvation on our hearts, the inner life of the soul, with the promise that the physical will follow—perhaps here in time, but for certain in the resurrection.

This healing begins on the soul, but it, mysteriously, it takes place here in our bodies.  This is why the Lord chose to deliver this healing in Baptism.  With water made holy in accord with His saving Word, He does all things well.  Water washes the body, but it purifies the soul (1 Pet. 3:21-22).  The old, dying flesh is touched by water infused with the words and promises of God.  “I baptize you in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” [Matt. 28:19]  This washing, because it has the Word of Jesus, is effective at what it does:

”he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3:5-7)

Ears restored to hear the Word of God, tongues loosed to sing of His salvation, hearts that submit to His rebuke and accept His instruction.  These mighty works and more He accomplishes in Holy Baptism.  The mighty Lord of Creation came to declare His victory over the devil and the breaking of the unchallenged rule of sin and death.  He has come into your life with this same mighty Word, to rescue and restore you from all that His enemies have done to you.  He has sent His Spirit to you, who opens your ears, who looses your tongue to sing His praise.

So, ponder how the Lord has healed you by your Baptism in His Name.  See how He continues to heal you from your soul outward.  In this present life, you and I know the weakness of our bodies, the smallness of our faith.  But there is peace for us in the life-giving Words of Jesus.  Our faith is renewed by hearing His Word [Rom. 10:17]; our bodies and souls are fed by His Body and Blood for us with His authoritative word: “for the forgiveness of [your] sins.”  He who speaks to us is truly God and truly faithful [1 Thess. 5:24].

His praise will ring out from you not just here, but before the nations, before those who are disobedient, who murmur against God, for He is able to reach them and save them, too.  Alleluia! Praise the Lord!  In the Name + of Jesus. Amen.