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.