July 10, 2016
A Man is beaten and robbed and left for dead on the side of the road. Two clergymen, a priest and a levite supposed holy men, pass by on the other side. They didn’t want to get involved for some reason; we are not told why. The main point is the Samaritan, a stranger, a man from far away country is the one who helped him and had compassion. This Samaritan showed us what love looks like.
A lot of times, this parable is the one teaching from scripture that everyone knows. Most everyone can tell the story of the Good Samaritan. Many people have come to the place where they believe that this is actually a representation of the central teaching of Christianity. If you can be like the Samaritan, if you can love completely, then you can be considered a Christian. But for people who think like this, the elephant in the room is this: “can I do it?” “Can I love?” “Can I love completely?” and “How will I make up for all those times that I was more like the priest or Levite?”
While people can readily recall the parable of the Good Samaritan, they do not so often recall the context in which Jesus spoke it. But you can’t really understand this parable apart from it’s context. Remember, it all started with the man who came up to Jesus and said “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” “What must I do?,” he asked. Immediately, whenever I hear anyone talking like this my head is flushed with scripture passages like “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved!” (Acts 16:30) and “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him shall have eternal life.” And I want to stay, “ It’s not about what you do buddy, It’s about what Jesus did for you and you believing he did it for you.” That’s what I’d say.
But Jesus didn’t say, what I would say. He didn’t say, “Hey, I”m the Messiah, I’m the son of God, I’m going to go to the cross and die for you sins. If you believe in me, you will have eternal life.” He didn’t say that even though that is what he clearly taught about the way of salvation. Why would he withhold this important truth from this man on this day? It’ has to do with picking the right moment actually. People build up all manner of defenses and false beliefs that need to be busted up before they can even begin to hear truth about the Savior who died for them. This guy standing in from to Jesus was a highly schooled fellow. A lot of prep work would need to be done if ever he was going to be ready to hear the truth. Remember the text says that this lawyer stood up to “put Jesus to the test.” We’ve seen this testing before with the pharisees and teachers of the law. They were always testing Jesus with the aim of embarrassing him. This man who stood before Jesus was no truth seeker. He was not desperately wanting to know the way to eternal life. He was a shrewd lawyer who wanted to play.
“What must I do to inherit eternal life!” he was asked. And Jesus, recognizing his intent, played along and said, “Well, Mr. Lawyer, what does the law say?” The man replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart all your soul and with all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” “Good Job!” said Jesus, “Do this and you will live.” When we hear this we are shocked. How could Jesus, who in other instances told people he was the “way the truth and the life” and that “whoever believes in me will live even though he dies,” now point this man in the other direction? Well, he who thought he was testing Jesus was now being tested by Jesus!
Suddenly all the fun has gone out of it for the Lawyer. He doesn’t want to play anymore. Jesus made it personal. The Law is doing what the Law does. It accuses. The text says he began trying to “justify himself.” That’s what inevitably happens to anybody who tries to find salvation by following the law. They find ways to decrease it’s strength. They say things like “I tried to be a good person!” But law doesn’t say “try to do it,” it says, “do it!” Or maybe they try to cover their past sins by balancing them out with good. In their mind their thinking “Yeah, I’ve done bad things, but I’ve done more good things, therefore I’m acceptable to God. But the law of God says nothing about some balancing game, it says, “be perfect!”
And this guy standing before Jesus was trying to relieve himself from the pressure of the Law by paring down the meaning of the word neighbor. He wants to narrow down neighbor to include only his close personal friends or if he imagined he was especially big hearted maybe all the people in his town. He says to Jesus “And who is my neighbor?”
Jesus counters his attempt to redefine neighbor with the story of the Good Samaritan: a story about a guy from a far away place who spoke a different language, had a different religion, and didn’t even know the man who had been robbed. Jesus was effectively saying “Your neighbor is anybody who might need your help.” “Neighbor” is not some nebulous legal concept that is up for debate, it’s a flesh and blood person to be served by you. You cannot define your neighbor in advance, you can only be a neighbor when the moment for mercy arrives.
When you ask Jesus a law question. You’re going to get a law answer. “What must I do?” “You must love perfectly?” “Who am I to love?” “God and everybody else?” “Does that include foreigners, strangers, enemies?” Yep. Jesus then asked the man which character in the the parable was a neighbor to the man. And with his own mouth the lawyer said, “The one who had mercy.” And Jesus replied, “Go and do likewise.”
We always expect the instantaneous conversion. We expect the teaching Jesus to be so powerful that people instantly change and never look back. That is not always the case. A lot of times an inner struggle must take place, idols must be torn down, false hopes, destroyed. any idea that you can save yourself must be called out and cleansed. This can take months and years or even a lifetime for someone. This guy needed to stew for awhile; needed to be honest with himself; needed to despair of his own ability to make himself right with God.
Obviously, if we are going to inherit eternal life we will not be able to do the things to earn it for ourselves. Something more, something other than ourselves is needed. Well, Something more is given in Jesus Christ. He became our neighbor in his Son Jesus. We were that man on the side of the road, broken, bloody, beaten and dead in our sin. Jesus had compassion. Pouring his forgiveness on our wounds. He brought us to the inn, that is his church, were he continually provides for our care through word and sacrament. If ever there were a good neighbor, it was Jesus, who laid down his own life to save us. He is the something more that is needed. We cannot save ourselves. We cannot justify ourselves. Jesus justifies us. He cancels the sin of our lives by his death on the cross for us. We are declared just and righteous in the sight of God because our sins have been taken away to the cross. Jesus would say, “Whoever believes and is baptized shall be saved.” Our failure to love is forgiven.
Who is your neighbor” Anyone who needs you, anyone the Lord has put in your path to serve. What must you do to inherit eternal life? Nothing. It’s an inheritance. Looking at from this side, makes the man’s question sound kind of silly. You inherit by being born into the family and remaining in the good graces of the one who is passing out the goods. You were born into the family of God by your baptism. You are in the Father’s good graces, not by what you have done, but by what his beloved son has done for you and you now receive by faith.
Does that mean that we forget the law completely? Of course not. The Law still has an important place. Since our sins are covered by Jesus, the law no longer convicts or crushes us with guilt, instead it instructs us on how to be neighbors. A person who knows he is saved by grace through faith doesn’t see the wounded man on the side of the road as an opportunity to achieve righteousness before God. We don’t love God and man out of some tortured and twisted attempt at justifying ourselves. We already are justified, in Christ. The wounded man on the side of the road is an opportunity to do what God has done for us: to show mercy. And there’s a part of us, a growing part of us in Christ that actually wants to show mercy. We want to help; we want to love; we want to change. That’s because we we gave been loved. AMEN