This morning a lawyer stands up to test Jesus: “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Which is another way of asking, “How can I be saved? How can I go to heaven?” Our Lord directs this lawyer back to the Word, saying, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” That is, what’s the Bible say about this? And that lawyer was apparently a very good catechism student, because he’s got the answer: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength, and with all your mind, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” He nails it. The lawyer has the perfect answer. He’s got the first table of the Law – love God with everything you’ve got – that’s commandments one through three. And love your neighbor also with everything you’ve got – that’s commandments four through ten. The first and second table of the Law – all right there.
Put more simply yet, it’s this. Love God with everything you’ve got – and love your neighbor as yourself. Go ahead and do this and you’ll live.
Sounds simple enough!
But what gets me is that little word ALL. Because I confess to you I’m really good at loving God with some of my heart, some of my soul, some strength, etc., but loving God with my all, ALL my heart, ALL my soul, ALL my strength, and ALL my mind. No way! Not even close.
And then the second part: Love your neighbor as yourself. Or maybe put another way, love your neighbor in place of yourself. Love your neighbor with a perfect sacrificial self-giving love.
Interestingly enough, this is where the lawyer goes looking for a loophole, thinking he can somehow stand before God by his own merit. His solution to Jesus’ words, “Do this, and you will live,” is to find loopholes, argue, and redefine the terms until he thinks he has managed to keep God’s law. OK, Jesus, then who exactly is my neighbor? You see, he wants his world to become so small, it winds up being just himself. Jesus knows what’s behind it all.
This is when Jesus gets to the Parable of the Good Samaritan. But before we go there, I’d like to take a short detour to our first reading this morning, and give that a little attention. It comes from Second Chronicles. Do you remember the nation of Israel, split between the northern kingdom and the southern kingdom? They went to war. And the Israelites, the northern kingdom beat up on their brothers, the Judeans, the southern kingdom, pretty well. They had a stunning military victory. And they marched off with the spoils of war. That included, by the way, 200,000 of their distant relatives, women, sons, and daughters. They intended to make slaves of them. So an old prophet named Oded boldly marched out to meet them. And he preached to them: “Wait a minute,you’re going to subjugate and enslave these poor people? How about your own sins? Do you not fear God and His wrath?
Well, this appears to be one of the few times where the chief and princes actually listened to the prophets. And they did something merciful. They clothed those prisoners who were naked. Fed them, cared for them, and provided for all their needs. They showed them mercy. Mercy to their enemies. And brought them back to their own people at Jericho, did something totally unexpected, and set them free. Then they also marched back to their own territory in Samaria.
So today it makes perfect sense that we have the Parable of the Good Samaritan in our Gospel. You’ve heard this parable. A man is overcome by robbers and beaten to a pulp on the side of the road. Left for dead. Beaten and bloody and totally helpless. The priest and Levite both pass by. After all, if they get too close they become ritually unclean. They show no mercy. But the enemy, the Samaritan, seeing that poor beaten man, showed compassion.
He got down on his hands and knees to help this poor man. He bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine to cauterize and heal. The Samaritan set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and continued to care for him and nurse him to health.
He told the innkeeper that he would pick up the tab, and promised to return. You see, this is no small token gesture of kindness, this Samaritan guy is in it for the long hall, keeping vigil with this man through thick and thin.
The lawyer had asked, Who is my neighbor? Now after Jesus tells this parable He twists the question around, and instead asks, “Which of these three, the priest, the Levite, or the Samaritan proved to be a neighbor to this poor man?” The lawyer understood, “Well, the Samaritan, of course, the one who showed him mercy.” You got it. Now “you go and do likewise!”
Now this is very important. “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life” hinges not on what must I do, but instead, “who is the one who showed mercy?” And one who shows mercy to fallen man can only be Christ.
You see, there is only one who has loved God with all His heart, all of His soul, all His strength. And it’s not you. Not I either. There is only one who loved His neighbor with a perfect, sacrificial love, being willing even to journey into hostile enemy territory behind enemy lines to rescue and save sinful man.
That’s what He did when he came down to earth for us in the flesh of His Son. That’s what He did when He rode into Jerusalem to love God with His all by obeying His Father’s will. And unlike the priest and Levite, He wasn’t afraid to come near you in your sad state. But rendered Himself unclean, bearing the sins and sicknesses of all fallen humanity into His own innocent flesh.
He allowed Himself to be nailed to the cross, laying down His life for His neighbor in perfect sacrificial, self-giving love – and triumphing over it all in His resurrection.
Consider the Parable of the Good Samaritan. For have not those same robbers beaten us and left us for death? Sin, death, and the devil have pummeled us, mangled us – left us helpless, beaten, and condemned to death. You see, we are the ones so desperately in need of mercy. The protagonist in Jesus’ parable is not intended to be us – it’s Him – it’s always Him.
Where do you see yourself in this parable? Because if you are naked and wounded before God, then you will want that Samaritan to be your neighbor and to stick close to you. You see, Jesus the Nazarene was brought up in Nazareth, which is in Samaria. Jesus, our Good Samaritan, has come to us, who, stripped of our clothing, were naked and ashamed, unable to stand before God. The priest and Levite who walk on by – they represent the law, but the law can’t save. Never could! But Christ does. He had compassion, and bandaged our wounds in His mercy. He poured on oil and wine, that is, washed us in Holy Baptism, and poured the wine of His holy blood into us in the blessed Sacrament of the Altar.
What’s more, He has brought us into the inn, the hospital of His church, where He charges the innkeeper, the pastor, saying, “Take care of him, for I’m coming again.”
He gives two denarii for two days, because Christ will be raised up on the third. And He will come again on the Last Day to bring ultimate healing in the consummation of this age and the life of the world to come.
We don’t know the faith of the lawyer from our Gospel today. But the next question might have been, should have been, “How then can I be saved when my works fail me?”
Most certainly not the law, not some standard of ethics or human behavior, no matter how glittering from the outside; it’s never enough.
The answer for eternal life is always in the Good Samaritan. For eternal life we flee to Christ alone, the merciful one. And through faith in Him, we learn ourselves to be merciful, even as our father in heaven is merciful. In the name of Jesus. Amen.
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