For this week’s bulletin, click here: Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Then he turned to his disciples and said privately, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see. 24 For I tell you that many prophets and kings wanted to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.”
25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
27 He answered: “‘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, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
— St. Luke 10.23-37
Sometimes why someone asks a question is as interesting or tells you as much as what they ask. Our Gospel for today is an example. Why the law expert asks his question is more interesting than what he asks. He already knows the answer, and he had from his youth up. It had been drummed into him in Jewish catechism class. He could fire the answer back as soon as the question was asked: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your strength, and all your mind.
What’s interesting is why he asks, if he already knows. In some fashion, the answer he already knew so well is incomplete and lacking. He can sense this, and he doesn’t know why. He feels like there should be more to the answer than this, but this is all he knows. Like most people who are confronted with a vitally important question that they feel unequipped to answer, the law expert gets irritated. That happens to us too. We don’t like it when we’re put on the spot, but we don’t know enough to give a good answer – and yet answer we must.
So this law expert challenges Christ the Teacher, and when Jesus points out to him that he already knows the answer, he feels compelled to ask for an interpretation – as if the point were subtle or complicated. It’s not, but he feels like he has to prove himself right – before the crowd of people listening, to Jesus, and ultimately to God in heaven.
All this man knew was the law. That was even his title – lawyer, expert in God’s law. That was his area of expertise. It was all he knew. It was all he was able to do. God’s law says, “Do this and live” – be perfect, love God with everything you’ve got, love your neighbor perfectly at all times, and you’ll be saved. Pretty simple, pretty straightforward, but impossible to do, because we’re all sinful.
Notice that Jesus doesn’t help the law expert resolve his issue, either. The story Jesus tells only makes things worse. The point of Jesus’ story is that everybody is your neighbor – even the people you avoid talking to because you don’t get along, even mean people; yes, even your spouse to whom God says you owe love and service, or your spouse whose actions are so unfathomably backwards and just plain dumb that you get so disgusted you can’t even stand it. Even those people – and many more, all people, in fact – are your neighbors.
The idea of loving our neighbors is nothing new. We’ve known this for a long time. Yet when it comes to actually helping our neighbor – to getting involved to defend someone’s reputation, even when they don’t go out of their own way to help their case, or to do for someone else what they can’t do for themselves, or noticing our neighbor’s need for encouragement or comfort or prayer – we so often don’t help. We skirt around them and pass by on the other side of the road. We don’t get involved for someone else’s good. Why don’t we help others more?
Because on our own, we can’t. By nature each of us is beaten up, pummeled, powerless, and as helpless as the victim of a car accident. Imagine you’re driving down the road in the dark during the wintertime, and you hit a patch of ice. Your car spins, and then it starts to roll. Finally you’re thrown out of the car and you land on the frozen road with the snow falling on your face, thirty yards from where your car went into the ditch. If you can imagine your condition at that moment, you’ll have a little bit of an idea of how badly original sin has torn us up and left us for dead. Human nature is not essentially good. It’s not even neutral. Human nature, on its own, is spiritually dead, powerless, and totally unable to help itself in any way – kind of like that man who was jumped by robbers on the way from Jerusalem to Jericho. They thrashed him within a quarter inch of his life, stole everything he had, and then threw him into the ditch and left him for dead.
As that robbery victim was lying by the side of that road through the Judean desert, staring up into the bright blue cloudless sky under a baking sun, all he could think about was himself – how much he hurt, how many of his bones might be broken, how much blood he had lost, if anybody was going to come along and help him. That man’s condition left him helpless, alone, and focused totally on himself – quite naturally, at that point.
Sin has done the same thing to us. Our sinfulness makes us selfish. It’s what makes us relentlessly put ourselves ahead of everybody else. We get so wrapped up and curved in on ourselves that we don’t have time or care for anyone else. Our problems, our happinesses, our triumphs, our defeats –that’s what matters to us because we’re all about us, about ourselves. We pass by on the other side of the road from others, because our sinfulness won’t let us do anything else. We’re in the ditch ourselves, but we act like the priest and the Levite.
That’s because we each were attacked by the devil. The devil stole from us the essential holiness and goodness in which we were created. He stripped us of the righteousness that had originally been ours before the Fall, and there we lay – unable to help ourselves or do anything at all for ourselves. We never really had a chance, when you think about it. After Adam and Eve’s fall into sin, we all fell right along with them. Satan stole the image of God from us when he successfully tempted Adam and Eve, and each of us was born into this world with our souls beaten to death before God by our sinfulness.
The Law – “do this and you will live,” the priest and the Levite – cannot help us. What God’s Law says is true. If you are holy, then you will live forever; the only problem is none of us can do that. God’s Law passes right over us, unkept and untouched – and thus it can’t help us. The message of the Law cannot help us or lift us out of the ditch at all — and anybody who talks as if it can either is fooling themselves or they can’t tell the law from the gospel. (The two often go hand in hand.) Much of mainstream Christianity in America, which is heavily Reformed, likes to talk as if it’s possible to keep God’s law without God’s help; it’s not. The Roman Catholic church, too, has taught something similar for hundreds of years. Their wrong teaching is subtler and harder to catch, because it isolates certain passages of Scripture and relies too much on those, rather than looking at all of Scripture. They teach that we are saved by faith which works through love – that faith is needed, but that you’re also saved by love along with it. Really what that amounts to is a very subtle form of works-righteousness: do this and you will live.
Loving our neighbor is necessary because it shows you have faith, but love doesn’t save us. Faith in Christ is what saves us. (This is why the Lutheran church has always asserted what the Bible teaches, that we are saved by faith in Christ alone, and nothing else.) People nowadays like to talk as if love is the highest good and the unanswerable reason for everything. If it’s done for love, they think, nobody can say anything bad about what we do. Or if we just love those around us enough, then they will be saved. That’s a half-truth at best. All men will know we are Jesus’ disciples by the way we love one another, it’s true, but knowing that fact will not save someone. Only faith does that. If you take faith out of your religion and replace it with love, then you’re right back to following the Law in order to be saved – which doesn’t work.
Brothers and sisters, we cannot save ourselves by loving our neighbor, or by loving God. None of us became a Christian by our own thinking or choosing. We are the ones lying in the ditch. We need a Samaritan: we need Christ.
First, the fact that the victim’s helper is a Samaritan is significant. In fact, this is what gives the whole parable its punch. Samaritans were enemies of the Jews. The Jews considered them half-breeds because at one point in Israel’s history, some Jews had intermarried with the Canaanite people around them when they weren’t supposed to, thus producing the Samaritans. They were mongrels, not truly God’s people, in the eyes of the Jews. It’s interesting that the Samaritans were half of one nation and half of another, just as Christ has both a divine and a human nature. He is both true God and true man. Also, the Samaritans were despised and hated – just as Christ was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering. He was even called a Samaritan by the Jews in John chapter 8, as a slander on His heavenly origins. They implied that His mother was a loose woman. Already in the choice of the “savior” in the parable, we see Jesus portrayed for us.
This good Samaritan does everything for the man he finds by the side of the road, just as Christ has done everything for us. Everything this Samaritan does shows Jesus to us. First He had pity on you. Jesus’ heart went out to you in our ruined and helpless condition. Then He picked you up. He lifted you off the ground, and He hoisted you in God’s loving arms out of that ditch, when nobody else would help you, or could help you. He bandaged and wrapped each and every wound you have: the ones you gave yourself, the ones everybody else around you has given you, as well as the ones that just come with living in a rotten, sinful world. He wraps them all with tender loving care, His nail-marked hands more gentle than anything you’ve ever known. He pours on the healing olive oil and the stinging wine, and you know that He’s using His healing gospel message and His stinging law to cleanse you and heal you. He lifts you up onto His own beast of burden, just as He took our humanity on Himself in order to redeem us, and He knows how weak and hurt we are. He brings you to the inn where He cares for you: the Holy Christian Church. There you can rest and become strong again. There He feeds you with His Body and Blood, to strengthen you to face the rest of your life.
And if that’s not enough, our Samaritan puts down a deposit. He has given the Holy Spirit into our hearts to testify that we really are God’s children, that He has saved us and given us life back in place of sure and certain death. The gift of the Holy Spirit in our hearts assures us that we will always have everything we need from God – in this life and in the next.
The Spirit also gives you faith, so that Jesus’ saying is fulfilled in you: “Blessed are the eyes seeing what you see, for I tell you that many prophets and kings longed to see what you are seeing, and didn’t see it, and to hear what you are hearing and did not hear it.” Men like Isaiah, Micah, Jeremiah, King David, never got to see what you see now, because you Whom you have believed: Jesus Christ, the Righteous One, our Samaritan.
He became the man in the ditch for you, by offering His back to those who beat and flogged Him, and offering His cheeks to those who pulled out His beard. He did not hide His face from mocking and spitting. He let them strip off His clothes in trade for a purple robe. He let them have His dignity and finally His life too, in place of yours. He died on a robber’s cross, hanging among thieves, so that by His wounds you are healed.
Now the Word of God that you live by is not, “Do this and you will live,” but “go and do likewise.” Go and be helpful, kind, a servant and helper to those in need, because Christ has become your salvation. Your Samaritan has shown you how to love your neighbor as yourself: Put others first and consider them better than yourself. Get down in the ditch with the person who’s in need. Be the Samaritan’s hands to lift them up. Tell them what their God has done for them. Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves. Help those who have no helper. Guide and protect those under your care, whether they’re elderly or little. Pray for those who are still in the ditch and can’t see the way out. Everything you spend in helping others, the Samaritan promises to pay back when He returns – and that’s not just financially. You know He’s good for it. The Good Samaritan has had mercy on you. Go and do likewise. Amen.