A Story for Those Who Would Justify Themselves
The Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity| September 2, 2012| St. Luke 10:23-37
Then He turned to His disciples and said privately, “Blessed are the eyes which see the things you see; for I tell you that many prophets and kings have desired to see what you see, and have not seen it, and to hear what you hear, and have not heard it.” And behold, a certain lawyer stood up and tested Him, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What is your reading of it?” So he answered and said, ‘“You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.’” And He said to him, “You have answered rightly; do this and you will live.” But he, wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, “and who is my neighbor?” Then Jesus answered and said: “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a certain priest came down that road, and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite, when he arrived at the place, came and looked, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. So he went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; and he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of Him. On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said to him, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you.’ So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?” And he said, “He who showed mercy on him.” Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” St. Luke 10:23-37
“Blessed are the eyes that see what you see.” So said Jesus to his disciples. Up until God’s appearance in the flesh his people had to be content with shadows and types. But now the fullness of God’s grace appeared before their eyes. Abraham saw Christ prefigured in the ram that he offered on Mt. Moriah instead of his son Isaac. Moses saw Christ typified in the bronze serpent lifted up on a pole, in the manna that rained from heaven, and in the many animal sacrifices featured in the worship of Israel. King David and the prophets saw Christ in their own writings about his suffering and his kingdom.
And now the day had come. God was manifested in the flesh. He who created us in his own image became one of us that he might restore us from sin back to holiness. The joy of the nations, the glory of Israel, the confirmation of God’s faithfulness, the righteousness of sinners appeared. “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see.”
But the lawyer was blind. Oh, he was smart. You have to be smart to be a lawyer. But with all his book learning he was an ignoramus. He missed what the prophets and kings longed for. Standing in front of him was his God and Savior. But he didn’t come to him to worship him, or to be taught by him, or to receive from him the gifts of forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation that only God can give. He came to him to test him.
Man puts God on trial. That’s nothing new. He’s been doing it from the beginning. Indeed, when the devil led Eve to eat the forbidden fruit he did so by getting her to stand in judgment of the God who would presume to deprive humanity of the knowledge of good and evil. On matters of right and wrong man loves to put God to the test. What arrogance! But it is so common as to go unnoticed. The creature talks back to his Creator.
The point on which the lawyer tested Jesus was, as you might expect, a matter of the law. “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Never mind the presumption in thinking that he could do something to inherit eternal life – as if eternal life were earned by our doing rather than freely given by God’s grace – the question was designed to lure Jesus into taking a side on one of the endless and fruitless debates engaged in by Jewish rabbis. Everybody was an expert in his own mind, and the leading rabbis all had their disciples who would parrot their opinions as if they were God’s own voice. No matter which rabbi Jesus agreed with he would find himself trapped in controversy.
But Jesus was no ordinary teacher. He didn’t teach according to the ever evolving tradition of men. He taught according to the unchanging standard of God’s written word. So he directed the lawyer to God’s written word. He asked: “What is written in the law? What is your reading of it?” The “law” was a reference to the writings of Moses, the first five books of the Bible. If you have a theological question, go to where it is written by inspiration of the Holy Ghost.
The lawyer knew what was written. Enmeshed as he was in the nit picking T crossing and I dotting arguments of the rabbis, he still knew what was written:
You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.
That was the right answer. If a law had been given that could have given life, this was it. The lawyer quoted from the writings of Moses recorded in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. He gave the right answer. But providing the right answer is not enough when it comes to the law. The law requires obedience. Saying what it is isn’t enough. Answering the question correctly isn’t enough. When it comes to the law you must do what it says. So Jesus replied to the lawyer, “You have answered rightly; do this and you will live.”
That should have given him pause. But the man wanted to justify himself. That’s the religion of this world. It’s the religion of the fallen, depraved, and inexpressibly sinful human heart. He wanted to justify himself. That desire is the source of every false religion ever invented. He wanted to make himself good enough for God by doing doable things. He assumed in his blindness that that’s what religion was all about. It’s about what you can do to better yourself.
That’s the all American religion. But it’s a false religion. The law is good. It is holy. We are not by nature good or holy. In our fallen condition we do not love God with our whole heart, soul, strength, and mind. The lawyer was blind to this. Did you notice that when Jesus said to him, “Do this, and you will live,” the lawyer did not ask, “Who is God?” He asked, “And who is my neighbor?” He just assumed that he had loved God with all his heart, soul, strength, and mind.
How typical he is! How often we hear people talk about how much they love God without showing the slightest interest in what God has to say! To love the Lord your God with all your heart is to embrace God and everything he says with the warmest affection. It is to desire whatever God desires. It is to listen devoutly to everything God says. It is to want God to be near you every minute of every day.
To love the Lord your God with all your soul is to devote your whole life to God. It is to live within the waters of your baptism, confessing that you belong to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. It is to cherish God’s gracious rule over you in the confidence that he cares for you and will move heaven and earth for your benefit because he loves you.
To love the Lord your God with all your strength is to focus all your energy, labor, and powers to the task of knowing God, understanding his ways, and supporting what he says. It is getting up on a Sunday morning and going to church. It is taking advantage of every opportunity to study God’s word. It is subordinating other needs to your first and highest need of knowing the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is standing up for God’s truth and confessing it when everyone around you is running away from it.
To love the Lord your God with all your mind is to require your own opinions and notions and bright ideas either to agree with everything God says or to be discarded with yesterday’s newspaper. It is to reject the wisdom of the wise when it is at odds with the wisdom of the cross, because, as the Bible says, the foolishness of God is wiser than men.
That lawyer hadn’t come close. He hadn’t even begun. He didn’t love God. If he had loved God he wouldn’t have set out to justify himself. He would have humbled himself before God, begging him for his mercy. People who think they can justify themselves are spiritually obtuse. You have to be pretty bright to be a lawyer. But when it comes to spiritual matters this expert on the law knew nothing. He asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor,” apparently thinking that, since he’s already loved God and settled that requirement, he should find out what he must do to love his neighbor so that he can complete the task of justifying himself and thus be assured of eternal life.
We see in the story Jesus tells what God’s law really requires. It cannot be done by those seeking to justify themselves. That’s because when you are trying to justify yourself you are using the law to benefit yourself. But the love the law requires of you is a love that benefits your neighbor – not you. If you do it for you, you aren’t doing it to help your neighbor. This means that your neighbor is whoever is in need of your help. The man lying on the side of the road needed the help of the priest and the Levite who walked by on the other side of the road. Did the priest and the Levite pray for the man? Did their hearts feel pain for the man? It doesn’t matter. They did not show him mercy. They did not help him. Therefore, they did not love him. These religious men, who studiously followed all sorts of religious rules and regulations, failed in the single task God’s law requires. They failed to love. Love isn’t praying, talking, or feeling. It is showing mercy.
Who showed mercy? Jesus chose a Samaritan. Jews despised Samaritans on account of their false religious views. Jesus chose as the hero of his story a man the lawyer would despise, forcing him to acknowledge that the one he despised obeyed God while the revered priest and Levite did not.
The law of God comes through clearly in this story. You don’t need to be a Christian to understand. Any Jew, Muslim, or Mormon can discern what Jesus is saying. Love is as love does. Love benefits the other. Love shows mercy.
The gospel in this story is clear only to faith. Only those who have seen themselves as the robbed, wounded, half dead man on the side of the road can understand who the Good Samaritan really is and what this story really means. They have seen their own spiritual condition. Deceived by the devil, led into sin and ruined, spiritually helpless and unable to crawl back to God, they are doomed to perish on the side of the road. The law sees them. But the law does not help them. The law cannot help a sinner make himself into a saint. The law condemns sinners to hell and that’s that! The law walks by on the other side of the road.
Not Christ. He who humbled himself, who made himself of no reputation, came to serve sinners. He sees us in our spiritual condition, lying helpless on the side of the road. What the law cannot do, he does. He bandages our wounds. He pours on oil and wine, to soothe and to disinfect. He takes us to the inn, entrusting us to his holy Church. He pays for our care. He obtains the price for our spiritual care in his Church by going to the cross where he offers to God his obedience, his perfect love of God and neighbor, and in that vicarious offering of love wins for us sinners the forgiveness of sins. The Good Samaritan, despised by those who seek to justify themselves, justifies us by his blood.
He doesn’t stop helping us because we never stop needing his help. We confess our sins against God. We have not loved him with our whole heart, soul, strength, and mind. We confess our sins against our neighbor. We have not shown him the mercy that love requires. We have loved ourselves more than we have loved either God or our neighbor. Our Good Samaritan sees the wreckage we have made of our lives and he loves us. Not only does he freely forgive us all of our sins, but he fills us with his own love. He changes our hearts so that we want what God wants and love what God loves. And when we fail and fall and lie helpless, he doesn’t chide us for getting ourselves mugged; he lifts us up, forgives us again, and shows us mercy. This is how we learn to love. Amen