Luke 10:23-37| Rev. Rolf D. Preus| The Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity| September 5, 2004
Last week we reviewed the biblical distinction between God’s law and God’s gospel. In His parable of the Good Samaritan Jesus presents to us these two main teachings of the Christian faith. This parable holds before us the promises of the law and shows us that we have no right to claim them because we have not done what the law requires. It then describes the gospel in such a comforting way that we can rejoice in our Savior and claim, by faith in the gospel, the promises that the law could not give us.
The law is the teaching of God’s word that tells us how we must live if we are to gain eternal life. The lawyer knew the right answers: “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.” The man asked Jesus a question and then provided his own answer. He was right. If you want to do something to inherit eternal life, you must obey God’s law. And he was right in stating the requirements of that law. Jesus said, “You have answered correctly, do this and you will live.” But the man was dead wrong about the most important thing. He thought he had obeyed God’s law when he had not. That was his fatal mistake. Though he was an expert in the law, in fact he was completely ignorant of its true requirements.
In order to understand the parable of the Good Samaritan we need to pay attention to St. Luke’s words about the lawyer to whom Jesus told it: “But he wanted to justify himself.” That was, of course impossible. God alone justifies. No man, woman or child can justify himself. The man wanted to do something to inherit eternal life. It is obvious that those who are justified, that is, those whom God says are truly good and righteous, will indeed inherit eternal life. From cover to cover the Bible teaches that sinners do not go to heaven. Only the righteous are saved. But it is just as clear that no one is righteous by nature and no one can make himself righteous. This is the lesson of God’s law, the lesson the lawyer had to learn. He assumed that he had already taken care of the first table of the law, that he had already loved the Lord his God with all his heart, soul, strength and mind. Then, just to make sure that he had the second table of the law covered, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
The lawyer was, in a word, self-righteous. An expert in God’s law, and yet so profoundly ignorant of its requirements! To think that you have loved God as God requires of you! What blind arrogance! What utter sinful deceit! Jesus didn’t even waste his time arguing the point. Instead, He told him a story.
Jesus chose His characters carefully. There lies a man on the side of the road, beaten, robbed and half-dead. He is helpless. He has been left to die. Along comes a priest, a man known for his piety, his prayers, and his deep devotion to God. He sees the helpless man and walks by on the other side. You can be sure that he wished the man no harm. He didn’t do anything to cause the man’s predicament. He undoubtedly shook his head in dismay at the terrible crime that had been committed against that poor man. And he prayed. He prayed for the souls of the robbers, for the health of the victim, and for himself, that God would keep him obedient to His law. Likewise, the Levite saw the unfortunate man and passed by on the other side. Neither man did anything to help the neighbor in need. These were men who loved the law, applied the law to others, and stood in judgment of those who did not meet their standards. They reveled in their holiness as they walked past the dying man on their way to serve God.
The law of Christian love cannot be contained by rules. It knows only that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. We have rules in our homes and we have rules in our school. Without them, chaos would ensue. But there are no rules written, nor could there be, which would have told the priest and the Levite what to do when they saw that man on the side of the road. You either love your neighbor or you don’t. Love is not a mere feeling. It is not just obeying rules. Love is doing what is needed to help the one in need.
Can you see yourself suffering the pain of another? What would you want someone to do for you in such a case? Whatever it is, that is what God requires you to do for your neighbor. And your neighbor does not need to be a Christian. He doesn’t need to be your friend or someone you know. Your neighbor is whoever needs your help when you are in a position to help him in whatever need he has.
When we hear unkind rumors about our neighbor, what do we do? Do we keep quiet or do we say something kind about him? When we keep quiet, we walk on by, just like the priest and the Levite. That’s not how to love your neighbor as yourself. If you were the one whose name was being slandered, wouldn’t you want a voice to defend you? It is not sin only when we are actively doing what is wrong. It is sin when we don’t do what is right. When we have an opportunity to befriend someone in need and we don’t take it we do wrong. Being a neighbor involves action.
The priest was a member of the church! The Levite was a member of the church! Outstanding, respected, church going, God-serving religious hypocrites! The Samaritan was not a member of the church. And he put the so-called Christians to shame.
And yet it is this Samaritan who takes away our shame. For this parable not only teaches us the law, it teaches us the gospel. You and I are the man on the side of the road, beaten and robbed by the devil and his lies; we are the helpless dying man. Our sins overwhelm us, our guilt rises up to claim us, God’s law, like a finger of judgment, accuses us and denies us any hope of eternal life. We are lying on the side of the road, waiting only to die. And then Jesus comes. He is the Good Samaritan. He sees us in our need and does not walk on by, but he comes to us and tends to our wounds. He pours the oil of his holy gospel into our cuts, soothing the pain and bringing relief. He pours in the wine of his grace to disinfect the wounds and speed us to health. He lays us on his donkey, that is, he, Jesus, bears us to the inn, which is His holy church, and to the innkeeper, that is, to those who preach and teach his gracious word. He provides in that word, that pure and saving doctrine, all that we need to gain our health. He pays for our health. Not with gold or silver, but with His holy precious blood and His innocent suffering and death. He knows that the priests and the Levites of this world cannot and will not help us. He can and does. The one who removed our sins by His blood on Calvary, is also the one who finds us in our spiritual misery and helplessness and saves us by His gracious word.
The law of God cannot save a single soul from hell. Only Jesus can do that. The law of God can only show us our helplessness to save ourselves. The law always accuses. It can offer no help. The law is like the priest and the Levite. He looks at us, shakes his head, and offers us no help at all. So we preach and we teach and we confess the gospel of the Good Samaritan: Jesus Christ. He knows our sins because He suffered for them. He understands by His own experience the pain of being burdened by guilt because he has borne our guilt and carried our sorrows. He is the one who forgives us, restores us, strengthens us, and brings to us eternal life.
When Christians put themselves out for one another and take upon themselves the burdens of others they imitate Jesus. Children imitate their parents (often without even realizing it) and we might try to emulate someone we admire. When we imitate Jesus we are imitating Him who by His humble service redeemed us from sin and death and destroyed all our spiritual enemies. The devil cannot lay claim to us because Jesus has destroyed his power. The law cannot torment us with its accusations because Jesus has fulfilled the law as our substitute. When we imitate the humble service that Jesus offered, we are making a confession of faith. We are confessing that Christ really is our Redeemer and Savior. We are saying that a life in which we put the needs of others before our own really is a life worth living. It must be. This is the life that Jesus lived and by so living this life He won eternal life for us.
This is why this story is particularly comforting and compelling. Jesus does not moralize. He doesn’t simply give instructions on how to do this or that or the other good work. Jesus finds us in our spiritual helplessness and He rescues us. It is always as our dear Savior that Jesus leads us through life. He doesn’t prod us with impossible demands, but He goes before us to do everything we need to do. Then when we do what God has called us to do as mothers and fathers, children, employers, employees, teachers, students, farmers, nurses, policemen, husbands and wives, we do so as Christians. We don’t need to look any further for someone to serve than in our own home, classroom, or office. And when we fail in our service, when we walk on by and find ourselves guilty and by our guilt find ourselves spiritually wounded and helpless to help ourselves, who comes to our aid? It is Jesus, our Good Samaritan. To know Jesus is to know life. Everyone else walks by on the other side. Only Jesus carries us to the Inn and cares for us.