Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Sermon on Luke 10;25-37, for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost, The Good Samaritan

Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The Good Samaritan is probably one of the most recognizable stories that Jesus taught, in all the Gospels. And the parable is part of a series of questions between a Jewish lawyer and Jesus, beginning with this question: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” As we unfold this teaching of Jesus for us, consider also the words of St. Paul: “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift, but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Romans 4:4-5). This passage illuminates a fundamental flaw with the lawyer’s question. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The faulty logic in the question is that you can’t do anything in order to inherit something. Like Paul says, if you are working for something, you earn your wages as pay that is rightfully due to you. Your employer is not giving you a “gift.” You earned it.
But inheritance is an entirely different matter. To receive an inheritance isn’t a wage or something a person earns or is owed for what they’ve done—but an inheritance is, strictly speaking, a gift. And a gift that is received because you have been named an heir, by the person who generously wants to give you what you did not earn. You may be a family member, or an adopted child, or a beloved friend. But your place in the inheritance is not by what you have done, but by the love and generosity of the giver. The same is true with heavenly things. “To the one who does not work but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, His faith is counted as righteousness.” God justifies those who have faith in Him. Not those who wish to justify themselves by what they believe they deserve or have earned. Notice what the lawyer was hoping to do, when you read vs. 29, “he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, ‘Who is my neighbor?’” He thought that he could justify himself, or find himself worthy of God’s approval and of eternal life. All he needed was the correct understanding of his duty, so he could do it.
This is all introduction to the parable, because at first glance, Jesus’ answers to the lawyer sound like Jesus is saying you can work or earn your way into eternal life. But with this introductory examination, and with further examination, you can see that Jesus was helping the man to realize how he was utterly unable to justify himself, and needed “outside help” in order to enter into eternal life.
So let’s go back to the beginning. The lawyer is trying to test Jesus, when he asks, “What must I do to eternal life.” Right away, we see his tainted motive, to catch Jesus in His words. By the way, who is the only other person, besides Pharisees, lawyers, and scribes, who puts Jesus to the test in the Gospels? Can anybody guess? The devil! And Jesus’ response to him, quoting the very law of Moses—that this young lawyer claims to uphold—He quotes: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” We have to note these errors in the lawyer’s thinking and motive, as we hear Jesus’ response.
First Jesus turns back to the lawyer, to find out what is written in the law. The lawyer correctly summarizes the Law of Moses, in the same way that Jesus also taught. The Law says, “Love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus agrees with the summary, and says, “Do this, and you will live.” Now, this is the question we have to ponder—is Jesus agreeing that works are the way to eternal life, and that the young lawyer may be able to do them and earn that reward? The answer lies in the parable.
The lawyer wants to narrow down or put a finer point on his duty—if this is truly the way to eternal life—by loving God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself—that sounds reasonable to this law-upholding lawyer. He’s ready to commit to the task, but needs to know, who is my neighbor? Even this question is misguided, as we’ll see how Jesus redirects it. It is a limiting question, that presumes that there are some who are, and also some who are not our neighbors. Now Leviticus 19, our Old Testament reading, is where the command, “Love your neighbor as yourself” comes from. In that same verse, the lawyer might have remembered it mentions “the sons of your own people.” Perhaps on this basis, the lawyer thought his neighbor was just his fellow Jew. Or Leviticus 19 also refers to the “sojourner” or traveling foreigner living among them. But who wasn’t he thinking of, as his neighbor?
Jesus, in answering with the parable of the Good Samaritan, opens or expands the definition of neighbor as wide as possible. In the parable, the traveler who is robbed, beaten, stripped and left for dead, is passed by two religious Jews—a priest and a Levite. The curious thing is that each of them should have been guided and motivated by the Law, just like the lawyer. But they pass by and do nothing. Did they feel no compassion? Did they evaluate that they had no duty to get involved, and someone else would take care? Was there a risk or cost or something to be lost, by getting involved in this sticky, bloody situation—with a man who was potentially already dead, or  dying? Did they see the naked and bleeding man, and wonder if he was to be counted a neighbor or not? The parable doesn’t focus on their calculations, though we can probably recognize some of the selfish thoughts that might run through our minds. And is our willingness to help or show compassion driven by the human need of our neighbor, or by some other calculation that we make, about our duty?
But the Samaritan, when he sees, immediately has compassion. Jesus’ word for compassion is a deep, gut level emotion. A strong inner sense of mercy and desire to help. He immediately applies first aid, bandaging the man’s wounds. He places him on his animal, and leads him to an inn, where he gives further care to help and heal the man. He pays for the man’s further care, and promises to return and cover any additional costs. The Good Samaritan not only shows mercy, but a costly mercy to a complete stranger. The rescue for the wounded man comes from an outsider, one who is rejected by the Jews.
This becomes Jesus’ answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” The answer isn’t “these people, but not those”—but rather the answer is, “Who can you be a neighbor to?” Anyone who needs our help is our neighbor. Jesus removes any limitation, and shows us that we are all to be neighbors to everyone, by showing mercy to others. So the Law of Moses isn’t upheld by selective interpretations and narrowing down who is and isn’t our neighbor. Here we come against the lawyer’s basic problem again. Can he, or can we, do enough to satisfy the Law’s demands? Especially in its deepest sense? Do we love God with our whole heart, whole soul, whole strength, and whole mind? Do we love our neighbor as ourselves? Every neighbor—not just the easy to love, or our friends, or those who look, act, and think like us—but every person? Not just the ones we notice, but all who need our help?
If anyone can confidently answer Yes to every one of those questions, I’d like to meet the person. The basic problem that confronts the lawyer, after Jesus’ parable, is the same for you and I. By all means, we are to “Go and do likewise.” Show the mercy of the Good Samaritan to our every neighbor. But if we cannot answer Yes, without reservation, to every one of the law’s demands—and more than just answering yes, have God verify that we have truly done all this—then we are finally, utterly unable to justify ourselves.
Paul again describes the shape of that problem for us in Galatians 3:10 “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.’” We are under a curse if we do not abide by all things written in the book of the Law. Or as James adds, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it” (James 2:10). The Law will not allow the least, the tiniest omission or deviation from it. If the lawyer wanted to follow Jesus’ advice to “Do this, and you will live”, he would quickly find that the curse of the law weighed against him, and he would fail.
But this does not mean that Jesus does not uphold the Law of God, as the lawyer might have hoped to demonstrate, by catching Jesus in His words. Rather, Jesus teaches that He did not come “to abolish the Law or the Prophets….but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17). On a deeper level, the parable of the Good Samaritan shows a picture to us of the love of Jesus. Jesus is the Good Samaritan, like our sermon hymn beautifully describes. He is the rejected outsider who comes to show a costly love to those who are wounded and left for dead. For sinners like us, crushed and wounded in soul, Jesus comes to bind up our wounds, pouring on them His healing balm, and taking us to the house prepared for sinners—His church. He pays all our expenses, ensures our continued care, and promises to return for us again. These are the very things Christ does for us.
So when we come back to the question, and abandon the thought of what can we do to inherit eternal life—and think instead of simply how can we inherit eternal life—the answer comes back to the grace of Jesus Christ alone. Back to that verse I shared at the beginning: “to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness”. Believe in Jesus Christ, and you are justified—counted as righteous before God. And God, by His mercy and grace, names us His forgiven heirs and children. In the waters of Holy Baptism He adopts us in His house and into His family. In the bread and wine of Holy Communion, He forgives and sustains us in Jesus’ body and His blood. And in due time, when Jesus returns to His church—the house prepared for sinners—He will call us into our promised inheritance, of eternal life with Him. So trust not in your works to save you, but trust in Jesus Christ, our Good Samaritan—the One who showed us perfect mercy. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. Read Luke 10:25-37. Jewish lawyers studied the Torah or the Law of Moses. It says in verse 25, the lawyer was “putting Jesus to the test.” Apart from the Pharisees and teachers of the law testing Jesus, who is the only one who “puts Jesus to the test” in the Gospels? Luke 4:12; Deuteronomy 6:16.
  2. What is the inherent flaw in the question, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” What is an inheritance, and how does one become an heir? Is it something you earn?
  3. Notice the questions and answers in Luke 10:25-37. There are four total questions and answers, broken into two interconnected sets. What do the lawyer’s questions reveal about his intentions, both toward Jesus and about Himself?
  4. When he summarizes the Law correctly (in the same way that Jesus also did…Matthew 22:36-40), what is the primary challenge he faced, when Jesus instructed him, “Do this, and you will live?” Galatians 3:10-14; James 2:10; Romans 3:19ff.
  5. Why are we not able to “justify ourselves”? Romans 3:23-24; cf. Luke 18:9-14. Who alone is able to justify, and how? Romans 3:26
  6. In the progression of characters in Jesus’ parable, from a Jewish priest to a Levite, the next person to be expected might be a Jewish layman. Why is it startling and surprising for a Samaritan to be the third character and the hero of the parable? John 4:9, 27.
  7. How is the Good Samaritan a fitting picture of Jesus Christ, and what He has done for us? List as many parallels as you can find (see the sermon hymn by John Newton for help).  How can we show the mercy of Jesus? What does it mean to show costly love and have compassion?

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