Ask a Law Question, Get a Law Answer
The text for today is our Gospel lesson, Luke 10:25-37, which has already been read.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Live by the Law; die by the Law. Ask a Law question, and you’ll get a Law answer. The question (two of them, actually) comes from a synagogue “lawyer,” one whose job it is to make the Bible reasonable and doable. His question to Jesus is naturally a Law question: “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
It is a reasonable question. It is the most fundamental of all religious questions. One asked by spiritually inquisitive people throughout the ages. What must I do to get to heaven? What do I have to do to be saved? What do I have to do to be good with God? It’s not a bad question in itself; but it is a dangerous question to ask Jesus, especially when asked this particular way: “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
Parse the original question for a moment. Start with the word “inherit.” What do you have to do to inherit anything? Well, you have to do virtually nothing. Someone else has to die, and you have to be in his good graces and on the receiving end of what he has already earned. Oh, and according to Jewish law, you also had to be a son to receive the inheritance. So while “to inherit” is the way to eternal life, it is not about “what shall I do?” but rather what someone else has done for you and your relationship to them.
This was the fundamental error of the Pharisees in Jesus’ day. They saw the Law as a law of works, works that need to be done to accomplish the righteousness of God. In other words, do those 613 or so things and you’re in. You have eternal life with God. But then it’s not an inheritance but wages earned. Something you do to deserve it, not something God does for you.
That’s the way it is, I’m afraid. The Gospel, the good news gift of God always deteriorates and degenerates into a religion of works. This is what prompted the Reformation in the first place. The Good News of sins forgiven for Christ’s sake through faith had degenerated into a religion of good works aimed at meriting God’s grace. The Gospel is foreign to our Old Adam. Our default position is always the Law. But the Law cannot save, it only condemns and kills.
Here’s a word of advice to keep in mind: Don’t get into an argument about the Law unless you really know more about the Law than the other person. You’ll lose every time… and though the lawyer in our text is an expert in the Law, a professional interpreter and public teacher of the Law, our Lord Jesus Christ is the sole author, keeper, and fulfillment of the Law.
Jesus knows He is being put to the test, so He answers the lawyer’s question with another question—another Law question. “What is written in the Law?” By “Law” Jesus does not necessarily mean “commandments,” but simply the books of Moses, the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. What did Moses say? What is in the Law? How do you read it? Jesus leaves the question open.
The lawyer responds with the Law, Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18: “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 your neighbor as yourself.” That is what he believes one must do to inherit eternal life: Love God; love your neighbor. And that would be correct—if he were asking a different question.
It’s basically the same answer that Jesus gives when another lawyer asks Him: “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” Jesus says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
That is the two tables of the Law—love God and love your neighbor. Do this and you will have eternal life. Pretty simple. Ah, but there’s the rub. The Law promises life… if you can do it. The Law promises grace and blessing to all who keep the commandments… if you can keep the commandments perfectly. That’s why Jesus responds: “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” Implied is the opposite: “Don’t do this and you’re dead.”
This makes the lawyer very uncomfortable. Something’s nagging at him. Perhaps it is that poor beggar he passed by on the way to the synagogue without even making eye contact. Or maybe it is the grudge he is holding against his brother for a bad business deal. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” the Law says. The lawyer knows he loves God (or at least thinks he does), but the neighbor is another matter. God is perfect. God is love. God is very loveable. If you can’t love God, who can you love? But be honest: some neighbors aren’t so loveable. That’s why we build walls and fences: “They make for good neighbors.” Ironically, it seems to love our neighbor it is easiest to do it from a distance.
The lawyer is, not surprisingly, a legalist… someone who seeks salvation through works of the Law rather than grace… someone who emphasizes the letter of the Law rather than the spirit of the Law… someone who stresses manageable Law rather than the Law that shows our sin, kills, and condemns.
Legalists generally soften or modify the great spiritual principles of “love God” and “love your neighbor.” Somehow they have to make the Law of God accommodate their imperfect and selective performance. That’s why the Pharisees came up with their own 613 rules to keep the Law. It’s the only way they can live within their system. They want the Law to say just “Try your best,” a law system that approves merely outward performance. But Jesus’ “do this” makes this man fully aware that he does not do it consistently and that he doesn’t have the pure heart a perfect obedience would require, so he squirms and “justifies” himself.
Seeking to justify himself, the lawyer asks Jesus a second Law question: “And who is my neighbor?” See where all this Law talk goes: self-justification. Get “neighbor” right and you get love right. Get love right, and you win the big prize. So who is my neighbor? Just tell me and I’ll go and love him right now!”
And so Jesus tells a story that has the ring of real life. The road between Jerusalem and Jericho was a treacherous highway. Packed with pilgrims and thronging with thieves. If you traveled alone, you were an easy target for the roaming gangs of robbers. And that’s just what happens to the man in Jesus’ story. He falls among robbers, is stripped, beaten, and left half dead in a ditch.
Now it so happens that a priest is coming down the road on his way home from Jerusalem. He sees the man lying there motionless and bleeding in the ditch. He may want to help; there’s nothing that says he doesn’t. But the Law of Moses says if the priest touches something dead he will be unclean and unfit for service until he undergoes a lengthy purification process and offers an expensive sacrifice.
Caught between a rock and a hard place. That’s what the Law will do to you. The Law says, “Love your neighbor,” and then God tosses out a neighbor who’s very inconvenient and even difficult to love. So now what do you do? The priest passes by on the other side. Doesn’t come near the man. He chooses the way of purity. It’s safe. It’s more precise. It follows the clear cut rules set down by God Himself in the Law. The Levite, a priestly assistant, does the same thing. Both men can argue they’ve kept the Law. Both men can justify their actions. But neither man loves his neighbor as himself.
Then comes the unexpected plot twist. A Samaritan comes down the road. The Jews, like the priest and the Levite, despise their Samaritan neighbors. They considered them half-breeds and heretics, impure in race and religion. Samaritans didn’t worship in Jerusalem, so this man is likely on a business trip. He isn’t clergy of any sort. Just an ordinary guy doing about his daily vocation.
But not bound to works of the Law for salvation, this man is free to love his neighbor in need. He sees this broken, half-naked, bleeding man in the ditch and has compassion on him. He gets down into the dirty ditch with him, bandages his wounds, puts him on his donkey, and takes him to an inn in town and spends the night taking care of him. The next day he leaves two day’s wages with the innkeeper and runs a tab for the rest.
Having finished His story, Jesus then asks a question that turns the lawyer’s original question 180 degrees: “Which of these three men, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?”
You notice the lawyer can’t quite bring himself to say, “The Samaritan.” That’s too much to bear. But he can say begrudgingly, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”
Notice what happens. Jesus changes the man’s “Who is my neighbor?” into “Which one was being a neighbor?” The man’s question looks at others to see if they are worthy; Jesus’ question probes inside us to see if there is readiness in us to act lovingly. We don’t get a chance to pick and choose our neighbor. Our neighbor is whoever God places in our path, no matter how inconvenient he may be, the one in need of our love at that time and place.
Do you think the lawyer left with any hope of inheriting eternal life? What about you? Can you go and do likewise, and on the basis of that doing, know that you will inherit eternal life? No. Live by the Law; die by the Law. Ask a Law question, and you’ll get a Law answer. Ask Jesus what you must do, and He will tell you what you must do. But you won’t be able to do it. Come to Him in empty-handed need, and He will give you what you need.
What shall you do to inherit eternal life? Absolutely nothing! It’s already been done for you! The good news Gospel answer is that the inheritance of eternal life comes not from our loving God with our whole heart, soul, strength, and mind… or in loving our neighbor as ourselves… but in and through Jesus who became a neighbor to us… who had compassion on us… who joined us in the ditch of death. Jesus is our Good Samaritan neighbor. Despised and rejected by sinful man, He nevertheless took on flesh, loved God and a world of neighbors so perfectly and purely that it covers al sin. He pours the healing oil of the balm of baptism on you. In that water and Word He adopts you as His son. You have an eternal inheritance in the kingdom of God.
Christ binds up your wounds with His wounds. He brings you into the company of His Church with His forgiveness. He gives you the bread of His body and the wine of His blood for nourishment and strength. He keeps the Law for you. He pays your debt of sin in full… so that you can begin to love the Lord your God… so that you can begin to love your neighbor.
Only one who is free from the Law can even remotely begin to do the Law. Only the Samaritan, free from the Law, unlike the priest and Levite, could do the Law. By His perfect life and death, Jesus has freed you from the Law, and qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. It’s an inheritance. It comes through the sacrificial death of Jesus and is received as a gift through faith. There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
So in the end, this parable (like all of Scripture) is about Jesus: Jesus, who fulfilled the Law in your place. Jesus, our Good Samaritan, who became neighbor to us in the ditch of our death. Jesus, the Son, who shares with you His inheritance of eternal life. Jesus, your Neighbor, who loves you again and again through His means of grace—His Word and Sacraments—that you might hear and believe this Good News: “You are forgiven for all of your sins.”
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”. Amen.