The One Who Shows Mercy

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“Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise” (Luke 10:36–37).
Grace and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ!
The man who comes to “test” Jesus is an expert in religious law. Our text calls him a “lawyer,” but the Gospels more often identify such people as “scribes.” These men are often depicted as hostile toward Jesus and acting in league with the Pharisees. Typically, they let it be known that they considered Jesus’ observance of the Law to be deficient. In contrast to the majority of scribes in the Gospel accounts, however, this one shows no overt antagonism toward Jesus.
Still, with his opening question, you sense there is going to be more than a little tension. “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” he asks. What does anyone ever do to get an inheritance? Someone else has to die and you have to be in his or her good graces. Still, the word “inherit” does, at the very least, hint at the gracious nature of salvation. No one can earn or compel another to give an inheritance. The giver (or testator) always retains the full right to give the inheritance as he or she wishes. Thus, it can be said that God graciously bestows eternal life as an inheritance. So, at least this lawyer is on the right track. But as they say, “Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.”
Jesus lovingly seeks to improve his aim: “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” Though he is considered an “expert in the law,” this scribe is a representative of the “wise and understanding” from whom Jesus has just said the things of God remain hidden (Luke 10:21). He demonstrates his knowledge of Scripture by quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 concerning love to God and Leviticus 19:18 about love for one’s neighbor, but he can’t seem to apply it to himself.
The lawyer gives the correct answer, but Jesus has to direct him to put it into practice: “Do this, and you will live.” If a person fulfills the Law of God, then that individual will receive eternal life on Judgment Day. However, God expects perfect obedience. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and will all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27). 100% love, 100% effort, 100% of the time. Obviously, perfect obedience to God’s Law is beyond the capacity of fallen human beings.
Jesus has just made this expert in the law look foolish. He feels the need to “justify himself” for asking such a simple question, one he himself easily answers, (a question I would expect my second year catechumens to be able to answer). This is the point at which the lawyer really starts to squirm. He tries to deflect attention away from himself by implying that the Law is the problem, that the Law is unclear. So, he asks a further question, seeking to demonstrate that loving your neighbor as yourself is not so simple as Jesus makes it sound.
The lawyer suggests that before anyone can keep this command, it is necessary to legally clarify who is “neighbor” and who is not. Coincidently, legal definitions just happen to be in his area of expertise. The question, “Who is my neighbor?” implies that there are some people who are not my neighbor. By asking the question, the lawyer asks Jesus to interpret the Law as to the kinds of people Jesus would exclude from His love. Anyone vaguely familiar with Jesus’ ministry up to this point should know that as Jesus fulfills the Old Testament in His ministry, absolutely no one is excluded from His love.
Generally, among the Jews, the “neighbor” was defined as a fellow countryman, one of the same race. The Greek word translated “neighbor” is really an adverb that means “nearby,” “close,” or “beside.” When combined with an article, it becomes something like “the one nearby” or “the one beside.” We generally define neighbor in a similar way, as someone who lives near to or next to us.
This question, “Who is my neighbor?” was something that other Jewish thinkers had wrestled with. How do we know? For one thing, the translators of the Septuagint chose the word “neighbor” to describe not only people related by blood or common religious commitment, but also those who are not kinsmen or part of the covenant community. So, Jesus is not giving a new teaching here. Pious Jews before Him had understood that God’s love transcends blood and tribal relations.
As in the first round, Jesus will answer the lawyer’s question with another question, but first He tells a story that will prepare for and clarify it.
A man was traveling the winding road through the rocky desert from Jerusalem to Jericho. He was accosted by thugs who robbed him, beat him, and left him on the side of the road as if he were road kill. Three men came upon his bloodied body. Of these three, a priest and a Levite (a temple assistant) both saw the man but did not stop to help. They “passed by on the other side.”
Why they did not stop, Jesus does not say. It doesn’t really matter why. They may have had some reasonably legitimate reasons; such as concern for maintaining ceremonial purity or more pressing business to do or fear that the robbers might be lying in wait for them also. Whatever the reason, the fact remains that they did not love their neighbor when they had the opportunity. They failed to show mercy to one who was in urgent need. Both of these men represented respectable religious positions, the kind this lawyer no doubt would be eager to include among his neighbors; but sadly, their religion did not have room for much mercy.
The third man who came by was a Samaritan. Such people were mistrusted and despised by Jews, who considered them racial half-breeds, traitors to the nation, and religious heretics. So when Jesus introduces this character, quite likely the original audience expects him to be a villain. Given this long-standing animosity, one would not expect a passing Samaritan to help the half-dead man. Yet, Jesus says that when “he saw him, he had compassion” (Luke 10:33).
Matthew Harrison explains the significance of the Greek word translated here as “had compassion”:
In ancient pre-Christian usage, the Greek word splanchnon denoted the “inward parts” of a sacrifice, such as the liver, lungs, and spleen. It also denoted the lower half of the body—the womb or the loins. In more figurative usage, and for obvious reasons, the word meant “the seat of ‘impulsive passions.’” In pre-Christian use, splanchnon is never used for mercy. In the Septuagint, the Greek edition of the Old Testament (ca. 100 BC), splanchnon began its journey toward its significant and sacred use in the Gospels…
Study of the word splanchnon in reference to Jesus reveals something extraordinary about our Savior’s compassion. For Jesus compassion is literally “visceral.” The verb is used eleven times in the Gospels. Seven times the verb appears as an action attributed to Jesus. Twice the verb is used as an action attributed to characters in parables told by Jesus. Given the origin and development of the use of the word, we might think that in the Gospels it came to mean simply “to have compassion” or “mercy,” and it does. However, each time splanchnon occurs as a conviction or sentiment or emotion in Christ (or of characters in parables), there is consequent merciful action. Compassion begets action. Mercy makes something happen.[i]
That is certainly the case here. The Samaritan, moved by compassion, was compelled to help, and he did so in a manner far surpassing ordinary obligations. He bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him overnight. Before leaving, he paid two days’ wages for the man’s care and promised to pay more if necessary.
Many people have noticed that the order of the Samaritan’s actions seems to be the reverse of what one would expect. Oil is to clean the wound, wine is to disinfect it, and then it would be bound with a bandage. But Ken Bailey suggests a theological rationale for this order as it relates to liturgical worship:  
Furthermore, the oil and wine were not only standard first-aid remedies. They were also “sacrificial elements in the temple worship” (Derrett, 220). Likewise, the verb “pour” is for the language of worship. There were libations in connection with the sacrifices. Yet for centuries the call had been sounded for going beyond ritual in an effort to respond adequately to what God had done for them. Hosea (6:6) and Micah (6:7-8) called for steadfast love and not sacrifice… The Jewish priest and Levite were the religious professionals who knew the precise rituals of the prescribed liturgy. In worship they officiated at the sacrifices and libations. They poured out the oil and wine on the high altar before God. Here in the parable this same freighted language is applied to the Samaritan just after the priest and Levite have failed miserably in their ability to make the “living sacrifice.” It is the hated Samaritan who pours out the libation on the altar of this man’s wounds. As Derrett observes, “To show what is the [steadfast love] which God demands one cannot be more apt than to show oil and wine employed to heal an injured man” (Derrett, 220)… It is the Samaritan who pours out the true offering acceptable to God.[ii]
This Samaritan, whom the lawyer probably would have excluded from his definition of a neighbor, showed himself as the one who fulfilled the command to love one’s neighbor as oneself, in this case even an enemy. Those related by ethnicity and a common faith (religious leaders, at that!) left the victim to die, while one thought to be an enemy rescued him and provided for his ongoing care.
Accordingly, this parable conveys dramatically what Jesus had previously taught in the “Sermon on the Plain” (Luke 6:27-38): Godlike love extends even to those who hate, curse, and abuse. Luther saw this clearly and reiterated the point, stating, “Our neighbor is any human being, especially one who needs our help, as Christ interprets it in Luke 10:30-37. Even one who has done me some sort of injury or harm…does not stop being my neighbor.”[iii]
The expert in the law had asked, “Who is my neighbor?” But Jesus goes a step further with the question he now puts to the lawyer: “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor?” The man has no choice but to answer: “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus instructs: “You go, and do likewise.”
This is a parable which shatters the values of the Jewish religion as practiced by the lawyers and the Pharisees. The priest and the Levite are pictured in a bad light; the Samaritan outcast becomes the example of mercy. But it shatters our own illusions as well, for Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan leaves no doubt that Jesus expects His followers to do good to all people. And His concluding words, “You go, and do likewise,” reminds us just how we far we are from the loving, self-sacrificing behavior the Lord expects. We do not show mercy as we ought.
 So it was that Jesus became the Good Samaritan for us, radically fulfilling the commandment to love by laying down His life for us while we were yet His enemies. Truly He is the One who shows mercy.
Nevertheless, I do not want to leave you with the impression that the important or decisive thing about Jesus is His example of or instructions (Law) to care for the needy. The moral teaching Jesus presents offers nothing that can’t be found in other religions. What’s more, the attempt to follow Jesus’ example as the means to gain God’s favor will merit nothing but hell. Even Jesus’ miracles are not the center of our confession of Jesus Christ as Savior. These acts of mercy are significant because they flow from and point to Jesus as God Incarnate and Savior.
The coming of God into the flesh is Gospel. It is God’s gracious act to accomplish our salvation. Luther writes that Jesus “became incarnate to comfort”[iv] Jesus is mercy incarnate. Christ’s life is filled with compassion and actions of mercy for those in need. Christ’s life is more than an example for our living. The incarnation of Christ is the strongest and most powerful Gospel gift. He is the sacrifice that earned salvation for us.
In Word and Sacrament, the Church delivers what Christ obtained on Calvary—the forgiveness of sin. In Word and Sacrament, the Christian is born again. Raised to walk in newness of life, the believer demonstrates compassion for those in need, the lowly, the suffering, the orphan, etc. However weakly and imperfectly, our compassion reflects the compassion of God Himself. God accepts our daily acts of compassion as our daily and holy worship because of Christ.
Philippians 2:5-8, St. Paul’s great hymn of the incarnation, teaches us the key motivation for mercy: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
The Law calls for love and mercy, but it cannot create it or motivate us to do so. The Law is but a mirror that shows us our sin. The Law condemns and kills. Only the Gospel makes alive and empowers. Christ’s incarnation, servanthood, humble obedience, and finally death on a cross on our behalf—the Gospel—is what creates His attitude in us. We are baptized by Christ into merciful compassion for those in need around us.
A man once observed Mother Teresa cleaning the wounds of a leper. He turned away in revulsion and said, “I wouldn’t do that for a million dollars.” Teresa look at him and replied, “Neither would I. But I would do it for Christ.”[v]
The Gospel reveals that such showing mercy flows only from having received God’s mercy. Legalists who cross-examine Jesus make no progress until they recognize that they are the man half dead and Jesus is the one who does mercy as a neighbor. The lawyer in each of us says, “I will act to love my neighbor as myself; tell me who he is.” But Jesus answers, “You cannot act, for you are dead. You need someone to love you, to show mercy to you, to heal you, to pay for you, to give you lodging, to revive you. I am the one you despise because I associate with sinners, but in fact I am the one who fulfills the Law and brings God’s mercy to you. I am your neighbor and give you the gifts of mercy, healing, and life.
“You are baptized into My death and resurrection. You are fed My body and blood, which strengthens you in faith toward Me and in fervent love toward one another. As I live in you, you will have life and will do mercy—not motivated by laws and definitions, but animated by My steadfast love and mercy. As you remain in My love, and empowered by My Spirit, you will grow daily until at last you are transformed and glorified into the perfection the Father planned for you from before the foundation of the world. Even now, by grace through faith, I find you blameless and righteous. You are forgiven for all of your sins.”
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[i] Harrison, Matthew C., Christ Have Mercy: How to Put Your Faith in Action (S. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2008) 40-41.
[ii] Bailey, K, Through Peasant Eyes, 49-50, citing J. D. M. Derrett (Law in the New Testament [London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1970].
[iii] Luther, Martin, Luther’s Works, American Edition. General editors Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehmann. (St. Louis, MO: Corcordia and Philadephia: Muhlenberg and Fortress, 1955-86). 27:58
[iv] Tappert, Letters of Spiritual Counsel, 98.


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