Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Good Samaritan

Sermon on Luke 10:25-37
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
July 14, 2013 (Eighth Sunday after Pentecost)

What must I do to inherit eternal life?  How do I know that I will be going to heaven and not hell?  It’s an important question, but it’s also a simple one.  In fact, it’s so simple that Jesus asks the lawyer to answer it for him.  It comes from a passage of Scripture that faithful Jews were supposed to recite to themselves every day, just as we recite the creed and the Lord’s Prayer, and which functioned in the Synagogue services much the same way the creeds function in ours.  “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and strength.”  And added to that is the command to love your neighbor as yourself.  We ourselves learn from something so basic as the catechism that this is the summary of the first and second tables of the Law, the first three and the last seven commandments, respectively.

But while it may have been simple to state the answer to the lawyer’s first question, actually carrying out that answer is not at all simple.  It is, in fact, utterly impossible.  And that is offensive to us according to our old sinful nature.  It puts us in a completely intolerable position, a no-win trap from which we cannot free ourselves.  We would much prefer that the Law be presented to us in a form that is doable, or manageable, so that when we confess our sins, we only have to confess that we have occasionally messed up some, and ask God for help to do better.  The old sinful nature actually likes the Law if it thinks it can actually follow it.  Which is why this sort of watered down message that turns God’s Law into principles for Christian living is so popular today.  People would much rather hear that there’s something they can do to contribute to their relationship with God, to control their relationship with God, than what God’s Law actually says, namely that we are helpless sinners whose every action, even if it is outwardly good, only earns us more wrath because it is not done, and cannot be done, out of genuine love for God or the neighbor.

Consider the difference between love itself, on the one hand, and the actions we use to show that love, on the other hand.  Notice that the Scripture quoted by the lawyer does not say, “Thou shalt show love . . . .”  It says, “Thou shalt love . . . .”  God is not asking us, first and foremost, for outward actions which show love to our neighbors, He is demanding that we actually have love in our heart toward them from which the outward actions will then flow.  But how can a person make himself love God or someone else?  He can’t!  You either love someone or you don’t.  You can’t make yourself love someone in response to a command that you do so.  Now, you may be able to make yourself go to Church, sing hymns to God, give money in the offering plate, or volunteer your time; you may be able to make yourself give to charity, help someone in need, visit someone in prison, be considerate of others’ feelings, provide a shoulder to cry on, and so on.  These are things which ordinarily would be loving things to do, but that doesn’t mean that you actually love God with all your heart, mind, and soul, or that you love your neighbor as yourself when you do them.  A person who goes out and does a lot of good deeds in the Church and the community only because he wants to be saved by doing these things, is not loving his neighbor as himself.  Such a man is really thinking, “Look at all these good deeds I am doing!  God will certainly be pleased with me now!”  His thoughts are not of love for his neighbor, they are of love for himself.  And because of that, the man is not earning eternal life at all, because he doesn’t really fulfill the commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  This lawyer is himself a perfect illustration of this.  The very way that he asks the question, concerned only about himself and his own salvation, shows that the answer has already condemned him before he started.

This simple, yet impossible answer doesn’t satisfy the man.  It leaves him with nothing he can use to bargain with God.  So he tries to distract himself and everyone else around him, by asking another question.  “And who is my neighbor?”  But again he only succeeds in showing us his sinful nature, and providing us with an illustration of what is in our hearts as well.  He only wants to love those people he absolutely must love in order to fulfill the letter of the Law.  He wants to find a loophole that will let him get away with doing as little as possible and still be saved.  In this he again reveals a serious lack of love, and makes himself look that much more sinful and selfish by his question.  Again he is a picture of what our natural hearts think about the Law.  We do what we absolutely have to in order to get what we want.  Any more effort than that is pointless.  In this we again reveal that by nature even our best outward good works are done, not out of love for others, but for ourselves.  We are helpless to do anything else.  Like a man caught in quicksand, any move we make only sinks us in deeper.  We are caught, beat up by the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh as they alternately tempt us and then beat up on us when we give in to the temptation.  We are naked and penniless and we don’t have anything that we could use to convince anyone to help us out.  As far as our own reason or strength is concerned, we are lost and will go to an eternal existence of having been beat up, robbed, and left for dead by those robbers, the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh.

But Christ has had mercy on us.  He became one who is despised and rejected, just like that Samaritan was by the Jewish nation, for us.  He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.  He went to the point of dying in our place so that we might have life.  He spared no expense, not even that of His own life, so that we might be healed from the sin that had killed us.  He has anointed us with the oil of the Holy Spirit when we were baptized, and He has given us the wine of His blood in Holy Communion, just as the Samaritan poured oil and wine on the wounds of the injured man in order to heal him.  He has promised to return again and raise us up again, completing our healing so that we can be in His presence in eternal life.  What Christ has done for us goes even beyond what a good neighbor will, or even can do, for his fellow man.  Christ has acted as our brother, and His Father, in sending Christ to save us, has become our Father.

But the Samaritan is not the only picture of Christ in this parable.  The injured man beside the road also depicts Christ for us.  Christ himself took our sins, our temptations, our pains, our sorrows, upon Himself.  He took all those things to the cross and literally died to pay the price for our sins.  And since He did that for us, all those around us who need our help and our care because of the sin that is still in the world, are pictures for us of Him who became sin for us, and of His suffering in our behalf.  We will be surprised on the last day when Christ says to us believers, “When you did it to the least of these my brethren, you did it unto Me.”  The new man in Christ in us simply performs works of love and service for Christ without even being asked, and without our even being aware of what we are doing many times.  That’s what God has given us by making us new creatures.  Christ is on both sides of the equation.  He is the one who helps and comforts His people, and He is the one who receives that help and comfort as we give what we have received.  God has given us the blessing of becoming the Good Samaritan for others, and thus allow Christ to serve them through us, not because we feel we have to do it in order to earn eternal life, not even because we feel we ought to out of any sense of guilt at all.  We love others freely and without compulsion simply because He first loved us.  We are the Good Samaritan for those around us, only because Christ Himself has been, and continues to be through Word and Sacrament, the Good Samaritan for us.  Amen.

+Soli Deo Gloria+

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