Ask a law question, and you’ll get a law answer. The question (two of them actually) come from a synagogue “lawyer,” whose job it was to make the Bible reasonable and doable. His question is a law question. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” It’s the most fundamental of all religious questions. What do I have to do to get to heaven? What do I have to do to be saved? What do I have to do to be in good with God?
Parse the question in your own mind for moment. What do you have to do to inherit anything? Well, you have to do virtually nothing. Someone has to die, and you have to be in his good graces and on the receiving end of the inheritance.
Jesus knows He’s being put to the test, so He answers the question with a question. What is written in the Law? By “Law” Jesus does not necessarily mean “commandments,” but simply the books of Moses, the Torah. What did Moses say? What is in the Torah? How do you read it? Jesus leaves the question open. The lawyer responds with the law – Love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind; love 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. The Law promises life, if you can do it. The Law promises grace and every blessing to all who keep the commandments, if you can keep the commandments. “Do this, and you will live.” Don’t do this, and, well, you’re dead.
The lawyer isn’t satisfied; he’s uncomfortable. Something’s nagging at him. Perhaps it was that poor man he had passed by on the way to the synagogue without even making eye contact. Or maybe it was the grudge he was holding against his brother for the bad business deal. Love your neighbor as yourself. He knew he loved God, but the neighbor was another matter. Some neighbors just aren’t so lovable. That’s why we build walls and fences. They make for good neighbors.
“Love your neighbor as yourself.” His tight little system of theology was coming unraveled. If he didn’t love his neighbor as himself, he had no confidence of his inheritence of eternal life. Do you love your neighbor as much as you love yourself? (Of course, that presumes you love yourself.) I’m not talking about the nice neighbors who bring cake and cookies over. Would you want to stake your eternal inheritance on your love of neighbor? As cartoonist Charles Schulz once commented through his character Charlie Brown: “I love humanity; it’s people I can’t stand.”
But you say, “Wait a minute. I’m supposed to love someone who won’t even give me the time of day? What kind of rule is that? How about love those who love you; hate those who hate you; ignore the rest. That would be more like it, wouldn’t it? How am I supposed to love my neighbor, and what does “neighbor” mean anyway? The guy next door, down the block?
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?
Enter the man who fell among thieves. 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. A man fell among robbers who stripped the clothes of his back, beat him, and left him for dead in a ditch.
Now it so happened that priest was coming down the road, on his way home from his tour of duty in Jerusalem. He sees the man lying there motionless and bleeding in the ditch. He may have wanted to help; there’s nothing that says he didn’t. But there was a law in the Law of Moses. If he touched something dead he would be unclean and unfit for priestly service when he got home. He’d have a lengthy purification process to undergo and an expensive sacrifice to offer and a lot of explaining to do. It would be like me driving to church on a Sunday morning, and seeing someone lying on the side of the road. I glance at my watch and realize that it’s five minutes before service begins and you’re all here (or at least most of you) waiting for me. And if I stop and help this guy, I’m not going to make it for church, etc, etc. Maybe at best I grab my cell phone and dial 911 and call in someone to help.
Caught between a rock and hard place. Painted into a corner with no way out. 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 passed by on the other side. Didn’t come near the man. He chose the way of purity. It was safe.
A Levite saw the man. Levites were priestly assistants, kind of like deacons. The same rule applied to them. He came a bit closer. Perhaps he was the priest make his hasty detour. He did the same thing. He chose the way of purity too, and safely passed the man by on the other side of the road. Each could argue that they had kept the law. They could justify their actions. But they did not love their neighbor as themselves.
Then came a Samaritan. The Jews, like the priest and the Levite, despised their Samaritan neighbors. They were considered half-breeds and heretics. Impure in race and religion. Samaritans didn’t worship in Jerusalem, so this man was likely on a business trip. He wasn’t clergy of any sort. Just an ordinary guy doing his work. He saw this broken, half-naked, bleeding man in the ditch and had compassion on him. He got down into the dirty ditch with him, bandaged his wounds, put him on his donkey, and took him to an inn in town and spent the night taking care of him. The next day he left two day’s wages with the innkeeper and ran a tab for the rest. I’m sure this man had some explaining to do when he got home about where he was and why he spent the money.
Which of these three men, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?
We don’t get a picture here, but I would love to see the lawyer’s face as he as to say the words. You notice he can’t bring himself to say, “the Samaritan.” That’s too much to bear. But he can say, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”
Do you think the lawyer left with any hope of inheriting eternal life? What about you? Your neighbor is anyone in need of mercy, anyone whom God places in your path, no matter how inconvenient he might be. Can you go and do likewise, and on the basis of that doing, know that you will inherit eternal life?
Ask a law question, and you receive a law answer. Ask Jesus what you must do, and He will tell you what you must do. Come to Him in empty handed need, and He will give.
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 ourself, but in and through Jesus who became neighbor to us, who had compassion on us, who joined us in the ditch of death. God in His Son became our good Samaritan neighbor, took on our flesh, loved God and loved a world of neighbors so perfectly and purely that it covers all. He pours the healing balm of baptism on you. He binds up your wounds with His wounds. He brings you into the company of His Church, a hospice of sinners justified for Jesus’ sake. He binds your wounds with His forgiveness. He gives you the bread of His body and the wine of His blood for nourishment and strength. He pays your debt in full.
You want to thank him. I’m sure the man who had fallen among the thieves wanted to thank the anonymous Samaritan for his undeserved kindness. He had saved his life. But where in Samaria would he go to find him? And how could he possibly thank him?
Where is Jesus that we might thank Him for saving us? Look again at that man in the ditch, the man who fell among the thieves, bleeding, naked. He looks familiar, doesn’t he? He looks like someone you know. He looks like the One who was beaten, and pommeled, and crucified among thieves to save you from you sins, from the Law that condemns you, from death and hell. Where is Jesus that we might thank Him for all that He has done for us? He’s there in the ditch. Your neighbor in need, in the least, the lowly, the nearly dead, the forsaken, the forgotten. “For as often as you have done it to the least of these, my brothers, you have done it to me.”
Let’s give today’s questions a bit of a tune-up, shall we? How do I inherit eternal life? Answer: By God’s grace through faith for Jesus’ sake. What do I do as an heir of eternal life? Answer: Get down in the ditch and be a neighbor to that broken man who fell among the thieves.
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 death of Jesus and is received as a gift through faith. There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. And in Samaritan freedom, you are actually free to be a neighbor.
So in the end, the parable is about Jesus:
Jesus our good Samaritan who became neighbor to us in the ditch of our death.
Jesus who is neighbor to you in Word and water and Supper to give you the inheritance of eternal life.
Jesus who is there in the ditch as your neighbor in need to serve and to thank in the freedom of His forgiveness.
In the name of Jesus, Amen