[Preached 7/14/2013 – as a guest preacher at Holy Redeemer Lutheran Church – Sandusky, MI]
GRACE MERCY AND PEACE ARE YOURS THIS DAY FROM GOD OUR FATHER, THROUGH OUR LORD AND SAVIOR, JESUS CHRIST. AMEN.
The text for our consideration this morning is our Gospel text (Luke 10:25-37), where we hear Jesus’ answer to the one question that lies beneath all religious thinking.
When the man in our text approaches Jesus, we learn that he is a “lawyer”. Now, this lawyer wasn’t like Sam Bernstein or Jeffrey Feiger. He didn’t deal in civil law. He was a religious lawyer – someone who knew the scriptures well and also knew the 613 laws that the jews had set up around God’s law to hopefully make it possible to keep God’s law and be a righteous and holy person.
Now, if you are a fan of the classic law shows, you have a sense of how this man would operate. He isn’t going to ask a question if he doesn’t think he knows the answer. And we see that his question isn’t an honest question about the fate of his own soul.
In fact, when he asks the question, he isn’t most concerned about himself. The question was a test. His intention is to lead Jesus into a trap – to have some grounds on which to accuse Jesus of false teaching.
And so he approaches Jesus with the question that strikes at the essence of every religious system that exists in the world. The man asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Of course, Jesus knows the game he’s playing. And although answering a question with a question is often a tactic used to avoid a trap, that isn’t Jesus’ intention. Jesus is more interested in giving this man the assurance that he will inherit eternal life. It is God’s will that all people be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. So Jesus’ reply was not merely an effort at evasion, it was an attempt to get the man to look carefully at the scriptures and come to know the truth – that we can do NOTHING to inherit eternal life. Eternal life is a gift, given freely by God through Christ Jesus our savior.
From our Lutheran mindset, where we regularly speak in terms of LAW and GOSPEL, it’s easy to misunderstand Jesus’ response. When Jesus says, “What is written in the Law?” We often immediately think He’s talking about the commands and rules of God – just like this lawyer. We interpret the question to mean, “What does God command you to do?”
But the phrase, “the Law” also refers to the TORAH – the first 5 books of the bible written by Moses. The real question is, “What does Moses teach about inheriting eternal life?” What should immediately come to mind is how with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, God provided salvation and rescue for those whom He made His children. From Abraham who was born into a pagan family – and was called out of that country by God’s own doing. How Abraham was given the promise that one special descendant would be born to his family and that descendant would be a blessing to all nations. And how Abraham was justified before God because he believed God’s promise and that faith that laid hold of God’s promise made Abraham righteous before God.
In the Torah we also read how – with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, God rescued the people of Israel from Egypt – made them His own posession – not through their own efforts or their own works, but only and solely by His action and His work. How He raised up Moses, who by his own admission wasn’t fit to be the leader of God’s people. How God promised to be their God and make them His people. How He would lead them to a land flowing with milk and honey – how He fed them in the wilderness – gave them the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire to show His continued presence and His own leadership for 40 years.
The Torah – what Jesus in our text calls the Law – is simply page after page after page that describes a gracious God that comes to the aid of His people – rescuing them, saving them, and delivering them into a land flowing with milk and honey. Not because of what they have done or what they promise to do, but because He is a good and gracious God.
Recall that first Easter Sunday, as two men walked from Jerusalem to Emmaus – Jesus explained to them from Moses and the Prophets that it all pointed to Him and the work He would do. This is what Jesus wanted the Lawyer to see and understand.
But like most of us, myself included, all that seemed too simple for the lawyer speaking to Jesus. It just can’t be all God’s doing – we have to do something – we have to contribute somehow… Whether it’s making the right decision to follow Jesus – or living the right way in this life – ultimately, we want it to be up to us – WHAT MUST I do to inherit eternal life?
And so when we hear the question, “what does the Law say” we think about all the rules and regulations that describes what it means to live as a person who will inherit eternal life. We think to ourselves – THAT’S the path to eternal life. I must hate what God hates – and love what God loves – I must do what God wants me to and avoid doing what God doesn’t want me to. Then God will have to accept me – then I will have made myself worthy to inherit eternal life.
And on the face of it, that law looks pretty easy to fulfill: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus says, “Do this, and you will live.” And, to be sure, if we could love God supremely above all things, and love all those around us perfectly – seeking their best interest without any expectation of receiving anything in return – being willing to lay down our life if it would benefit someone else – then we could be absolutely certain we would inherit eternal life.
So how about it? Are you willing to stake your place in heaven on your perfect love of God and your perfect love of your neighbor? Remember, God doesn’t grade on a curve. The standard is perfection – nothing less will do. Have you kept the 10 commandments perfectly since you were born? Have you always perfectly loved both God and your neighbor?
What about that relative you can’t stand and that guy who cut you off on the road the other day? What about that pregnant teen who lives down the street and the drug addict who lives in your neighborhood who has been in and out of rehab so many times you can’t count? Do you love and seek the best for the unmarried couple who just had a kid or the woman at work who seems proud to have had 4 abortions?
Think about how you react when you see the most despicable human being you can think of — and then ask yourself whether you love them as much as you love yourself?
WOAH – WAIT A MINUTE, Pastor – Are you telling me that God expects me to love THEM! That’s too much – that bar is just too high! Give me a break!
Certainly God doesn’t mean to say that THOSE PEOPLE are my neighbor – in need of my love, my care, and my concern. I can’t even perfectly love my spouse, my kids, my parents – and they are my own flesh and blood! How can God expect me to be a merciful and caring neighbor toward every Tom, Dick, and Harry who crosses my path?
Besides – if I associated with such people, what would other people think? If I had compassion and mercy on those people, I might make myself unclean – others might think badly about me – like the Levite who crossed on the other side of the street. Or, it might impact my job – like the priest – who if he touched a dead body or was made unclean because of blood he wouldn’t be able to do his job. There could be high costs for me. I just can’t do it! God demands too much. The bar must be lowered – these people can’t really be my neighbor.
Now you see the depth of the problem – and this is what Jesus wanted the man who questioned him to see.
The real problem is that we can’t perfectly and selflessly love our neighbor. You and I are so wrapped up in ourselves that we are unable to see others as having value, worth and dignity equal to our own.
God created them, just as He created you and me. Jesus died for them, just as He died for you and for me.
It’s true, their lives are turned upside down by sin. – But it’s because a band of robbers has stripped them, beaten them, and left them for dead on the side of the road. The devil, the world, and their own sinful flesh have conspired to kill and destroy them.
But really – my own inability to love them as I ought to – my inability to have mercy and compassion on them like Jesus does just proves that I have the same problem that they do – I am a sinner and I need to be rescued.
That is our problem. That’s why we want the bar to be lowered and why we want to define who is and who isn’t our neighbor. We are as weak as that man heading down from Jerusalem to Jericho – who was mugged and left for dead on the side of the road. The devil has conspired with the world, and even the sinful desires of our flesh to destroy us just as he seeks the destruction of all humanity. He wants to lead us to hate, kill and destroy.
That is why it was so necessary for Christ Jesus to come along side us. Descending from heaven, He has come down and has lifted us up. He has brought us into a place that will care for us, nourish us and sustain us in this life by making us members of His church. Here He has washed our wounds and covered over them with clean and fresh bandages as the waters of Holy Baptism were poured out upon us and He placed the robe of His righteousness on our shoulders.
Here – week after week, He changes our dressings – cleansing and disinfecting our wounds through the words of Absolution where He repeatedly pours out His mercy and through the lips of the pastor tells us, “I forgive you all your sins in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
Here – He supplies us with food for our soul and nourishment for our life of faith as He feeds us with His body and blood – given and shed for the forgiveness of our sins and the strengthening of our life of faith.
And as we are cleansed and healed, as we are preserved and sustained during our forty – sixty – eighty or even more years in the wilderness that is this life, He remains our God and we remain His people as He carries us to the promised land of eternal life.
And as we live as His people, He gives us the desire and the will to be His hands and feet in loving service to our neighbor. He turns us away from ourselves, focuses our eyes upon Him and puts us to work loving and serving all around us as true loving neighbors – knowing and understanding that it is only God’s mercy and grace toward us that protects and preserves us and it is only because of the true “Good Samaritan,” Christ Jesus, that we have been rescued from the side of the road. He has promised to keep and preserve us so that by His work and His work alone, we shall inherit eternal life.