Saturday, July 10, 2010

And Who Is My Neighbor?

This sermon on the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Luke 10:25-37, is coming soon (tomorrow, even) to the pulpit of a historic LCMS church within sight of St. Louis's Gateway Arch. It is heavily revised from a sermon I preached in 2004 in Holtville, California, only my third "pulpit supply" sermon after I resigned from my second parish. I was planning to write a very different sermon after reviewing my past treatments of this text. But then I realized that this ray of light from one of my darkest hours was better than the fresh sermon I was working on. May God use it according to His gracious purposes.
And behold, a certain expert in the law stood up and tested Jesus, saying, “Teacher, what shall we do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answered by asking the man what the Law says to do. The man correctly answered, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus said this is the right answer, but it sounds wrong to us Lutherans. It seems to mean that what you do, your love or your works, earns eternal life. But we have been told, as Scripture teaches, that we cannot earn eternal life, because we are sinners. Our only hope is what Christ has given us for free by dying for our sins. Our only hope is to be saved through faith in the Son of God.

But to understand the answer, you have to understand the question. The question was, “What must we do to inherit eternal life?” And that makes all the difference. It is a far different question from, “What shall we do that we may do the works of God?”—which Jesus answered in John 6: “This is the work of God: that you believe in Him whom He sent.” There is no pleasing God apart from faith. We cannot earn his favor; it is freely given to us because of Jesus. But if you must do something to inherit eternal life, what would that be? That is the question the expert-in-the-law asked Jesus. He wanted to test Jesus, to see if he could catch Him saying anything contrary to the Law. The only reality that mattered to this expert-in-the-law was the Law. He was not asking how to gain eternal life, which is by faith alone. He was asking what Law, if you kept it perfectly, would make you worthy of salvation.

What a broad and sweeping Law it is! Love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind. Love your neighbor as yourself. These commandments are so simple and general that at first they don’t sound like much. But it would be a lot easier to keep a very specific law, like “Don’t eat meat on Fridays” or “Always give 10% of your gross income to the church.” The more specific, the better. But this is a very broad law, and this doesn’t make it easier to keep. Rather it embraces so many things that there is no end to what you must do. When it says, “Love God with all your heart and soul and strength and mind,” it doesn’t leave any left over that isn’t devoted to loving God. When it says “Love the next person as yourself” it doesn’t make any exceptions, like “except when your life is at stake,” or “except when the next person asks for too much.”

If there is any part of your heart where the Lord is not number one, you have broken this Law. If there is any mixture of selfish motivation in your soul, any ounce of strength that you withhold from serving him, any corner of your mind that doubts or resents God or resists His will, you have broken the Law. If there is anything or anybody that ever comes before God in the choices you make, you have failed.

And if at any time you favor your own self-interest over the needs and well-being of your neighbor, you have failed again. There’s no point justifying yourself, saying, “If I help everybody, I won’t have anything left for myself,” or, “You have to be careful who you help because some people just want to rip you off.” “Love your neighbor as yourself” means treating them how you would want to be treated in their place. Would you want to be trusted even if you looked like a creep? Forgiven even by someone you had hurt? Driven to the hospital even while bleeding on someone’s expensive upholstery? Fed, clothed, and sheltered even by those who had little to spare? If you refuse your neighbor anything you would ask for yourself, you have broken this Law.

How many times, in how many ways, and by how much have you ever failed to love and serve God with all that is in you? How many times, in how many ways, and by how much have you looked out for Number One, and taken care of yourself before helping others? What have you done to alienate God? What have you done to get your own way at the expense of someone else? You are no exception to norm. Everyone has sinned and falls short of the glory of God. No one has done what His Law requires.

Yet, wanting to justify himself, the man said to Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” I think he got the point of Jesus’ statement, “Do this and live.” For Scripture says of the Laws of God that “the man who does them shall live by them”—but the righteous shall live by faith. Since no one does what the Law demands, no one is saved by the works of the Law. The expert-in-the-law was convicted, because he was expert enough to know he had not kept the Law. He had studied it, he knew it inside out, he made a great effort to conform his life to it, but he must have known he had fallen short. “Do this and live”—but he had not done this. How would he then live? How tragic for him, that he had asked the wrong question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He had not asked, and was not ready to consider, any other route to eternal life besides doing the works of the Law. But he was caught, because the Law he himself quoted, exposed him as a sinner. Naturally, he wanted to justify himself. He wanted to make excuses, or throw the blame on someone else. He wanted to dodge the guilt that his knowledge of the Law heaped on his head. He wasn’t asking God to take away his sin. He was looking for a loophole, a technicality to help him escape justice. And so he retorted: “Yeah, but, who’s my neighbor?”

So Jesus told him the familiar parable of the Good Samaritan. Here’s what a neighbor is, in Jesus’ illustration. Your neighbor is someone lying helpless on the side of the road, robbed and wounded and left for dead. Your neighbor is someone with problems no one wants to get involved with, because they might cause problems for them too. Your neighbor may be a total stranger or someone you personally dislike, someone who hates you and disagrees with you—the way Jews and Samaritans hated and disagreed with each other. Your neighbor is a person who can do nothing to repay your kindness, who may not even remember what you have done or be able to thank you until after you’re gone.

Your neighbor is a person whose needs stretch your resources to the limit. Helping him costs you time, effort, and money. Helping him means giving up a comfortable seat, a warm bed, a refreshing meal for him. Helping him means surrendering your dignity to him, delaying your busy schedule because of him. Being his neighbor means his rights matter more than yours, his needs are served before yours. It makes no difference how you feel about him and his kind of people—or how he feels about you and yours. You do to him as you would have another do to you. You love him as you love yourself. What matters isn’t how you feel, but what you do.

Who is your neighbor? It is anyone you see in need of help. And when a legal expert asks who meets the criteria to be your neighbor, Jesus answers in an unexpected way. “Who is my neighbor?” After telling the story of the priest, the Levite, and the Good Samaritan, Jesus refashions the question: “Which of these three proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the robber’s hands?” So in the final analysis, the question isn’t whether a needy person qualifies to be my neighbor, but whether I act as a neighbor toward him. The question isn’t who am I required to serve as a neighbor, but whether I am neighbor enough to serve him. Again, a narrow, hard-and-fast, by-the-numbers law would be easy to obey. “Help this person in these circumstances, and you’re in.” But Jesus leaves us no exceptions to hide behind. The law of love knows no limits. It doesn’t ask who is to be loved, only that you love them as you love yourself.

Plenty of fine and upright individuals may pass by on the other side, expecting someone else to come to the rescue. But the one who acts as a neighbor need not be especially pious or upstanding. He can even be like this Samaritan, a member of a hated minority or a heterodox sect. Better to be a person who comes to church one week out of three, and sits in the back and never opens the book, who does like this good Samaritan—better to be like that than to be the chairman of the Board, or the song-leader, or the zone president of the LWML, who passes by on the other side. If, that is, you want to be justified by works. But if you examine yourself in light of this parable, you will find you have fallen short just like the expert-in-the-law who tested Jesus. You yourself have failed the test. And whatever you may say to justify yourself, you have not loved every neighbor as yourself—as the good Samaritan did.

But there is another side to his parable, one that doesn’t get noticed as often. For there is one Man who served the Father with perfect love. There is one Man who gave up all that He had to help people who didn’t care for Him, and in most cases would never thank Him for it. There is one Man of whom Paul speaks in Romans chapter 5: “For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him. For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. And not only that, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation.”

He helped us when we could not help ourselves. He died to redeem us when we were still sinners. He made peace with God for us when we were His enemies. He justified us—that is, He covered us with His own righteousness, and took away our sin. Like the Samaritan stopping where others had passed by, Jesus had compassion on us though He owed us none. Like the Samaritan pouring oil and wine on the man’s wounds, Jesus anointed us with His cleansing, healing Spirit. Like the Samaritan putting the wounded man on his own animal, Jesus carried our burden. Like the Samaritan paying the innkeeper to care for his neighbor, Jesus paid the full price for us. And Jesus did even more, handing Himself over for torture and death, to release us from the guilt of our sins. The compassion Jesus has for sinful mankind is undeserved on one hand, thankless on the other. By pure grace He has furnished the healing message of the Gospel, the cleansing of Baptism, the nourishment of His Supper, a safe refuge in His holy Church, and an everlasting home in His kingdom.

Jesus has been our perfect neighbor. He kept the Law of love to the very end, loving our lives more than His own, and loving His Father with every fiber of His being. Jesus has been our Good Samaritan, doing what we cannot do, and doing it for us. When Satan had overcome us, when no one else could help us, Jesus came to save our helpless, defeated, dying carcasses. Jesus’ love has brought it about that we are now God’s children. Jesus’ love will help us in our daily walk, help us to love God and our neighbor as we should. His love keeps cleansing and forgiving us when we fail. His love will guide us at last to the perfect world to come. Rejoice in the one who had mercy on you. Go and do likewise. And rather than justifying yourself, take comfort in the oil and wine your Good Samaritan has poured upon you, the forgiveness of sins in His blood.

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