Text: Luke 10:23-37
Dear friends in Christ, St. Paul wrote to the Galatians in our Epistle reading,
Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the Scriptures imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.Galatians 3:21-22, English Standard Version
Paul’s lesson for the Galatians is that the point of the Law, both God’s Ten Commandments and the Old Testament in general – which is sometimes called “law” with a lowercase l, is not that our works make us righteous in God’s eyes. The point of the Law is to show us which things are pleasing to God and are His will, and how we fail to do them. By failing to keep the Commandments, we all fall under the condemnation of the Law – which is God’s plan. It is God’s plan to condemn all through the Law so that He can also have mercy on all through faith in Christ.
This is what’s at stake in our Lord’s conversation with the lawyer. The lawyer, whom the text indicates is not a believer in Jesus, came to our Lord to test Him, albeit with a wrong understanding of the Law. The lawyer assumed that by works of the law – by obedience to the Commandments – we are able to make ourselves right with God. But, our Lord shows through the parable that no such thing is possible. By our own good works, we cannot merit eternal life; therefore, Christ became our Good Samaritan.
This is an idea that is very easily missed in this text, and commonly is. Quite often this text is moralized to teach that we are love every single person we across regardless of any “merit or worthiness” on their part. This is true. Our faith in Christ does lead us to live in love toward our neighbor. This cannot be encouraged enough; it’s just not the point of this text. For that, we need to look at the whole text. It starts this way, “Behold, a lawyer stood up to put Him to the test, saying, ‘Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’” (Luke 10:25) There are a few red flags we should note here. The first is that the man doing the speaking is a lawyer. A lawyer in the New Testament is not the lawyer we have now. In the New Testament, these guys were experts in knowing and applying the commandments of God in the Old Testament. They were also known for inventing loopholes in these laws and, as a group, were opposed to Jesus. The lawyer greeted Jesus as “teacher,” which is something His enemies do. Then, St. Luke writes that the lawyer “tested” Jesus; but the word the Spirit uses is the same word for the devil’s tempting Jesus earlier in the Gospel.
This lawyer questioned our Lord with dubious intent and with a wrong understanding of God’s Law. He assumed that he could bring himself into eternal life by his own good works. Jesus, knowing this man’s a lawyer answered him with a lawyer’s question. He said, “What is written in the Law?” (v. 26) The man responded with words we heard recently, that we should love the Lord with all our heart, soul, and strength; and our neighbor as ourselves. Jesus said, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” (v. 28) The man was right. If you love the Lord with all your heart, soul, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself, you will enter eternal life. What’s the problem here?
The problem is that no one is able to do this. Jeremiah served the Lord as prophet for 40 years. Yet, this is the conclusion he drew. He begged the Lord, “Correct me, O Lord, but in justice; not in Your anger, lest You bring me to nothing.” (10:24) Jeremiah knew that, despite whatever good deeds he did have, it was certainly not enough to offset his sins, for which he deserved to be brought to nothing. Read the psalms of King David and you will find the same. Still, the lawyer wasn’t going to budge on this, and instead desired to justify himself. So, Jesus decided to teach a parable.
The parable goes that there was a man headed down from Jerusalem to Jericho. Along the way he fell among robbers who, “stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead.” (v. 30) By chance, there was a priest returning home from his duty down that same road. The priest – who certainly would’ve been expected to come to the man’s aid – went by on the opposite side of the road. Perhaps he was concerned that the man was dead. If the priest touched a dead body, he’d be made unclean for a time; and, well, we couldn’t have that. Later, a Levite also came down the same road. He actually came up to the place where the man was and saw that he was, indeed, alive. The loving thing, of course, would’ve been to help him. But, then, the Levite – like the priest – crossed to the opposite side and kept going. So, two men who should’ve supreme examples of righteousness and love for neighbor fail to love their neighbor as themselves. By the lawyer’s definition, they would not enter eternal life.
Finally, a Samaritan came by. Samaritans were descendents of those who previously lived in the Northern Kingdom. The Northern Kingdom of Israel was destroyed in 722 B.C. People from other countries were brought in – with their idols. The Samaritans were descendents of Israelites who married unbelievers. They were despised by Israel in Jesus’ time. Yet, the Samaritan came to the place where the man was and had compassion. He loved the man by binding up his wounds and poured on healing oil and wine. He put the man on his own animal and walked him to an inn. There, he continued to care for him, paying the innkeeper and promising full payment upon his return. The point of the parable is that those who should’ve been the utmost examples of righteousness and love failed to love, while the unexpected Samaritan did truly love his neighbor.
If we were to place ourselves in this parable, one conclusion we could draw is that the priest is very near a picture of ourselves. We have all been brought to faith in Christ by the Holy Spirit through the Word. We have been called to labor in our Lord’s vineyard, bearing the fruits of love which flow from a right faith. But, when it comes to loving our neighbor as ourselves, speaking truthfully, we don’t. It’s true; we might love our neighbor, but not as much as we love me. One example. In small congregations, we are all accustomed to noticing how many people are in church and we all know the feeling when there are few in attendance. The reality is, we don’t only attend worship to praise God and receive His gifts, but also to encourage one another. When we purposely choose not to attend worship, in a way, we are failing to love our neighbor when we cause them to be discouraged by our absence.
There are other examples. We don’t support the food bank as much as we should. We don’t pray for others as much as we should. We don’t visit them as much as we should. All the excuses that we give all come back to the same one letter word: I. And that is what sin is, to be more concerned with I than with God or neighbor. All our sins have piled up. They pile up on us and they pummel us into the ground. They leave us naked before God and fully dead. Not only are we the priest, we’re also the man left for dead. That’s where our sins get us. But, there’s someone else in the parable, isn’t there? Not the priest, not the Levite, not the man beaten up. Who’s left? The Samaritan.
The Samaritan is Christ. He alone is the one truly fears, loves, and trusts in God above all things and loves His neighbor as Himself. Christ is the one who came to where we were laying broken and dead in sin and had compassion. He did the work of healing Himself when He took our sins in His own body on the cross. By His death He made the payment for our sins of thought and word and deed. He binds up our wounds with the healing oil and wine of His Word and His Sacrament. All that we need He does supply. He forgives us our sins, strengthens our faith, and causes us to live in love toward Him and toward our neighbor.
The lawyer was wrong on two points. First, he was wrong to not believe in Jesus. Second, he was wrong to assume that it was within his power to earn eternal life – by loving God above all things and his neighbor as himself. Sometimes, we fall into that same error. Our Lord teaches us today that we are unable to merit salvation by our works, for we fail to love God above all things and we love ourselves more and to the exclusion of our neighbor. Therefore, He became our Good Samaritan, healing and saving us by His death and granting us His forgiveness as a gift through faith.