Do This and You Will Live
Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity
September 10, 2017
The man in the Gospel reading wants to know what he must do. It is the way we are wired. In order to obtain eternal life we must do something. And so he asks Jesus what he must do. Jesus points Him to the Bible, the Old Testament. What is written there? The man knows his Bible, he quotes it to perfection: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”
We would expect Jesus in good Lutheran fashion to say, No, that’s not it. No one can do that because everyone is sinful. There is nothing you can do to gain heaven. You are saved by grace alone.
But you see, Jesus is more Lutheran than we are because He knows exactly what is required to gain eternal life whereas we only think we do. Where we would correct the man Jesus affirms his answer. You have answered correctly, do this and you will live. Love the Lord your God with your whole being and life and your neighbor as yourself and you will have eternal life.
This isn’t what he wanted to hear. He was trying to test Jesus. He was trying to build up his already impressive resume of accomplishments in fulfillment of God’s Law. He fell into the same trap of the Pharisee we heard about a few weeks ago who was enamored with his own righteousness. But when Jesus said that it was the tax collector who was justified and not the Pharisee He turned everything upside down. Liking things right side up this man in the Gospel reading today wanted to justify himself.
So he said to Jesus, Okay, who is my neighbor? Notice how his justification of himself did not include the first part. Which just happens to be, oh yeah, the main part. He wanted no part in trying to justify himself on the basis of having no other gods than the one true God; of fearing, loving, and trusting in God above all things. No, he thought it would work just fine in justifying himself on the basis of loving his neighbor as himself.
So he asks Jesus, Who is my neighbor? Let me tell you a story, Jesus says. It’s about a man who was travelling and fell into an ambush. They beat him and left him for dead. Here was a guy who needed someone else to come along that road. And it just so happened someone did. But the person who came by wanted no part in helping this man. You see, he was late for church, and since he was the pastor, he thought it would be better to be there than to help someone who could just as easily get help from someone else who hopefully would come by. And it just so happened that someone did. But he thought it best to pass on by as well, because being an assistant at the church he thought it best to be there as well.
But the next person who came by wouldn’t be of much help either because he was a Samaritan, and Samaritans hated Jews just as much as Jews hated Samaritans. The guy would have been excused had he thought that a Jew hopefully would be along soon to help this poor guy out. And even in his hatred he could at least have a little sympathy for him. Perhaps even say a little prayer for him.
But what happened is that the Samaritan had no thought of the guy in the ditch being a Jew. No thought of himself being a Samaritan. No thought of thinking someone else might be along soon. No thought of where he was going and what he was going for. He saw the man and compassion for him consumed him. His heart went out to him and so did his hands. He got down in the ditch and tended his wounds and cleaned him. He put him on his donkey and took him to the nearest motel. He gave the innkeeper money to take care of the man and told him that when he returned he would give him whatever else was needed for caring for the man.
It’s a great story. Everybody knows it as the parable of the Good Samaritan. And as answer to the man’s question, Who is my neighbor?, we see that it was the man in the ditch. It doesn’t matter who he is, where he’s from, he’s your neighbor. Get down in the ditch with him and help him.
But in Jesus’ way of telling it, that’s not the point. It’s not the point because it’s not the problem the man had who wanted to justify himself. He asked who is neighbor was so that he could pick and choose which people to help so that when he did he could be like that Pharisee a few weeks ago who tells God that He must be really pleased with all his good works toward his neighbor.
No, the man’s problem was not with the second part, Love your neighbor as yourself. It was with the first part, Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind. He asked Jesus, Who is my neighbor? Jesus tells him a story and then asks him a question, Who was a neighbor to the man who fell among thieves?
And one of my favorite things that God like to do. He gets the person to convict himself. The man suddenly sees that it’s not about figuring out who your neighbor is but about being a neighbor. He answers Jesus’ question, The one who showed mercy on him. Right answer. Conviction, because the man sees that he has not been being a neighbor. He hasn’t truly been a neighbor to others because he has been too busy justifying himself. He has spent his time congratulating himself on his goodness and has forgotten about showing compassion and mercy to those in need.
Being Lutherans, we would expect Jesus to say, Yes, you’re right again. But you know, no one can do this because everyone is sinful. You need to repent and receive forgiveness. But always more Lutheran than we are, Jesus doesn’t say that. We think we know what’s right. But we don’t. Jesus does and he says to the man, Go and do likewise. Do this and you will live. Love the Lord your God with your whole being and be a neighbor to everyone you meet, and you will have eternal life.
Everyone on the planet hears that and agrees with it because we are wired that way. We by nature are sinful and think we must do something in order to be saved. But as Lutherans we hear the Bible with the message that salvation is given by grace, that we can’t do anything to be saved. And so the process begins of trying to make what Jesus says into something He isn’t saying.
His words are plain, Do this and you will live. Live as the man in the parable did and you will have eternal life. The Samaritan lived by faith. Fearing, loving, and trusting in God above all things. It’s the only way to truly live. Otherwise you are lying to yourself and you are not really much good to anyone else because you are not acting toward them in compassion and having mercy on them.
Whereas Lutherans ought to understand the Law of God better than anyone too often we are the ones who most do not understand it. Too often we fall into the trap of the man in the parable who wanted to justify himself. When as Lutherans we hear that the Law of God condemns us of our sin we make the leap to the Law being not good for us. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Law of God is good and good for us. God condemns us of our sin in order to help us see that we are in the ditch and gasping for air spiritually. We’re not going to make it on our own. The Law drives us to repentance.
Since we cannot be saved by the Law God also brings to us something else, the Gospel. The Gospel doesn’t tell us what to do or how to live or really, anything about us at all. What it does tell us is who Christ is and what He came to do and how He lived in perfect fear, love, and trust in God above all things and yet suffered the condemnation for not doing so in our place. As Lutherans we are all good to go with that.
But we need not fear the Law. We need not reduce it to simply condemnation. Listen again to Jesus’ words: Do this and you will live. See again the picture Jesus painted in the man who stopped his whole world for the sake of one person in need. This is what truly living is. It is not all the things you can do for others to build up your case for how good of a person you are or how much God must be pleased with you. It is pure, selfless love. It is seeing others in need and showing mercy to them.
When you look to Christ rather than yourself then you see what Jesus is talking about when He says, Do this and you will live. We prayed in the Collect to our God to make us love what He has commanded. What He has commanded is not bad, it’s good! The Ten Commandments give us the clearest picture of the life Jesus lived, living in perfect conformity with God’s holy, perfect Law. He did not justify Himself however, there is no need, He is the sinless Lamb of God. He justified us, taking on Himself our sin. Offering Himself as the pure sacrifice having had compassion on us. We are now free from the condemnation of the Law and free to love God and others. Amen.