In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In 1933, A.T. Robertson, in a book called Word Pictures in the New Testament, wrote: “This parable of the Good Samaritan has built the world’s hospitals and, if understood and practised, will remove race prejudice, national hatred and war, class jealousy.”1 This parable, he says, if understood and practiced, would remove race prejudice, national hatred and war, and social jealousy. Well, either the parable hasn’t been understood, or it hasn’t been practiced, or both. Because within a decade of writing these words, Europe would be engulfed in another world war, and in another year or so, the United States would be pulled into the war by the bombing of Pearl Harbor. And things really haven’t improved much since 1945; there is still war around the world, violence, bloodshed, hatred. So either the parable hasn’t been understood, or it hasn’t been practiced, or both—or maybe there’s a deeper problem.
But Robertson is right, in one sense: if everyone showed mercy like the Samaritan does—if everyone goes and does likewise—then probably all the evil in the world would come to an end. In fact, we probably wouldn’t need “good Samaritans” at all, because if everyone did likewise, then the robbers wouldn’t be robbing anymore; they’d be showing mercy instead. St. Paul says that love is the fulfilling of the law. Love does no wrong to a neighbor. The whole law can be summed up and fulfilled in this one word: love your neighbor as yourself (Romans 13:8-10). But, Paul says, if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another (Galatians 5:14-15). After the events of this past week—shootings, hatred, anger, mutual blame flying everywhere—it seems that we are much closer to consuming one another than loving one another.
Jesus tells this story in response to a question from an expert in religious law, who stands up to tempt Jesus. He is trying to trap Jesus or to get Him to be someone whom He is not. He asks Jesus, “Teacher, what I must do to inherit eternal life?” It’s the same question that the rich man asks in chapter 18. What must I do to inherit eternal life? Ask a law question, get a law answer. Jesus says, well, what does the law say? The law is all about what you are supposed to do, so how do you read it? The lawyer sums it up in the two commandments on which Jesus Himself says the whole Law and Prophets hang: “Love Yahweh your God with all your heart and soul and strength and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Yes. That is correct. Do that and you will live. Which is what Leviticus 18 says: do this law and you will live from it.
But the man apparently suspects that his own answer might not do it. He knows who God is, and so he knows how to love Him, but if he’s going to love his neighbor, he’s got to know who his neighbor is. Who is my neighbor? And so Jesus takes up the idea of “neighbor,” and he tells the story of a certain man who is going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, who fell among robbers. Which apparently was a common occurrence in those days on that road. He falls among robbers, who strip him of everything, beat him, wound him, and leave him half-dead on the side of the road. And then three people pass by. First is a priest. We don’t know if he’s going to or from Jerusalem to do his duties of sacrifice, but either way, he’s having nothing to do with this. He goes by on the opposite side of the road. Next is a Levite, who is in charge of the furnishings of the Temple, and he comes to the place…but he, too, walks by on the opposite side. Next is a Samaritan. You may know that Jews and Samaritans did not get along. Jews viewed Samaritans as half-Israelites, because when Assyria conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel, they took most of the people into exile, but they left a few, and then they sent Assyrians back to intermarry with the Israelites. That’s how you conquer a people, if you’re an Assyrian. So they’re half-Israelites, they hold only to the first five books of the Scriptures—the five books of Moses—and they worship on Mt. Gerizim, instead of in Jerusalem. But I suspect the bad feelings were probably mutual. The Samaritans probably viewed the Jews as having added to their pure religion, and changing what they had received. But this Samaritan doesn’t ask whether the half-dead man is a Jew or Samaritan. He goes to him, pours oil and wine on his wounds, bandages him up, puts him on his own beast, and takes him to an inn. There he tends to him all night, pays the innkeeper in the morning, and then tells him that when he returns, he’ll pay back whatever other costs are incurred.
Which of the three, Jesus asks, was a neighbor to the man who had fallen among thieves? Notice how Jesus has changed the question. The lawyer asked, “who is my neighbor?” Jesus asks, “who acted as a neighbor to the man who was lying half-dead on the road?” And the man answers, the one who showed him mercy. “Go and do likewise,” Jesus says. Love God, and love your neighbor like this, by being a neighbor to someone who needs mercy. And then you will live. Ask a law question, get a law answer. But Paul says that if there were a law given—if God had given a law—that was able to make alive, then righteousness would indeed be by the law (Galatians 3:21). But the whole body, from head to foot, is sick, wounded, dying. Our wounds are not bandaged, and no oil softens them (Isaiah 1:6). Jeremiah says, “Your heart is incurable, and your wound is grievous.” If there were a law that was able to give life, to make alive, then you could go and do it and live. But the law cannot give you life; it can only say, “Do this and you will live.” It can show you what to do, and promise life, but it cannot deliver. Because the Scriptures imprisoned all things under sin, so that the promise might be given to those who believe. When you’re lying half-dead on the road, it’s no good to say, “Do this, and you will live.” You don’t need life dangled in front of your bloody eyes; you need life given to you.
So while Jesus tells this story of a man going down from Jerusalem, He Himself is going up to Jerusalem. He’s going to be beaten, wounded. He’s going to fall among criminals and be hanged there to die. He’s going to carry you in His own flesh to the cross, and by His wounds He’s going to heal you. In His wounds you will be healed; by His death, you will have life. And God delivers you to the safety of the Church’s inn, where He continues to tend to you, and where you find your peace and rest, knowing that the bill has already been paid. That is the promise given freely to wounded and dying sinners. That is the life He gives out here in this place.
Now in the midst of this world, full of violence and anger and hatred, what we are doing here seems totally irrelevant. If you’ve been on the internet at all this week, you’ve seen people crying out for someone to do something. Because we feel helpless in the face of the things that are going on, not only this week, but much of this year. We feel helpless, so we cry out for someone to do something, for something to change, anything. We want more laws, or more guns, or different elected officials; more this, or more that. You can tell very easily what people’s gods are by where they turn when they feel helpless. Government, or laws, or instruments of self-defense, or something else. If only we could do this, then we would live. And so we vote, or we work, or we grieve, but nothing changes anymore than racial prejudice, national hatred and war, and class jealousy have ceased since 1933.
But we are here, gathered around what looks to the world like a helpless, weak God on the cross. What can He do? What will He do? How will He fix anything? But this is exactly how: by being the sort of God who takes on everything that belongs to us, by taking sin and death and violence and hatred into His own flesh and dying under it. And now the promise of resurrection and eternal life is only given; nothing can be done to gain an inheritance. Everything, and everyone, is imprisoned under sin—no matter the color of your skin, no matter your vocation, no matter what your place in this world—we are all under sin, so that the promise of righteousness and life can be given freely to all, without exception and without condition. To you, to me, to everyone who has been wounded by their own sin and by the sin of others. To everyone dying in this world, resurrection is given in Jesus. He is the only healing, the only peace, the only life that can be found, contrary to every expectation of human sinners who demand that people do something. Jesus has done everything for us, helpless as we are.
And if you have found your healing here, in Christ, then you do indeed go out and show mercy as you have received mercy. Not to inherit eternal life, but because you know where eternal life is. You know that your healing is in Christ’s Word and Sacraments, and so you know where you can bring every wounded sinner to find rest and peace in a world that knows nothing of such things. The promise that is given is this: Jesus, who died, is life in the midst of a world that demands life and only keeps dying. And what He has begun in His own body, He will complete in our bodies, and in this whole creation, when all things, imprisoned under sin, are finally set free.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7).
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 7/9/16
1 Robertson, A. T. (1933). Word Pictures in the New Testament (Lk 10:37). Nashville, TN: Broadman Press.