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In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
This discussion between Jesus and the expert in the law is one we know well. We see discussions or arguments about the law all around us. People argue about what laws the government should make and what laws they should repeal. The Congress should do this, the president should do that, the legislature, or the governor, should do these things. And it’s not just the laws of the country. People argue about the laws of God, too. Someone will take words from the Bible and say, “This is God’s law.” Another person will take some other words and say, “That’s not God’s law, this is.” This law doesn’t apply; that one does. We know well the arguments about the law. We make them. We try to find loopholes. We try to justify ourselves in the face of them.
So this expert in the Law of Moses stands up to put Jesus to the test with a question. We know, then, from the beginning, it’s not a sincere question. He doesn’t, at this point, actually want to know the answer. He wants to catch Jesus saying something so that he can use it against Him later. So he says, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus turns the question around: well, you’re an expert in the law. What does it say? How do you read it? And the man gives Jesus the two great commandments, which Jesus Himself has said, “Love Yahweh your God with everything you have and are, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Those are the two commandments that sum up everything in the law. And Jesus says, “You have answered correctly.” It is right, according to the law. When you measure the answer up against the law, it is correct. “Do this and you will live.”
That’s what the law says: the person who does these commandments will live by and from them. Do the law and you will have life. The opposite is also true: don’t do them and you will die. But that’s not enough for this expert in the law. You sense he’s beginning to sweat a little bit. He wants to justify himself and prove that he’s doing enough to satisfy the law and so inherit eternal life. Curiously, he doesn’t feel a need to have Jesus explain the first part any more. He seems to think that he knows who God is and that he loves him. But what about loving his neighbor as himself? In order to do that, he has to know who his neighbor is. Then he can love his neighbor as himself. “Who is my neighbor?” he asks Jesus.
And Jesus tells this familiar story that we call the Good Samaritan. A man is robbed, beaten, and stripped, and left half-dead on the side of the road. A priest and a Levite walk by and they both walk by on the other side, opposite the man lying by the road. I don’t know exactly which direction they’re going, but both the priest and the Levite seem to want to keep the law. They are both experts in what they can and can’t do. And Leviticus is clear: a priest can’t have contact with any dead person who’s not in his immediate family. A high priest can’t touch any dead person, even in his immediate family. And the Levite knows that if he touches a dead person, he will be unclean for a week and have to undergo ceremonial washing, and if he doesn’t, he will be cut off from Israel.
They know the law and they keep it. If that guy’s dead, and they touch him, they won’t be able to carry out the duties that God commands. And then a Samaritan comes by. The Samaritan is already outside the law. He’s not going to the temple or taking part in the sacrifices. He’s only a half-Jew anyway, because his blood is mixed with that of the Assyrian invaders. But he’s the one who has compassion, comes over, binds up the man’s wounds, puts him on his own animal, takes him to the inn, a safe place, and takes care of him. Then he tells the innkeeper to take care of him, and whatever his money doesn’t cover, he’ll repay when he comes back again.
Which one, Jesus asks the expert in the law, was a neighbor to the man in need? Notice how Jesus again turns the question around. The expert in the law had asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus says, “Who was the neighbor?” Who acted like a neighbor? Who did what a neighbor does? The one who showed mercy. And Jesus says, “You go, and do likewise.”
This is still a question about the law. But now it’s a question about the point of the law. Is the law an end in itself, to be served? Or is the law a means toward some other end? The priest and the Levite treat the law as an end in itself. They are doing what the law requires. But they are not doing it toward the end that the law has. Because they forgot that even all their work, all their sacrifices, and all their service in the temple is a means to an end. It is all for the love of the people. It’s all gift that God gave for the sake of Israel. And more than that, all of it—the priests and the sacrifices and the Levites and the temple—all of it was meant to point toward God’s salvation in Christ.
God had a perfect, holy, righteous Son whom He was going to send. And because the priesthood and the sacrifices and the temple were pointing to that Savior, nothing could be altered without altering the picture of Jesus. This is why God was so specific when He was describing to Moses how to make the temple, and what the priests and the Levites should do. But it’s not the priest and the Levite who do that here. It’s the Samaritan. In John’s Gospel, the people call Jesus a Samaritan. Jesus is by divine right, outside of the law. It’s His law. He’s the Lord of the law as He is the Lord of the sabbath. But He puts Himself under the law in order to redeem those who are under the law.
The Samaritan has compassion on the man. “Compassion” is a Jesus word. Jesus saw the crowds and He had compassion on them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. He sees the wounded and dying, and He binds up their wounds, and takes them to a safe place. That place isn’t always the physical, corporate Church, but it is always the Body of Christ. We are safe where Jesus is, even if we aren’t safe from other people. He takes care of us. He feeds us. He nourishes us. And then He says to the innkeeper: Take care of him. Go and do likewise. Care for them like I’ve cared for them. Give what I give. Do what I do. And don’t worry about how much you work, how much you give, how much you spend. I will repay everything when I return.
Only Jesus can heal the wounded. Only Jesus gives life to those who are dead and forsaken. Only Jesus gathers them to Himself. And we are all those wounded ones. We are all wounded unto death and cannot heal or save ourselves. So Jesus shows up where the wounded are. But He also cares for the wounded with the means He provides to us. While we are all the wounded, we are also the innkeepers. At one time or another, we might be more one than the other. But this is the summary of the Christian life, of the love of God and the love of neighbor, of faith and love. The wounded are gathered by Jesus, who feeds and nourishes and gives them His life. Then He says to His people, Take care of him. Take care of her. Do and give and take care like I do.
And so we come to this altar and we kneel here and Jesus binds up our wounds and feeds us with life. That’s the difference between the law and Jesus. The law says what you must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus gives you eternal life. He does the law for you; you don’t do it for Him. But you do the law for the other wounded, sinful, dying people who have also gathered in this inn to await the return of our Good Samaritan. Because the law isn’t about the law in itself; love is the fulfillment of the law. Jesus fulfilled it and gave everything so that you don’t have to worry about what you’re paying, or doing, or giving. Everything you have to give, He gave you. Everything you do, He’s done. Everything you spend, He provided. So it goes in this life: the wounded are healed by Jesus, and the dying care for each other, until the Lord comes back.
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, 7/12/19