The way a question is asked determines how it is answered. The lawyer doesn’t hear about God’s mercy because he doesn’t ask about it. He asks a Law question—what must I do. Not, ‘how will God save me’ or ‘how will God keep His promises,’ just “what must I do.” However, the way he finishes that question shows that he may not have been the best lawyer in town. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Typically one doesn’t inherit anything based on works. An inheritance comes because of the graciousness of the giver. That the lawyer’s question is misguided will become apparent soon, when Jesus tells the Parable of the Good Samaritan. He reveals that the inheritance is given by grace, a pure gift that is given despite sin, not something earned from God.
The Law question gets a Law answer. “What must I do?” “What does the Law say?” “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.” That’s already a huge checklist and Jesus makes it that much more difficult: “Do this and you will live.” Here’s where language is important. The tense of the verb “do” makes all the difference. It’s in the present tense. In other words, this doing, this perfect love of God and neighbor must be your constant state. It cannot waver. It cannot have good days and bad days. If you want to work your way into eternal life, you need to love God, love neighbor perfectly, all day, every day.
Which brings another Law question: “Who is my neighbor?” We tend to look at the lawyer as a self-righteous jerk who’s trying to get off easy. We assume he wants to be told that “neighbor” includes family and the closest of friends and nothing more. We assume he’s looking for the loophole because we know that, deep down, we’re the lawyer. We want to be stingy with our love for neighbor. We only want to give it to the people who have earned it. But we don’t want to admit that, so we shake our heads at this poor, misguided, evil lawyer and pretend he’s the only one trying to find out how short that list of “neighbor” needs to be. Instead of rushing to judgment, we need to be a little more gracious with the lawyer. As misguided as his question is, he is asking it because the Law has done its job. He is convicted because he knows he hasn’t done that perfectly, just like we know none of us have done it perfectly. What he ultimately desires—to be right with God, to be righteous—isn’t a bad thing. He just hasn’t had his eyes fully opened to the fact that he can’t get there by his own efforts.
Jesus knows the lawyer is despairing, so He tells a Parable designed to show the man how futile his efforts are when it comes to justification. We all know this Parable inside and out. The common interpretation is that Jesus is trying to tell us to try harder, to put more effort into loving our neighbors, that we shouldn’t be prejudiced or racists or bigots and should love everyone because everyone is our neighbor. Don’t misunderstand me. That is true. That is what the Law teaches and why Jesus closes the Parable with a clear call to action: “Go, and do likewise.” Go, be like the Good Samaritan, helping people in their needs, showing mercy, loving your neighbor. But that’s not the point of the Parable. Remember: Parables reveal to us how God’s Kingdom operates, and illustrate that it works far differently from how we would expect it to operate. If the Parable is merely moral instruction, then it’s Law and there’s no hope for any of us because the Samaritan sets a standard that none of us can achieve. No matter how hard we try, we can never give in that way to everyone around us who finds themselves in need. We’d never find everyone in need, and we’d run out of money pretty fast just helping those we’re aware of. Like all the Law, this Parable is unattainable. But Jesus didn’t tell it primarily as a checklist. He told it as Gospel to show that the Law leaves us in the ditch, beaten to death. Jesus, who owes us nothing, comes in compassion to save us.
In the Parable, the lawyer isn’t the Priest or the Levite, and isn’t even the Samaritan. Neither of you. You are that man in the ditch, left for dead, with no resources to help in any way. The man in the ditch doesn’t need someone to help. He needs to be helped. He has no transportation to get himself to the hospital. He has no clothing to hide his shame or to protect his wounds. He has no money to pay for his medical treatment. He has no consciousness to ask for help. He is as good as dead. The Samaritan, as good as he is, owes the man nothing. But he has the godliest of attributes: compassion. He dirties himself with the man. He defiles himself by touching a dead man. He binds up the wounds. He pours on oil and wine. He puts him on the donkey while he walks. He takes him to the inn for recovery and promises to pay every cent necessary. That’s what the Messiah does! That’s who Jesus us! The way to salvation and life isn’t in your action of loving your neighbor, but it is in being rescued and carried by Christ. It’s being the beneficiary of His generosity, His love, His compassion. It’s not in paying, but in being paid for. Eternal life cannot be bought or earned. It can only be received as a gift. This is exactly what Jesus does for each and every one of us by His death and resurrection. He takes our sin and death and makes it His problem. He doesn’t have to, but He does it out of mercy and love. He humbles Himself to save us. He rescues dying sinners who cannot save themselves.
And that’s why Jesus changes the lawyer’s question. The answer to “who is my neighbor” is an unattainable one. But Jesus shows it’s about action done to us: “Which of these…proved to be a neighbor to the man?” Not everyone, but the one who had mercy. The Triune God acts as neighbor to people who in no way deserve that action.
We are all recovering from sin’s deadly attack and the Law’s killing accusation. Though the Law cannot help us, that doesn’t mean it’s unhelpful to us as Christians. The Law can’t answer questions about salvation, but it is helpful to us to cause us to see the distinction between good and evil. We need that direction of the Law, “Go and do likewise” not to save ourselves, but to see how we respond to what has been done for us. We go out and show to others the same compassion that has been shown to us, helping our neighbor in their physical needs, bringing others to the holy Christian Church, the only hospital that can save the life that really matters. We as Christians, we as Church, don’t do our important, God-given work to save ourselves, but to bring others to the salvation given freely in Christ. Here the cleansing and protecting oil and wine of the Gospel and the Sacraments brings about what we could never accomplish on our own. And as much as we seek to bring others to this inn, we know that we are always residents, always patients in need of the medicine and treatment given here. But as costly as it is, Jesus loves to pay that bill, to see to it that we receive what we need to be healed in this life and to be given the life to come.
Our God is the God who loves to give. He has had compassion on us, deserving of eternal death. But He has taken that away and in death’s place has given us life. Thanks be to God for that mercy so greatly undeserved, but so freely given.
Why does the Pastor preach? Scripture explains that the role of preaching the Word of God is how saving faith is created: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:14-17). The Augsburg Confession, seeing this connection between the Preaching Office and saving faith, summarizes Scripture on the Office of the Holy Ministry in this way: “To obtain [saving, justifying] faith, God instituted the Office of Preaching, giving the Gospel and the Sacraments. Through these, as through means, He gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when He wills, in those who hear the Gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe” (AC V 1-3). The whole reason the Pastor preaches is so saving faith can be created, so we know that “we have a gracious God” who loves us and has saved us from our sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.