At a track meet, the high jump begins with the bar set rather low. There is little tension as the competitors begin these initial jumps. The challenge begins as the bar gets set higher and higher. At some point the bar reaches the point where no one can clear it – not even the winner of the competition who has cleared a height greater than everyone else.
In the Gospel lesson this morning we hear Jesus interact with a lawyer who asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. In the course of his interaction with Jesus, he asks a question that is aimed a limiting what must be done – that seeks to set the bar lower. However, Jesus turns the tables on the man. We learn that the bar is set very high – higher than any of us can clear. Yet because Jesus has already done this for us, we learn what this now means for how we live.
The majority of our text this morning is the well known parable of the Good Samaritan. We learn that a lawyer stood up to put Jesus to the test. The lawyer was not like a modern day lawyer who was trained in the secular legal system. Instead, he was undoubtedly a Pharisee who had been trained in interpreting the Torah, that God gave to Israel at Mt Sinai. He asked Jesus a simple question: “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” You will notice that just as we have heard in several texts recently, the assumption here is that doing of the law is the way to life with God. In chapter eighteen a rich ruler will ask Jesus the exact same question.
As he often does, Jesus answered the question with a question when he asked: “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” The lawyer responded with texts from Deuteronomy and Leviticus that summarize the first and second table of the Ten Commandments. He answered, “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.” Our Lord replied succinctly: “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”
The lawyer had posed what he must have thought was a challenging question. However, Jesus had made him look silly as he showed that the answer was very simple. Yet just like when our Lord deals with the rich ruler and exposes that wealth is his true god, he must have known the real issue that was at the heart of the lawyer’s question.
Luke tells about the lawyer: “But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” The lawyer attempts to save face by asking a follow up question. Yet at the heart of this question he reveals the basic problem of trying to approach God on the basis of the law.
In the question, “And who is my neighbor?,” the lawyer is trying to limit the people he has to love as himself. He is trying to lower the bar – to make things more manageable. His question reflects a tendency found in various parts of first century Judaism, in which Jews were ready to rule out others as being “real Jews” who were worthy of being counted as a neighbor.
Jesus answers by telling a parable about a man who was making the seventeen mile trip down from Jerusalem to Jericho. This was an area that had a reputation for being dangerous – a place where robbers attacked travelers. This unfortunate man fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead.
The man was in a desperate situation. But then, by chance, something good happened! A priest was going down that road, most likely after completing his service at the temple in Jerusalem. Here was someone who was a deeply respected religious individual. But when he saw the man, he ignored him and passed by on the other side. Perhaps the priest feared that the man was dead and touching him would bring ritual uncleanness – something that required time and expense to address. But he showed no concern and left the man there.
Next, a Levite arrived on the scene. He was not a priest, but was responsible for helping to run the operation of the temple. A little lower in the social structure, he was still a respected religious figure. He even came to the place where the man was and saw him. But in the end, he too passed by on the other side. Why didn’t he help? Did he fear ritual uncleanness? Did he fear that maybe the robbers who did this were still nearby? We aren’t told, but like the priest he showed no concern and left the man there.
After hearing about a priest and a Levite, Jesus’ listeners probably expected the next person in the parable to be a Jewish lay person. However, they were in for a shock. Jesus said, “But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion.” The Samaritans and Jews had a long history of antagonism and strife. Samaritans had their own version of first five books of the Old Testament. They had built their own temple on Mt. Gerizim, which the Jews then destroyed. The Samaritans were very similar to Jews – so much so that the Jews often didn’t consider them Gentiles. However, they were different in significant ways so that Jews certainly didn’t consider them to be Jews. The great similarity and yet difference brought out the worst in both groups.
Yet where the respected priest and Levite had ignored the man, the hated Samaritan had compassion on him. He wasn’t just concerned, he stopped to help the man. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. He even paid the innkeeper to take care of the man, and promised to pay anything beyond that if necessary.
When he was done, Jesus asked the lawyer, “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” The answer was obvious and so he said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Then Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”
The lawyer had asked, “And who is my neighbor?” as he sought to limit those whom he had to love. Yet through the parable Jesus has flipped the question around to one of who proved to be a neighbor. This is no longer a matter of limiting love, but instead seeking people to whom we show love.
Jesus told the lawyer, “Do this and you will live.” But in the parable he has diagnosed why it is not possible for the lawyer to do the law and live. The same thing is true for us. We are selfish. We want to limit our love to the people we like or the people who can benefit us in some way. And while we may at times act selflessly to help others, those occasions are far more limited than they could be. The truth is, that we don’t love our neighbor as ourself.
As we consider this sin that is in our life – the sinful condition that is present as we also fail to love God with our heart, soul, and mind – we repent, but we do not despair. We confess this sin. Yet then, we consider the One who tells the parable. In the parable we are told that the Samaritan “had compassion on the man.” The previous time when we have heard this word used in Luke’s Gospel was when Jesus encountered the funeral procession at Nain for the widow’s son. There Luke tells us, “And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’” Then Jesus took away the cause for weeping as he raised the son from the dead.
It is Jesus who has been the Good Samaritan to us. He did not find us just half dead. Instead, we were spiritually dead. Worse than that, we were enemies of God because the devil was our Lord. Yet Jesus Christ showed love and compassion to us.
The shock of the parable is that the Samaritan is the One who helps. The fact that Jesus is the One who helps us is no less shocking because Jesus helps us as the One who is crucified. Luke tells us that before Holy Week our Lord told the disciples, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. And after flogging him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise.”
A man who is mocked, spit upon, flogged and crucified does not look like help. Instead, he looks like a man who needs help. Before his crucifixion, Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” Jesus died on the cross in order to drink the cup of God’s wrath against our sins. Though sinless, he was numbered with transgressors in our place and received the judgment for our sin. By his death, Jesus helped all who were dead in sin as he won forgiveness for us.
The truth of this only became clear on Easter. As they unknowingly walked with the risen Lord, the two disciples on the road to Emmaus said of the crucified Jesus, “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” Indeed, a dead Jesus who merely died cannot be the redeemer. When they recognized Jesus the risen Lord after he had blessed and broken the bread, they realized that Christ is the One who has brought life that overcomes death.
You have received this forgiveness and life through Holy Baptism. Peter said on the Day of Pentecost, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” You are forgiven, and have received the Holy Spirit who is now at work in you. You live as those are a new creation in Christ.
And that returns us to our text for while the parable of the Good Samaritan teaches us about how Christ has helped us, it certainly also teaches those who have received Christ’s love how to be a neighbor to others. The man in the parable had been stripped of his clothes. This means that he was not identifiable as belonging to a particular group. The love and care that we share because of Christ knows no bounds – it is not limited by race or ethnic group or any category. It is not even limited by those who hate us, because Jesus has told us to love our enemies.
The Samaritan stopped to help. To do so, he put himself at risk. Obviously, there was the danger that the robbers were still around. Beyond this, he was a Samaritan in Judea. Yet he stopped any way because he had compassion on the man.
The Samaritan gave of his time. Our text tells us that he was on a journey. He was trying to get somewhere. But he stopped to help the man. Then he even stayed a night caring for him. He put his own plans on hold in order to help.
Finally, we see that the Samaritan gave of his resources. He poured out his own oil and wine to treat the man’s wounds. He paid to stay at the inn for that night, and then he paid two denarii – two days wages more - for the inn keeper to care for the man. He even promised that if more was needed he would pay that when he returned.
Because we have received God’s love in Christ, we now seek to love and help others. We seek to be a neighbor to those around us. God loved us when we were unlovable, so the object of our love and care knows no limits. Christ gave himself for us in the most costly sacrifice, and so our love for others will involve the cost of time and money. Because the forgiveness and salvation won by the Lord Jesus is a gift, we no longer find ourselves trying place limits by asking, “And who is my neighbor?” Instead, the Spirit of Christ leads us to ask, “To whom can I be a neighbor?” as we act in love and service.