The Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity
“O Christ, Our Lord of Mercy”
Pastor Philip G. Meyer, Emeritus
St. Luke 10.23-37
15 September 2019
Soli Deo Gloria!
Sometimes the most well-known biblical accounts are the most difficult to understand. We’ve heard them so many times that we often miss the point entirely. So with our Gospel reading today. Without doubt we’ve often fallen off into the ditch of moralism, seeing only an example that we are to follow in the Samaritan’s kindness to a stranger. Society has added to the confusion. We have the Samaritan’s Purse which seeks to aid people in need. We have Good Samaritan laws which compel us to render aid to the injured. However, none of these speak of Christ. There must be a Christological center.
Of the three Synoptic Gospel writers only Luke presents the parable of the Good Samaritan. In German it is the Merciful Samaritan. Better perhaps. To understand all of this requires context. One of Luke’s major themes is showing God’s mercy to a fallen world. Luke’s main audience is Gentile, those not part of God’s chosen people. Luke presents Christ as the Savior of all, even Samaritans. A lawyer, or expert in the Scriptures, tests Jesus about what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus asks him what is written in the Law and he answers correctly, “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.” Jesus responded that this is the right answer. Do it to have eternal life. And here the lawyer has a problem because he doesn’t love everyone like himself, so he resorts to splitting hairs. “And who is my neighbor?” He’s hoping Jesus will let him off the hook, but he won’t. At the heart of all of it is that question, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
In litigation a seasoned lawyer never asks a question of a witness to which he does not already know the answer. The lawyer knew the answer and Jesus affirmed it. It moves along until he cannot keep himself from trying to catch Jesus off balance, but instead of catching Jesus he indicts himself. “And who is my neighbor?” In an act of love Jesus tries to win this man to the kingdom even though this man implies that there are some people who aren’t his neighbor.
Jews and Samaritans, Republicans and Democrats. Blacks and whites. Yellows and browns. Gays and straights. British and Irish. German and French, or anybody and the French! Americans and Russians. Haves and have-nots. Trumpers and Never-Trumpers. Spouses and ex-spouses. America was once called the great melting pot, but in recent years we have divided ourselves into warring tribes. We have our enemies’ lists, do we not?
There is just so much to hate about other people, so much we find distasteful and repulsive. No matter how much we protest, the accusation of the Law to love others as we love ourselves finds its target in the deepest recesses of our hearts. I had a college professor who used to say tongue-in-cheek, “I don’t hate anybody because God says I’m not to hate anybody, but there are some people I just can’t stand.” Shading the truth doesn’t make one less guilty.
“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho.” A man. Jesus doesn’t specify anything about this man. Is he a Jew? Is he a Gentile? A neighbor is not a friend by definition. A neighbor is anyone, everyone. A man. A woman. A child. Anyone.
Perhaps we are ready to let the priest and the Levite off the hook. They were men who served in the temple and its precincts. After all, touching a dead body—and this man certainly looked dead—would mean that they could not serve at the temple in any way for a week. They would have to go through a ritual cleansing before resuming normal life [Numbers 19.1ff.]. Failing to do this would defile the Lord’s sanctuary. So they pass by on the other side even though they certainly know what the Law of God says. It would be a great inconvenience to help, to say nothing of stopping in an area frequented by bandits.
Even today few Israelis will venture into the West Bank. They’ll take a more circuitous route to avoid trouble. There are neighborhoods in our big cities where no sane person would go, say, the South Side of Chicago or the South Bronx or the northwest side of Baltimore or the north side of St. Louis or anywhere in Detroit. Jesus used a familiar picture in telling this story. You’re not likely to meet neighborly people in such places, but it all goes to the definition of one’s neighbor.
“Love is the fulfilling of the Law” reminds the Apostle Paul [Rom. 13.10; cf. Rom. 13.8]. And Paul says it more than once or twice [Gal. 5.14]. He reminds us that those who “bite and devour each other” do not fulfill the law of love [Gal. 5.14-15]. And James says it prominently, too [James 2.8]. So the Law of God is clear: You are to love your neighbor.
At the very end of this reading Jesus asks the lawyer: “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” The lawyer cannot bring himself to say the name of his enemy, “Samaritan.” It sticks in his throat, but in a roundabout way he speaks the plain truth, “The one who showed him mercy.”
Our Synod’s focus of what it means to be a confessing Lutheran has a logo. “Mercy, Witness, Life Together.” Mercy is one of Luke’s motifs. Christ came to show the mercy of God to all people, Jew and Gentile alike.
As I said at the beginning, we often do not really understand this parable. Too many times, even in Lutheran pulpits, sermons have become the occasion of moralizing. There’s a failure to distinguish between Law and Gospel when that happens. “You go, and do likewise” is often where such a sermon begins and ends, and that is wrong. You can resolve to pay attention to the neighbor in need but you and I both know that we’ll fail miserably. We’ll avert our eyes the next time we see someone in need. We won’t get involved because it will interrupt our already over-busy lives. Besides, I might be in danger if I help. Best if I just ignore him. “I didn’t do anything,” we’ll plead. And that’s it exactly. We are guilty of the sin of omission. We failed to fulfill the Law of God.
You and I were born dead in our trespasses and sins, as Paul reminds us [Eph. 2.1]. We should see ourselves in the person of that wounded man. We should see ourselves in the priest and the Levite, too. We should repent! That confession we echo in Divine Services One and Two: ” . . .we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.”
Let’s go back to the term “enemy.” Listen carefully to the Apostle Paul: [Romans 5.6-10]
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. (Ro 5:6–10).
How masterfully Jesus has told this story. If he really wanted to pat this lawyer on the back he would have made the Samaritan the victim, and that’s pretty much what we have done to this. We like to think that we are getting credit from God by helping some poor schlep beginning for alms, that we have fulfilled the Law. But we haven’t.
The Good Samaritan is Christ himself! Jesus is the One who shows mercy to his enemies, to us sinners who deserve to die. He put himself in the crosshairs of God’s wrath and suffered it all for us. He endured beatings and death from his enemies. He came to us and rescued us from certain death. He embodies the whole will and Law of God because he has fulfilled it in his innocent life, suffering, and death. He has loved us, God’s enemies that we were, by giving himself completely to us. Christ alone has fulfilled the Law.
Mercy has been shown to you, lying not half-dead in the ditch, but completely dead in trespasses and sins. Christ has raised you up in Holy Baptism and put you safely in the Ark of the Holy Christian Church, this hospital where he cares for you daily, pouring on oil and wine. Oil to cleanse your wounds and wine to disinfect them. He gives you his body and blood for the cleansing of your soul and the nourishment of your faith. He bears all the cost, all the burden, because he is merciful as his Father is merciful.
Can you now understand how insensitive all of this was to the lawyer’s ears? His enemy is the one who shows mercy and is commended! A Samaritan, a half-breed, one who didn’t even have the whole will and Law of God fulfills it. How ironic that the Jewish leaders accused Jesus of being a Samaritan and demon-possessed when Christ accused them of not keeping the Law [John 8.48].
The lawyer began with a question about the Law, about what one must do to get eternal life. Jesus shows that it isn’t a matter what you and I must do, but a matter of what he has done and what we may do now that he has given us new life. The unnamed victim must surely have been overwhelmed by the mercy of this enemy who befriended him and did so with no thought of repayment. It is that mercy which flows into you from Christ because your are baptized, and it is that same mercy which animates your love for your neighbor—or your enemy. It really makes no difference.
In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.