Born (again) to Love Your Neighbor

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Sermon for Trinity 13

Leviticus 18:1-5  +  Galatians 3:15-22  +  Luke 10:23-37

We have before us today the Parable of the Good Samaritan. It’s one of those parables that people don’t usually know how to react to. Does the story of the Good or Merciful Samaritan warm your heart? Or does it crush you and make you feel guilty and lead you to despair because you’re not like him and don’t know anyone quite like him? Or does it inspire you to be like the Merciful Samaritan? It may do all three of these things. But you have to understand it rightly. You have to read it in context.

The context is that Jesus is rejoicing. Read Luke 10, the first part of it, when you get home. Jesus had sent out his disciples on a mission to preach and teach, to heal and to drive out demons, to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins in the name of Jesus. And the disciples came back rejoicing, because the demons submitted to them. Jesus corrected them: Do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rather rejoice because your names are written in heaven.”

Then, for the first and only time in the four Gospels, it says that “Jesus rejoiced.” In that hour Jesus rejoiced in the Spirit and said, “I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and revealed them to babes. Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in Your sight. All things have been delivered to Me by My Father, and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, and who the Father is except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him.”

Jesus praised His Father for two things: for hiding the righteousness of faith from the “wise and prudent,” that is from those who were wise in their own eyes and insisted on earning their way into heaven. And He praised His Father for revealing the righteousness of faith to babes, to little children who didn’t try to earn anything from God, but trusted in God as a gracious Father for Jesus’ sake. Jesus said those words publicly, but then said privately to His disciples the first words of our Gospel: Blessed are the eyes which see the things you see; for I tell you that many prophets and kings have desired to see what you see, and have not seen it, and to hear what you hear, and have not heard it.

Just then, a lawyer—one of those very “wise and prudent” people Jesus had just mentioned—stood up and proved that, indeed, the truth of Christ’s kingdom was hidden from him. “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” “Repent and believe. Repent and believe in Jesus.” That was the simple Gospel of Christ. But no, that wasn’t what the lawyer wanted. He wanted a law that he could obey to receive eternal life, not as a gift of God for the sake of Christ, but as something he could earn.

So Jesus confronted him with the harsh reality of the Law: He said to him, “What is written in the law? What is your reading of it?” So he answered and said, “ ‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,’ and ‘your neighbor as yourself.’ ” And He said to him, “You have answered rightly; do this and you will live.”

And there it is: the only way to earn eternal life, according to the law: perfect love for God, perfect love for your neighbor. That is what God’s holy Law demands. Not, “Try your hardest,” but “Do this,” Jesus said—and not just once. Keep doing this, constantly, as God said in the reading today from Leviticus, You shall therefore keep My statutes and My judgments, which if a man does, he shall live by them.

“If a man does.” But a man doesn’t. Honest people who honestly compare, not only their actions, but their words and the thoughts of their hearts with God’s perfect law of love will admit that they don’t “do this,” that is, perfectly love God and their neighbor. And God’s Law has no leniency for law-breakers. The soul that sins is the one that will die, says the Law.

Ah, but the lawyer was hoping to find a legal loophole in this strict command. “And who is my neighbor?”

So to illustrate, Jesus tells the parable of the Good or Merciful Samaritan. This is what “love your neighbor as yourself” looks like. It’s not about identifying which of the people out there in the world might be your neighbors. It’s about being a kind and merciful neighbor to the one you find in need—not the one on the other side of the world, but the one who is lying in your path, your home, your classroom, your church, your job, wherever you go. The priest and the Levite—the ones who have God’s law and trust in it—they walk right on by. Only the Samaritan—the foreigner who is hated by the Jews, stops to help the half-dead Jew who has been beaten and robbed. And this foreigner who is hated by the Jews not only stops and asks if everything is all right. He tends to the wounds of the victim, lays him carefully on his own donkey, takes him to the inn, cares for him some more, and then leaves money for the innkeeper to care for him until the Samaritan returns.

It’s a warm, touching parable of love and mercy, until you realize that it preaches against everyone who hopes to earn heaven by keeping the Law. Because all people were born to love God, and all people were born to love their neighbor with all the care and compassion and devotion of the Merciful Samaritan. But no one has loved his neighbor like that, from the heart, at all times, as God’s Law demands.

It’s easy to find bad people in this world, and it’s easy to find people who are worse than you are. Those who commit or defend abortion or other forms of murder. Adulterers, gang members, drug dealers, etc. But when you consider that the Law of God doesn’t just command you not to do certain things, but also to do certain things…when you consider that the loving, merciful Samaritan is supposed to be you, every moment of every day—that that’s what God’s Law requires, it puts all people into the same boat before God’s Law.  You were born to love your neighbor, but you didn’t. You don’t, not according to the strictness of God’s holy Law.

But the requirement of God’s law doesn’t go away just because you haven’t kept it. If a man does these things, he will live by them. But here is the Gospel: Jesus was that Man. He was the merciful foreigner who came down to earth and found all of us wounded by the devil, spiritually bleeding, physically alive but spiritually dead. God looked down at the world and said, as Isaiah records: I looked, but there was no one to help, And I wondered That there was no one to uphold;   Therefore My own arm brought salvation for Me.

The law hadn’t saved anyone. The best of men hadn’t kept the Law or earned their way into God’s favor. So Jesus was born. He was born under the law in our place. He made Himself our neighbor and then loved His neighbor to the last, even to death on the cross.

As St. Paul reminded us today in Galatians 3, the Law was never given to save anyone, so that anyone could be saved by doing good deeds. Instead, as Paul says, the law was added because of transgressions (that is, for the purpose of highlighting our transgressions), till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made. Jesus is the Seed that was promised to Abraham, Abraham’s offspring in whom and by whom the Law of God was perfectly fulfilled. No one earned God’s favor by being good enough. Indeed, as Paul says, if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law. But the Scripture has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.

This is the righteousness of faith, that by faith in Jesus Christ, through the waters of Holy Baptism, we are born again, forgiven and made right with God without ever having done a single good deed of our own. God looks at the one who believes in Christ and sees nothing wrong with you, because He sees only Jesus.

This is the thing that brought such joy to Jesus, and that moved Him to announce to His disciples how blessed their eyes were. Because finally, the Seed of Abraham had come, His Gospel was going out, and people were hearing this message, and some were believing it. Some who, their whole lives, had been captive to the Law’s strict demands, who had spent their lives loaded down with guilt, believing they had to earn heaven, and yet knowing deep down that they couldn’t—some of them were hearing and believing that Jesus was born to win heaven for them, which was being given to them now as a gift.

So the parable of the Merciful Samaritan may crush you and load you down with guilt. It should, if you’re trying to earn your way into God’s favor with your works, because they’ll never be as good as the Merciful Samaritan’s works were. But to those who recognize that the Law doesn’t save, to those who recognize Jesus Himself in the story of the Merciful Samaritan, it’s a very tender, comforting story.

But it doesn’t end there. For the reborn, those who have been born again of water and the Spirit, you should see in the Merciful Samaritan a goal toward which you should strive, a pattern of love for the neighbor, of mercy and compassion, that inspires the Christian to be like that, to be a neighbor to the ones lying on your path. Because, as you see Jesus in the Merciful Samaritan, who stooped down to help you, to heal you with His own blood, who has brought you into the inn of the Holy Church where He has given His ministers charge over your souls, to care for you until He returns—as you see Jesus there, you see the One in whose image you are being renewed each day, the One in whose footsteps you are called to walk as He says, “Follow me.” Mercy, compassion, love for the neighbor? Of course the Christian will make that his daily goal and purpose. Because believers in Christ have received mercy and help from Christ, and you are now born again to love your neighbor, even as He has loved you—not to earn heaven by it, but because you have already been made a child and heir of heaven through faith in Christ Jesus. Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely; and may your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful, who also will do it. Amen.


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