You can’t earn God’s favor by being a Good Samaritan

Sermon for Trinity 13

Galatians 3:15-22  +  Luke 10:23-37

(Only the audio and text of the sermon is available today. Right-click here to download sermon or click the Play button below to listen.)

There is some real devastation occurring around the country and around the world at the moment: fires, hurricanes, flooding, earthquakes, droughts. (Thank God, we’ve been spared from those things here, at least for the moment.)

In the midst of all these natural disasters, we’ve been hearing more and more about “Good Samaritans” stepping forward to help total strangers in this way or that. All of that is good. All of that is wonderful, even inspiring, and if you have a chance to help a stranger in need, do it!

But that’s not actually what the Parable of the Good Samaritan is about, and if you get this wrong, you turn Christianity into nothing more than another do-good religion that looks very friendly, that seems very helpful, but that cannot save anyone from condemnation on the Day of Judgment. And make no mistake, all the natural disasters we’re facing right now are divinely sent signs and harbingers of the coming of Christ, His coming for judgment, which is drawing closer and closer, except that we can’t pinpoint its arrival date like we (sort of) can with the hurricanes. Something much worse than wildfires and hurricanes is coming on the world for all the wickedness of man—eternal death and destruction in hell.

So understanding the Gospel of Christ, and specifically, the Parable of the Good Samaritan, is more important now than ever. And what you should understand from the Good Samaritan is that you can’t escape condemnation by being a “Good Samaritan.”

Actually…actually you could escape condemnation by being a Good Samaritan, but that’s just the problem. You can’t. Because being a Good Samaritan isn’t about doing a good deed for a stranger once in a while. It’s about an entire life devoted to selflessly serving your every neighbor in his every need. That’s how much God’s holy Law demands, if you want to be saved by it.

There was a very law-oriented lawyer in our Gospel who wanted to test Jesus. These lawyers, and many of the Jews, seemed to think that Jesus was bad-mouthing God’s Law, because He was teaching the people that the Law couldn’t save them, that they had so completely broken the Law that the only way to be saved was apart from the Law, by God’s grace, by God’s promise of forgiveness, by faith in Him, the Christ, whom the Father had sent. So the lawyer tested Jesus, trying to get Jesus to openly disparage the Law of Moses and get Himself in even more trouble with the Jewish authorities. Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?

But Jesus surprised him. Instead of tossing out the Law, Jesus pointed the lawyer right to it. What is written in the law? What is your reading of it? The man was ready with a memorized answer: 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.’ It was a good answer, a wonderful summary of the Old Testament Law which Jesus Himself used at times. You have answered rightly, Jesus said. Do this and you will live.

“Do this.” It jarred the lawyer. He hadn’t really considered the meaning of the words he had memorized. Love. Love, as God defines it. Love, which comes from the heart, not just outwardly going through the motions. Love the Lord with all your heart…all…all…all. That doesn’t leave any room at all for self-love, does it? Or for self-service. Or for seeking pleasure, or for seeking revenge, or for anger, or for bitterness, or for apathy. Love the Lord with everything you are and have. And, because the Lord commands it, also love your neighbor as yourself.

“Do this.” The lawyer was starting to see that his precious Law, instead of saving him, actually demanded far more than he could give, and so it actually condemned him. But still wanting to justify himself, he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” That’s what prompted Jesus to tell the Parable of the Good Samaritan—to pound the final nail into the lawyer’s spiritual coffin.

Who is my neighbor? And what does it mean to love him as I love myself? The word “neighbor” simply means “the person next to you.” The Jew who had been robbed, beaten, and left for dead was next to the priest who came by on the road. The wounded man needed his help. But the priest walked on by, not loving him enough to lend a hand. The Jew lying on the side of the road was next to the Levite who came by on the road. The wounded man needed the Levite’s help. But the Levite walked on by, not loving him enough to lend a hand. It was the Samaritan, the natural enemy of the Jews, who saw the wounded Jew lying there, next to him on the road, and did love him enough to help. And not with a begrudging, “OK, I guess I’m supposed to help this guy,” but with true compassion and care, bandaging his wounds, putting him up on his own animal, walking beside him all the way to the inn, caring for him there, and even leaving money for the innkeeper to care for him until he came back from his journey.

So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?” And he said, “He who showed mercy on him.” Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

This, the Good Samaritan, is what it means to be a neighbor, to be a friend to the person next to you, whether that person is a complete stranger who needs your help once, or whether it’s a person who lives in the same house with you and needs your help 24/7. That’s what it means to love your neighbor as yourself. This was always the full meaning of the Fifth Commandment (which just so happens to be the commandment we’re learning by heart this week): You shall not murder. What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and support him in every bodily need.

“Do this and you will live.” People imagine that this is the end, the goal of Christianity. The truth is, it’s not even the beginning!

Christianity, the Gospel of Christ, begins where the Law ends. The Law of God has shown us what perfection looks like. Love for God, love for your neighbor. It not only shows us. It demands that we live like this if we want to live forever with God. People like to convince themselves that they’re good people when they do good deeds for strangers, but the Law doesn’t end with a good deed. What about the next stranger? And the next? What about the people living in your house with you? Or your parents? Or your children? What about your next-door neighbor? Your fellow church-member neighbor? You helped them today? Good! What about tomorrow? And the next day? And the next? It’s like a father who changes a diaper once and thinks he deserves a medal! There will be plenty more where that came from. Will he be eager to change it the next time, and the next, and the next?

No, we are not Good Samaritans, and we never will be—not the kind who can earn God’s favor and eternal life by our goodness. Original sin, the corruption of our nature, ensures that. Because, at our best, we are like the Apostle Paul, who confessed, I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells…The good that I want to do, I do not do; but the evil I do not want to do, that I practice.

Jesus didn’t give us the pattern of the Good Samaritan to show us how to gain eternal life. He gave it to those who thought they could gain eternal life by their works, to show them that they couldn’t.

What, then? If not by works, then how? That’s what Christianity answers, what the Gospel offers. To those who have been brought to the painful recognition of their sins and of their inability to save themselves, the Gospel offers Jesus. As St. Paul further confessed, O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!

Jesus is the divine Stranger, the Samaritan, the Foreigner from above, who saw us, His natural enemies, wounded by the devil and left for dead in our sins and trespasses, and took pity on us. He loved His Father with all His heart and kept all His commandments for us. He loved us as Himself and gave Himself into death for us as the sacrifice for our sins. He bandaged and tended our wounds through the preachers of the Gospel who have proclaimed His life, death and resurrection, and through Holy Baptism, that cleansing bath. And He has placed us in the care of the Church until He returns, to feed us with His body and blood and to keep tending our wounds with the continual preaching of the Gospel of peace.

What’s more, this was the plan all along. God never intended to save the Jews or anyone through the Law, but, as Paul pointed out in today’s Epistle to the Galatians, it was always God’s promise to Abraham and to His Seed, the promised Christ, that God intended to give eternal life to all who believe. Salvation has always been by the promise. Salvation has always been by faith in Christ.

How do we become heirs of eternal life? The Gospel is clear: When the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that having been justified by His grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

Only those who have been made heirs of eternal life by grace, through faith, for the sake of Christ, can begin to be “Good Samaritans.” Does God want us to “do this”? To show love and mercy and constant compassion to those whom He has placed next to us? Yes! Absolutely! But He wants us to do it in the context of faith, in the context of baptismal adoption, as those who are no longer trying to earn His favor, but as those who have been made heirs through faith in Christ, as those who are no longer slaves to the Law, but free children of God, imitating their Father in heaven. You can’t earn God’s favor or escape condemnation by being a Good Samaritan. But you, God’s children, freed from condemnation through faith in Christ Jesus, can show the world that you are God’s children by imitating the Good Samaritan. You have witnessed God’s love in action in the loving service of Christ to all men. Now, as Christians, go and do likewise! Amen.



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