September 10, 2017
"Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?", asks the wise and understanding lawyer. And in his question, he claims to answer the greatest debate concerning Scripture: Does one inherit eternal life by works of the law or by grace through the promise? The lawyer presumes that one earns eternal life by works of the law.
He of course is wrong. Scripture does not teach that a person inherits eternal life by his own works, but by grace according to the promise of Jesus Christ, the offspring of Abraham. This promise is to be received by faith. St. Paul told us in our Epistle lesson, "For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise." (Gal. 3:18) Scripture has always taught that this inheritance comes according to the promise. In fact, when Israel was about to enter the Promised Land God made sure to let them know that they were not receiving this inheritance because of their own righteousness, but for the sake of his promise to Abraham. "Do not say in your heart, after the LORD your God has thrust them out before you, 'It is because of my righteousness that the LORD has brought me in to possess this land,'" God says to his people in Deuteronomy 9, "Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the LORD your God is driving them out from before you, and that he may confirm the word that the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob." (Deut. 9:4-5)
Scripture makes clear that the inheritance of eternal life comes by promise, not by works of the law. But the wise lawyer is blind to this. As St. Paul writes in Romans chapter 10, "Being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God's righteousness." (Rom. 10:3)
The Lawyer isn't interested in the promise. He asks what he should do. Jesus asks him what is in the Law. The Lawyer answers this correctly: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and your neighbor as yourself. "Do this and you will live." Jesus says. Indeed, this is the same answer Moses gives. Do the commandments and live by them. St. Paul points out the problem here, "For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse, for it is written, 'Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them." (Gal. 3:10)
So now the lawyer is caught. If he wants to inherit eternal life by works of the law, he must obey the law perfectly. So, he tries to justify himself by softening the law a bit. "Who is my neighbor?", he asks.
Now why does he ask that? Well, he figures he's got the loving God thing down. Who doesn't love God? But his neighbor. Ooh. That's tough. Surely the law doesn't mean everybody! Perhaps if Jesus will just narrow it down to the few people he needs to love, then he can work on that and earn his inheritance. Of course, this mentality shows that he doesn't really love God. He just wants to do what he needs to do (no more) to earn eternal life. And by asking, "Who is my neighbor?", he is really asking, "Whom do I not need to love? Whom can I still hate? Can I still hate tax collectors, sinners, and Samaritans?"
So, Jesus tells him a story; one we're all familiar with. A man going down from Jerusalem gets beat up, robbed, and left half dead. A priest and a Levite both come by, see him, and then walk on the other side of the road. Jesus picks the priest and Levite, because they are known to work in the temple serving God. That's what they do: serve God, literally, for a living. If anyone would love God with all his heart, soul, strength, and mind it should be this priest and Levite. But these men don't help the poor beat-up man! They show no love at all. St. John's words should be ringing in all your ears right now. "If anyone says, 'I love God,' and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen." (1 John 4:20)
You love God by loving your neighbor. Who's your neighbor? Well, for whom did Jesus die? Did he not die for all people? Does God not desire that all be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth? You are to love everyone for whom Jesus shed his blood! That includes everyone who's done you wrong, cursed you, slandered your name behind your back, and done evil against you. Do onto others what you would have them do to you. Be more patient than they would expect. Be more willing to forgive than they are to repent. Be quicker to help than they are to ask.
Now this does not mean that as long as you show compassion on your neighbor that you love God even if you ignore his word, and never pray to him or praise him. Rather, your service for your neighbor should reflect your praise and trust in God.
One could argue that the priest and Levite didn't hate the man. They didn't beat him up or rob him. Many make the same defense with God. "I don't hate God. I just don't want to listen to anything he says or sing praises to him or receive Christ's body and blood or be gathered with God's people. I don't hate God." Well, yes, you do. If you refuse to hear God's word, you hate his word. If you do not show love toward God, you hate God. It's the same way with your neighbor. If you see someone lying on the side of the road beat up and naked, well, what would you want someone to do for you in such a situation? Just walk by and hope someone else helps? Pray to God that he will send someone upon this poor man's path, who will help, but not me!?
The priest and the Levite were murderers. Sure, they didn't physically beat up the man, but neither did they help him in his physical need. Are you a murderer? Do you love your neighbor as yourself? Do you put yourself in others' shoes before you refuse to help them? Do you love God? Sure, you do. With all your heart, soul, strength, and mind? Hmm, well, perhaps that would be going too far to say. And so, you see the futility in trying to earn your inheritance by the law. If you want to earn eternal life by the law you must keep the law perfectly in all its parts.
So, the law doesn't give life after all. Rather it proves to give you death. (Romans 7:10) It condemns you. "Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the Scriptures imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe." (Galatians 3:21-22)
The law to love God and your neighbor does not contradict the Gospel. The law is good. You should certainly love God and serve your neighbor. There is no fault in God's law. But the law doesn't give you life. Rather, it imprisons you, catching you in your sin. The law destroys your delusion that you could earn your own inheritance and leaves you with no other choice than to repent of your sins and believe the promise. It's the promise spoken to Abraham that all nations, all families would be blessed through his offspring, Jesus Christ. He is the eternal Son of the Father. He is the promise fulfilled. He fulfills the law for you and he dies in your stead. His works become your works and your guilt becomes his guilt. It is a wondrous exchange that does not depend on the law, but on God's promise.
The Samaritan helped the poor man. He poured wine and oil on his wounds to kill the germs and protect against infection. He carried the man on his own animal, so that he had to walk himself. He paid with his own money to give the man safe lodging. The Good Samaritan is Jesus. He is your neighbor. He did for you beyond what you would have him do for you. He did for you what you would be ashamed to ask him to do. He takes your guilt for failing to love God with all your heart, strength, soul, and mind. He takes your guilt for failing to love your neighbor as yourself. He takes your hatred for God and your neighbor and he bears God's righteous wrath for it on his own flesh and soul. Jesus pays your expenses.
What must you do to inherit eternal life? Nothing. Jesus did it all for you. He became your brother by being incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary. He didn't need your help there. Jesus fulfilled God's law without your aid. And he died for you and reconciled you to God without your council. He did this according to God's promise so that God could give you a free inheritance. You do not receive this because of your own works. You receive this through faith in God's promise to you.
If you understand Jesus as your Good Samaritan and that your inheritance is a gift, not to be won by your works, then you can go and do likewise. You can serve your neighbor without fear that you'll fail. You won't need to try to figure out who your neighbor is. Rather, you can show Jesus' love to whomever God presents to you: father, mother, son, daughter, employer, employee or stranger.
What must you do to inherit eternal life? What a foolish question. Jesus has done it all. You are God's own child through Baptism and faith. You do not earn your inheritance. It is given to you by your loving Father. Amen.