Asking the Right Question!
The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Rev. Steven D. Spencer - Messiah Lutheran Church
Behold, a lawyer stood up to put [Jesus] to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And 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.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”
But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. 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. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”
Grace, peace and mercy from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen!
In Wisconsin there was a beautiful old Victorian house in a wonderful neighborhood. But the house had fallen into disrepair and decay over the years. The paint had faded and chipped. The ornate woodwork had rotted and cracked. The place had become an eyesore. New owners moved in and began the restoring the property. The house that was once the dirty dog of the neighborhood had become the crown jewel not of only the neighborhood but of the entire community.
It surprised everyone when a for-sale sign was placed in front of that house. Every real estate agent in area knew that house would sell quickly. One creative agent, decided to increase his chances of selling the house by showing it to groups of people. The first group included three men, an architect, an interior designer and a business owner. When they arrived at the house the architect asked, I wonder who designed this house and why they put a widow walk on the roof, that’s not a normal feature these homes. The interior designer asked why the color palette wasn’t a typical Victorian color scheme. The business owner had only one simple question, “How much do they want?”
We can learn some important lessons from those questions. First of all there are typically two types of questions: opened ended and closed ended questions. Open ended questions are humanistic in nature. They call for information based on emotion or senses or intellect and tend to be broad in nature. They use words like how and why. Therefore these questions are used to begin dialog. If you want a good example of this type of question watch the evening news. A car is driven into someone's living room and the news caster doesn't ask if everyone is alright but instead how did that make you feel? And why do you think it happened? Closed ended questions ask for absolutes, they are based in the concept of truth. They use words like who, what, where or when or a simple yes or no. Typically they are questions with only one answer. They are specific often very precise and detailed. Secondly, questions are usually formed out of our life experience or vocations. Notice that the architect asked an architectural question, the designer a designer question and the business owner’s question was typical to making a business decision.
That brings us to our text. “Behold, a lawyer stood up to put Jesus to the test, saying” If a lawyer asks a question what type of question will you probably get? A law question! If you ask a law question, and you’ll probably get a law answer. His question is, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” This is the most fundamental of all religious questions. What do I have to do to get to heaven? What do I have to do to be saved? What do I have to do to get in good with God? Remember this is a lawyer asking the question and it will be very precisely phrased.
So let’s brutally examine this question for a moment. What do you have to do to inherit anything? Well, actually, you have to do nothing. But someone has to die, and you have to be in his good graces and on the receiving end of the inheritance.
Jesus knows He’s being put to the test, so He answers the question with a question. What is written in the Law? By “Law” Jesus does not necessarily mean “commandments,” but the Torah. What did Moses say? What’s in the Pentateuch? How do you understand it? Jesus leaves the question open. The lawyer responds with the law - Love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind; love your neighbor as yourself. That is what he believes one must do to inherit eternal life. Love God; love your neighbor. And that’s correct. The Law promises life, - if you can do it. The Law promises grace and every blessing to all who keep the commandments, - if you can keep the commandments. “Do this, and you will live.” But if you don’t do this, then you’re dead.
The lawyer isn’t satisfied; he’s uncomfortable. Something’s is nagging him. Perhaps it was a poor man he had passed by on the way to the synagogue. Or maybe it was the grudge he’s been holding against his brother for the bad business deal. Love your neighbor as yourself. He knew he loved God, but the neighbor was perhaps another matter. Some neighbors just aren’t so lovable. That’s why we had idiom like “good fences make good neighbors”.
“Love your neighbor as yourself.” His tight little system of theology was coming unraveled. If he didn’t love his neighbor as himself, he had no confidence of his inheritance of eternal life. Do you love your neighbor as much as you love yourself? Of course, this presumes you love yourself. BTW I’m not talking about the nice neighbors who bring you cake and cookies. Would you want to stake your eternal inheritance on your love of neighbor? As the late cartoonist Charles Schulz once commented through his character Charlie Brown: “I love humanity; it’s the people I can’t stand.”
But you say, “Wait a minute. I’m supposed to love someone who won’t even give me the time of day? What kind of rule is that? How about love those who love you; hate those who hate you and ignore the rest. That’s a rule I can live with. How am I supposed to love my neighbor, and what does “neighbor” mean anyway? Is it the guy next door, the man down the block or just someone in the community?
Seeking to justify himself, the lawyer asks Jesus a second law question: And who is my neighbor? See where all this law talk goes: self-justification. Redefine “neighbor” and you get love right. Get love right, and you win the big prize. So who’s my neighbor?
Now enters the man who fell among thieves. The road between Jerusalem and Jericho was a well known unsafe highway. Packed with pilgrims and filled with thieves. If you traveled alone, you were an easy target for the roaming gangs of thugs. A man fell among robbers who stripped the clothes of his back, beat him, and left him for dead in a ditch.
Now it so happened that priest was coming down the road, on his way home from his tour of duty in Jerusalem. He sees the man lying there motionless and bleeding in the ditch. He may have wanted to help, but there was a law in the Law of Moses. If he touched something dead he would be unclean and unfit for priestly service when he got home. He’d have a lengthy purification process to undergo and an expensive sacrifice to offer and a lot of explaining to do. It would be like me driving to church on a Sunday morning, and seeing someone lying on the side of the road. I glance at my watch and realize that it’s ten minutes before Bible Class begins and you’re all here (or at least most of you) waiting for me. And if I stop and help this guy, I’m not going to make it for class or church I might even miss fellowship hour. Maybe at best I grab my cell phone and dial 911 and call someone else to help.
Caught between a rock and hard place, painted into a corner and there’s no way out. That’s what the Law will do to you. The Law says, “Love your neighbor,” and then God tosses out a neighbor who’s very inconvenient and nearly impossible to love. So now what do you do? The priest passed by on the other side he didn’t come near the man. He chose the way of purity. He played it safe.
A Levite saw the man. Levites were priestly assistants, kind of like deacons. The same rule applied to them. He came a bit closer. But he did the same thing. He chose the way of purity too and safely passed the man by on the other side of the road. Each could argue that they had kept the law. They could justify their actions. But did they love their neighbor as themselves?
Then comes a Samaritan! The Jews, like the priest and the Levite, despise their Samaritan neighbors. They were considered half-breeds and heretics, impure people in race and religion. Samaritans didn’t worship in Jerusalem, so this man was likely on a business trip. He wasn’t clergy of any sort, just an ordinary man doing his work. He saw this broken, half-naked, bleeding man in the ditch and had compassion on him. He got down into the dirty ditch with him, bandaged his wounds, put him on his donkey, and took him to an inn in town and spent the night taking care of him. The next day he left two day’s wages with the innkeeper and ran a tab for the rest.
Which of these three men, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?
Unfortunately we don’t have this on video, but I would love to see the lawyer’s face as Jesus asked this question. You notice he can’t bring himself to say, “the Samaritan.” That’s too much to bear. But he can say, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”
Do you think the lawyer left with any hope of inheriting eternal life? What about you? Your neighbor is anyone in need of mercy, anyone whom God places in your path, no matter how inconvenient he might be. Can you go and do likewise, and on the basis of that doing, know that you will inherit eternal life?
Ask a law question, and you receive a law answer. But ask Jesus the right question, what you must do, and He will tell you what you must do. Come to Him in empty, and He will fill you.
The good news Gospel answer is that the inheritance of eternal life does not come from our loving God with our whole heart, soul, strength, and mind or in loving our neighbor as ourselves. But in and through Jesus who became neighbor to us, who had compassion on us, who joined us in the ditch of death. God in His Son became our Good Samaritan neighbor, took on our flesh, loved God and loved a world of neighbors so perfectly and purely that it covers all. He pours the healing balm of baptism on you. He binds up your wounds with His wounds. He brings you into the company of His Church, a hospice of sinners justified for Jesus’ sake. He binds your wounds with His forgiveness. He gives you the bread of His body and the wine of His blood for nourishment and strength. He pays your debt in full.
Let’s give today’s questions a bit of a tune-up, shall we? How do I inherit eternal life? (Closed question) Answer: By God’s grace through faith for Jesus’ sake. The question is not: What must I do to be saved but in whom is my salvation? The answer is in Jesus. So in the end, the parable is about Jesus. He is the Good Samaritan.
Another question: What should I do as an heir of eternal life? Answer: Get down in the ditch and be a neighbor to that broken man who fell among the thieves.
Only one who is free from the law can even remotely begin to do the law. Only the Samaritan, free from the law, unlike the priest and Levite, could do the law. By His perfect life and death, Jesus has freed you from the law, and qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. It’s an inheritance. It comes through the death of Jesus and is received as a gift through faith. There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. And in Samaritan freedom, you are actually free to be a neighbor.
your Good Samaritan who became your neighbor in the ditch of death.
Jesus is neighbor to you in Word and water and Supper to give you the inheritance of eternal life. For in Jesus all your sins have are forgiven and you have been set free, now and even forevermore. In Jesus name, Amen and Amen!
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. AMEN