Asking the Right Question
v.25 & 36 And behold, a lawyer stood up to put Him [Jesus] to the test, saying, "Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?"…[Jesus asked,] "Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbour to the man who fell among robbers?"
Dear friends in Christ, as anyone in the social sciences can tell you, how you ask or frame a question greatly influences the answer that you will receive. So it is rather telling when a lawyer--an expert in the Mosaic Law--approaches Jesus to test Him. He asks a familiar question--one which is still asked by many today, in fact--"What shall I do to inherit eternal life?" What are the things that I need to do to get to heaven? What is the list? How many items do I need to check off before I can be sure that I've got my way in? (Different religions' answer: muslims, etc.)
Now, in typical Rabbinic fashion, Jesus responds with a question of His own, "What is written in the Law? How do you read it?" To which the lawyer correctly responds with the summary of the whole Law of God; basically, "Love God and love your neighbour." Do this and you will live, Jesus says.
Of course, this makes the lawyer sweat a little bit--as it does each of us today as well. For if the answer to the question, "What shall I do to inherit eternal life?" is "Love God and neighbour perfectly," then we are up the creek without a paddle, dear friends. For who among us can honestly and truly say, in the light of God's holy and perfect Law, that we have faithfully, fully, freely, and perfectly loved God and our neighbour in thought, word, and deed our entire lives? Try going one minute, let alone one hour or an entire day, without thinking ill of someone, without trusting in something other than God for your good. It is a most impossible task for sinful human beings like you and me.
Therefore, this clever lawyer seeks for the ever-present loophole in legal contracts. If I am to love God and neighbour perfectly, which I cannot do, then I just need to change the parameters a little bit--make it a little bit more doable. Jesus, just one more question, "Who is my neighbour?" You see, if there are only a few people who are my neighbour then maybe, just maybe, I can love them properly enough to earn my way to heaven. That's the ticket!
To which Jesus responds with the beautiful parable of the Good Samaritan. A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell among robbers who beat him and left him for dead. A priest and a Levite happen to pass by, no doubt on their way to serve in the temple at Jerusalem. So as not to become ritually unclean (and thereby unable to perform their duties of the Law), they leave the man who looks pretty well dead by the side of the road. However, a Samaritan, an ancient enemy of the Jews, happened to come along and he took the man and bound up his wounds and delivered him to an inn and provided for his care, promising to return after two days and pay any more that was owed. Jesus ends by asking this question, "Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbour to the man who fell among the robbers?" The lawyer, once again, correctly answers, "The one who showed him mercy."
You see beloved, the lawyer began by asking a very common and well-known question, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" But it was the WRONG question. That question gave him an answer with no hope--no possibility of ever attaining heaven. For left to his own devices to love God and all people well, he knew it couldn’t be done. Just as you and I can never hope to love in that capacity.
To get him back on track, Jesus, in love, tells the parable of the Good Samaritan and changes the question altogether, "Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbour to the man who fell among the robbers?" The one who showed him mercy. You see, we are all that man attacked by the robbers. The devil, the world, and our sinful flesh have had their way with us and left us dead before God. For we are sinful from birth and can in no way do the works of the Law that God requires in order for us to earn our way into heaven.
Which is precisely why Jesus has come from the Father. He is heaven sent by God to deliver you from sin, death, and the power of the devil. Jesus has mercy upon you. He proves Himself to be your neighbour by carrying your sin, your death, your despair into His own innocent flesh and carrying it to the cross of Calvary. He binds up your wounds of sin with strips of His own flesh and gives you His blood to drink in the wine of the Sacrament so that you may be refreshed and restored by the forgiveness of all your sins that He won on the cross.
You see, beloved, your goodness, your works, are not enough to save you. The priest and the Levite (who represent God's good Law) cannot act to save you. The Law can diagnose your problem. "Oh look, there you are, a poor miserable sinner, dead and gone with no hope." But the Law cannot help--it only condemns. Whereas, the wondrous Gospel of Jesus is what truly saves. For in the message of the Gospel you are given the mercy of God in Christ Jesus. Not because you deserve it--you don't. Not because you earned it—you didn't and you can't. But rather because of His grace--His undeserved mercy and kindness--just like the Samaritan exhibited to the man in the parable.
You, dear friends, though despicable and dying sinners, failures at keeping God's Law of love to Him and to your neighbour, are, nonetheless, recipients of His grace. You are the ones to whom He has showed mercy--you are the ones to whom He is a neighbour. From the time of your Baptism into His holy name, the Lord God has showered you with His gifts, cleansed you of all your sin and carried you into the bosom of His blessed church where He might continually care for you and dispense His mercy to you and to all people.
God be praised, Jesus has paid the penalty for your sin and mine. Jesus has suffered and died in your place on the cross and now gives His crucified and resurrected flesh to you to eat and to drink in faith. That you might be ever assured of the forgiveness of all your sins. For you do not earn your way into heaven by your works, rather you receive heaven as an inheritance by the mercy of God in Christ Jesus' death and resurrection. For He who departed in death returned on the Third day--having paid all that was required--He took up His life again--to give it to you.
You are now forgiven and redeemed people--blessed with the opportunity to show mercy to others--even as God in Christ has shown mercy to you. This is what the redeemed of the Lord do. We see a need and we respond in whatever way we can--whether it be to help flood victims in our own community or those caught in the horrors of protracted war in Ukraine--or, whether it simply be a shoulder to cry on for a friend in need or a chicken casserole delivered to a sick family member. For Christians are people of faith, trusting in the mercy of God to love them, and so we respond by joyfully loving and serving our neighbour, who needs our good works. As Dr. Luther once wrote, "Oh, it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith. And so it is impossible for it not to do good works incessantly. It does not ask whether there are good works to do, but before the question rises, it has already done them, and is always at the doing of them."
Certainly, these works do not save, for even while we are doing them, we trust not in these acts of mercy that we do, but in the single act of mercy toward us by which we were saved--Jesus' suffering and death on our behalf. Now that is a mercy worth trusting in. His selfless love and compassion is the answer…to the right question. Thanks be to God in Christ Jesus. Amen.
 Martin Luther, Commentary on Romans, Trans. J. Theodore Mueller (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1954), xvii.