The Road to Self-Justification
v.29 But he [the lawyer], desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, "And who is my neighbour?"
Dear friends in Christ, this day we examine that well known parable of Jesus regarding the Good Samaritan. Now this parable of Jesus speaks of a man who exhibits great generosity and compassion to a complete stranger (indeed, an enemy!) who is in need. This tugs at our heart strings and moves us deeply. Indeed, there are many assisted living centres, medical care facilities, and even laws that are named for, and in honour of, the Good Samaritan. But if all that we learn from this text is that we Christians should be kind and compassionate to people--helping them when they are in need (which of course is absolutely true and to be encouraged among all the disciples of Christ)--yet, if this is all that we learn--then I fear that we have missed the point.
As always, beloved, context is key. Jesus tells this parable during the course of a conversation that He has with a lawyer--an expert in the Mosaic Law--who has come to test Jesus with the question, "Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus, in typical rabbinical fashion, answers a question with a question, "What is written in the Law? How do you read it?" Basically, saying, "You're supposed to be the expert here, you tell Me."
The man answers quickly that to gain eternal life a person must, "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 neighbour as yourself." Jesus tells him this is the correct answer and that he and anybody else who desires eternal life should simply, "do this, and you will live."
Now this is where it gets interesting, dear friends. For the lawyer has correctly summed up the entire Law of God in one sentence--love God and your neighbour perfectly. Do this—and you will live. That's it. That's all. But this lawyer, who obviously thinks quite highly of himself--still knows that truly keeping God's Law perfectly--fully loving God and neighbour--is something of an impossibility. The lawyer apparently believes that he does love God fully (an incorrect assumption, but one that many make), but he does seem to instinctively know he doesn't really love his fellow man as he ought. And so he tries to pull a fast one on Jesus--attempting to justify himself by asking Jesus, "And who is my neighbour?"
You see, by redefining who our neighbour is--perhaps, by narrowing it down to only those whom we actually like or come in contact with--then maybe, just maybe--keeping this law might be possible--and so he could earn heaven for himself. He thinks he could "Do this—and live."
Dear friends, do we not fall into the same trap as the lawyer? Do we not seek to justify our actions to ourselves, to others, and to God? "Well, sure I was mean to that person--but they were mean to me first!" Or, "Well…I'd like to help that fellow in need, but I'm sure there are other people much better equipped than me, who have more money than me--who can help them instead." Or, "God, you know I would never normally do something like that, but they pushed me into it!"
Oh, yes, beloved, we are great at justifying our actions (and inaction) to ourselves--finding loopholes in God's Law--so that we don't really have to keep it as He demands. We play fast and loose with His Word, unintentionally making a mockery of our Lord God in the process. But God will not be mocked. Those who seek to justify themselves before Him--those who seek to be judged according to God's Law, apart from Christ--WILL be judged in that fashion. Those who desire to meet their Lord on Judgement Day and hold before Him their own works will have that opportunity—but it won't do them any good. For we have not loved God or neighbor as we ought. Therefore, eternal life is not for you--but rather eternal damnation.
Which is really the whole point of Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan. It wasn't just to instruct people to be nicer to each other--to show mercy and compassion—rather, it was to teach people that apart from God's loving action toward us in Christ, we are completely doomed.
Beloved, you have been stripped bare and beaten by sin. The world has come after you, the devil hunts you, and your own flesh betrays you into sin--to reject and forego God's precious Word. Our sinful inclination is not to do good to our neighbor, but rather to live selfishly—to serve ourselves as the greatest good. And the Law is of no help to save you. Now the Law of God is Good and wise, to be sure. It comes from God and is for our benefit—it instructs us in the Christian life—it teaches us right from wrong—but it doesn’t save. The Law can only confirm our situation--diagnose our problem--"Yup. You're a miserable sinner, dying along the side of the road. Boy, that's just awful. Maybe if you tried harder--pulled up your socks--maybe then you could get back on your feet and the road to glory."
But that simply is just not so. We can't. And so, after we finally see that we cannot justify ourselves before God--that we cannot make ourselves right with God (by running and hiding from the Law--by asking "who really is my neighbour?"), we are driven to rely on only One Person for help--the Lord Jesus Christ who is our Good Samaritan.
Jesus is your only hope, dear friends. He does all things for you. He has had compassion on you by coming down to you in your lost and dying condition, pouring upon you the healing oil and wine of the Sacraments that give you Jesus and the forgiveness of your sins.
Jesus places you on His own shoulders as a donkey carries a load, bearing your sin and death in His body on the cross to forgive you--to justify you--to you make you right with God once more. Your sins have been paid for--by Jesus' blood and righteousness outpoured for you on the cross—and so you have life!
Furthermore, Jesus has brought you to the inn of His holy Church. He gives to the innkeeper 2 denarii, so that the double portion of His love and forgiveness might continue to be ministered to you in your need all the days of your life. You see how the Lord God, whose Law struck down your sinful flesh, has healed and restored you by His blessed Gospel and raised you up with Himself on the Third Day so that you may live in His sight in eternal glory.
For you see, dear friends, eternal life is not earned by your works or efforts. Rather, it is an inheritance. Freely given by God to His beloved children. His children are those who, like you, believe in Jesus Christ alone as their Lord and Saviour. It is freely given by God in Christ, who is your neighbour, your Good Samaritan.
Jesus has done all things for you. He has kept all of God's Law for you. He has also shed His holy blood on the cross for you--to wipe out any debt of sin and any taint of death. He gives to you, freely, all that is His--in His Word and Sacrament. Bestowing upon you His own righteousness and peace that you so desperately need and crave.
Each time you hear of God's redeeming love for you in Christ--each time you remember your Baptismal grace and blessing--each time you humbly receive the Lord's body and blood in bread and wine--you see and hear Jesus. "Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it." You are blessed--in Christ Jesus the Good Samaritan--your compassionate and loving neighbour who destroyed your sin, your death, and the power of the devil—with His own suffering and death on the cross. Thanks be to God in Christ Jesus. Amen.