In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The problem is we don’t know where we are and where we should be. The answer is, as always, in the liturgy.
The problem is posed by an expert in the Torah, "What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” The answer is found, Jesus tells him, in the liturgy. “What is written in the law?” And now listen, “What is your reading of it,” your “recitation” of it, your “chanting” of it?”
The Torah expert chants a portion of what for him was his creed. In the synagogue liturgy, after hearing the Torah and its explanation in the prophets and the psalms, the “creed” was chanted, the “Shema” - from the first word of the creed in Hebrew - “Shema, hear. Shema, Israel, hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one.”
And so the Torah expert expertly chants the following portion of the creed, “‘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.’”
Correct. “You have answered rightly, do this and you will live.”
Correct? So why does Saint Luke chime in, “but he, wanting to justify himself.” Isn’t that the answer Jesus gave? “Do this and live?” Is it simply that Jesus wanted him to see how futile it is to try to “do” one’s justification? Or, did Jesus really mean what he said? (Am I really saying this?)
The answer is, as always, in the answer. And Jesus answers with a story. A man traveling down from Jerusalem to Jericho is robbed, beaten, stripped and left for dead in this wilderness. A priest walks by, sees the man, and keeps on going. A Levite walks by, sees the man, stops, and then goes on. Who’s worse? Flip a coin.
Now enters the solution to the problem, the answer to the question. A Samaritan. A Samaritan came to where the dying man was in the wilderness, has compassion, comes down to him, pours on oil and wine, takes the man to an inn, pays for his keep, tells the innkeeper that he will return and repay him for his expenses.
The question “what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” is reframed as the problem in the story, “left for dead in the wilderness, robbed, beaten, stripped.” The answer to the question, “what shall I do,” or the solution to the problem “left for dead,” is the answer to question which the Torah expert is led by Christ to ask, “who is my neighbor?” which answer itself is a question. Confused? Got it? You will. Shema, listen, “So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?”
“The Samaritan” is the answer, is the answer to the question “who is my neighbor,” is the solution to the problem of being left for dead in the ditch, is the answer to the question, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
The answer is not “be a good Samaritan,” not “help people in ditches.” No, that is a different answer from a different parable. That is the parable with the despised Samaritan in the ditch, the parable most preach on, the law-law sermon. “Whom do you hate? They’re in the ditch. Would you help? Huh? Would ya? Huh? Be a good Samaritan.” That is not the parable Jesus told because “Be a good Samaritan” is not the answer to the question “Who is my neighbor,” is not the answer to the question “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
No, the answer to the question “Who is my neighbor?” is the question “Well, who is the one who showed you mercy? Who is the one who came to you, stopped and helped you? Not “who is my neighbor whom I may love?” But “Who is your neighbor who loved you?”
Yes, Jesus puts the expert in the Torah in the ditch! The liturgy puts him in the ditch! Yes, the liturgy (and why we should use it) puts us in the ditch! You see the problem is that we see ourselves on the road. Lutheran preachers put us on the road. But we are not on the road, we’re in the ditch. We are robbed, beaten, stripped naked of our own righteousness, we are mortally wounded, we are left for dead. We need a neighbor. We need a Samaritan. We don’t need to be a Samaritan, we need to be Samaritanized!
Dear expert in the law, dear preacher, dear listener, shema, who’s your Samaritan? Who is your Samaritan who came into the wilderness where you are robbed, beaten, left for dead? Who is your Samaritan who had compassion on you, whose guts poured out for you? Who is your Samaritan who anointed, chrismed, christened you and cleanses your wounds with wine, the blood of the grape, who wrapped you, covered your wounds? Who is your Samaritan who brings you safely on his beast of burden to sanctuary and whose return you eagerly await? Who is the one who has “borne your griefs and carried your sorrows?” Who is the compassionate Samaritan who loved you with all his heart, with all his soul, with all his mind and with all his strength, and loved you as himself?
You need one, for a thief has assaulted you in the wilderness, like a wolf attacks a lost sheep, a thug who would take your life, a thief who leaves you stripped and dying. You need help. But the law cannot help you. The priest and the Levite who rushed off to perform their temple duties cannot help you. All they can do is make way for the Samaritan. All they can do by the temple service is to say “help is coming in blood and sacrifice.”
But, a Samaritan? You know the drill, a Samaritan, from that mixed race of Jews and gentiles whom the Jews despised, who at the mention of such a Jew would spit in disgust - that’s Middle East for giving the finger. Yes, the Samaritan, despised by the Jews, as Isaiah identifies him, “we see him despised and rejected by men.” As the Jews themselves confessed about him “You have a demon and are a Samaritan.” And the Samaritan replies, Yes, but “I do not have a demon.”
Yes, Jesus is the despised Samaritan who showed us mercy. Jesus is the compassionate Samaritan who came down to the wilderness in which we are left for dead. Jesus is the demon’s enemy who went into the ditch to undo the harm caused by the thief, the robber, the one who would snatch God’s possession.
Jesus is the one who had compassion on his people, scattered sheep without a shepherd. Jesus is the one whose compassion caused him to go into the ditch and depth of our sin and sorrow, into the ditch and depth of hell and death, who poured out his guts on the cross.
Jesus is the one by whose wounds we are healed, from whose side poured out water and blood to anoints us, to chrism us, to Christen us, to wash us, to cleanse our wounds, yes, our lips, our body and soul with his holy precious blood sacrificially poured out, sacramentally drunk. Jesus is the one who bandages us, wraps us in his robe of righteousness. Jesus is the one who carries us on his beasts of burden, his yoked servants, his ministers and takes us to where he through his servants, his innkeepers takes care of us in the holy inn of the church where he continually cares for and feeds us with Holy Absolution and Holy Supper. By the way, don’t leave the inn, this hospital, until he returns.
The Torah expert forgot that it is all about mercy. The priests and the Levites and their temple sacrifices cannot help, but can only make way for the compassionate Samaritan. The Torah and the sacrifices pointed to the wrath of God poured out on the Lamb, They pointed to his shed blood in which alone there is forgiveness. They pointed to the altar of the cross where the Lamb’s blood would be shed. And yes, they point to the washing, the anointing in water and blood of holy baptism, to the preacher whose tongue sprinkles on us the sacrificial blood in the words of forgiveness, to the holy meal of the given body and the shed blood.
The one who sees his miserable condition is indeed miserable for “miserable” means one able to receive “misere,” Latin for mercy. Only the miserable, the mercy-abled, the robbed, the beaten and the left for dead are “able” to receive mercy, only those who desire mercy, who beg for mercy.
And misery loves company. When you are in the ditch, you love those in the ditch with you, not only your Samaritan but also your fellow poor miserable mates, all in the ditch with you. And so the miserable, the one who has received mercy, never asks, “Who is my neighbor” for he knows he was granted mercy underserved, he knows the One who was neighbor to him and he co-misere-ates with his co-misere-ables.
We cannot fulfill the law. We cannot do our righteousness. So Christ gives what the law demands. The law demands love, and Christ gives us his love, his mercy, his compassion, his righteousness. Christ loved God with all his heart, soul and mind, his neighbor as himself. Love is the fulfillment of the law. Love is born of mercy and compassion received. Love is Samaritan to his neighbor. Love goes and does likewise.
This story is filled with such mercy and Gospel that only law experts can miss it, yes, only those seeking to justify themselves, and that is all of us, Lutheran preachers included. And so we need to remember where we are and where we should be. The answer is, as always, in the liturgy. Are you in it? How do you read it, how do you chant it?
In the liturgy we learn where we are, in the ditch, poor miserable sinners, dying and crying, “Kyrie, eleison, Lord have mercy.” In the liturgy we learn who our neighbor is, the one who showed us mercy, “Christi, eleison, Christ, have mercy.” In the liturgy our Samaritan comes to us and anoints us, cleanses us our wounds, wraps us in his righteousness, “Kyrie, eleison, Lord, have mercy.” In the liturgy the Samaritan continues to feed and care for us, ‘ “Thanks be to God!” - through his ministers in this inn of the church with angels and archangels and all the heavenly hosts until he comes again with angels, “Amen, Come, Lord Jesus!”
Where are you? Are you in the ditch? Are you where the Good Samaritan is merciful? Are you there, where he is pouring out his guts, his gifts, his grace and mercy?
The answer is, as always, right here, in the liturgy. How do you recite it, how do you chant it?
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. §
The Reverend John W. Berg is pastor of Hope Evangelical-Lutheran Church, Fremont, California.