In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit
There is a radio talk show host in Milwaukee who is known for saying that rationalization is the second strongest human drive. But in the realm of spirituality and religion, you could rightly say that it’s actually the strongest. As fallen human beings, we are expert rationalizers, self-justifying creatures. We always have a good reason for why we behave the way we do, why our sin isn’t really so bad or is an exceptional case or is really not our fault. We always have an excuse regarding God’s commands–because of our current circumstances or a problematic person in our life or whatever. We know in our heart what’s right and wrong, what we should be doing and not doing. But since we realize we’re not really there, we go to great lengths to try to justify and excuse ourselves.
Even the non-church-going, spiritual-but-not-religious person will have a moral justification for how he or she is living. “I’m trying my best to do what I can; as long as I’m doing what is within me, as long as I take care of my responsibilities, do more good than bad, God will accept that. He can’t expect the impossible from me.” Of course, God’s Law is what it is. The requirements of His commandments are rather clear and unflinching. The judgement of the Law is spelled out quite plainly.
One increasingly popular way that people try to deal with that burden on their conscience is to call God’s Word into question. “Maybe you all are misunderstanding God’s Word, and it means something different than what you think. It’s a matter of interpretation. Or maybe the Bible isn’t actually God’s Word at all; maybe it’s just a man-made tool to try to control people. Yeah, that’s it.” More than once as a pastor I’ve seen how a person who has fallen into some sin suddenly starts to find all these flaws in the church (or the pastor) and to question the Bible and whether or not it’s true or whether the manuscripts we have are trustworthy, and the like. It would almost make me laugh if it weren’t so sad how transparent this attempt at rationalization is. If you can’t justify yourself with God’s Law, well, then, use some distraction or some supposedly superior wisdom and insight to cast it aside. “I’m more loving and genuine and authentic now. There, now my conscience doesn’t bother me so much.”
The expert in the Law in today’s Gospel is engaging in a form of this. You’ll notice how the Gospel reading says that the lawyer is trying to justify himself–that strongest spiritual urge that fallen human beings have. He’s trying to rationalize his behavior, to convince himself and God that the life He’s living is good enough to inherit eternal life.
One of the ways the lawyer does this is by trying to neuter God’s Law. The Law itself is pretty straightforward: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Do that, and you’ll live. But those words of Jesus make us a little uncomfortable. For we know we haven’t done that. “Well, you know, nobody’s perfect,” we say. But of course, that’s just a classic attempt at justifying ourselves by trying to lower the standard.
The lawyer in the Gospel tries his own method of lowering the standard by asking, “And who is my neighbor?” Now why would he ask that question unless he were trying to limit and shrink the number of people who fit into the category of “neighbor?” We know that our neighbor is anyone and everyone, especially those people whom God has put into our lives in our day to day vocations, particularly those who are in need. But by asking the question “Who is my neighbor?” the lawyer is also asking the question, “Who isn’t my neighbor?” “Who do I not have to love as myself?” It’s easier to keep the law and justify yourself if you can control who it is you have to care about and who you can ignore.
But Jesus wants us to do just the opposite with the Law. Remember how in the Sermon on the Mount He didn’t minimize, He maximized the Law. You shall not murder also includes not speaking angry words. You shall not commit adultery also includes not having lustful thoughts, and so forth. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus is maximizing the Law and letting it have its full effect on this self-justifying lawyer. Love your neighbor also includes even loving your enemies. Since the lawyer’s trust was not really in God but in himself, Jesus uses this parable to crush any notion that he could inherit eternal life by his good living. You cannot justify yourself before God by your own qualifications. That may work in human relationships, but God won’t have any of it. God alone is the One who justifies us through His Son Jesus Christ.
That’s the real and ultimate point of this parable. Turn away from trying to justify yourself, and cling to the righteousness of Jesus which He freely gives to you as a gift. Through faith in Him alone you are justified in God’s sight.
For Jesus Himself is the Good Samaritan in this parable. He says to you who are deeply wounded on the side of the road, “The Law cannot help you. It can diagnose your condition, but it offers you no medicine. Like the priest and the Levite, it passes by on the other side. Only I, Jesus, your Good Samaritan can rescue you. I have come to you as a foreigner from the outside, the Son of God from heaven. Though I am despised and rejected by the Jewish leaders, I have come to show you mercy and compassion.
“As one who shares in your flesh and blood, I am here to take your place. For I myself will be robbed and stripped of My clothing; I myself will be beaten mercilessly and left dead on a cross, buried in a grave. But this is the way I will defeat your enemies. This is the way I will take away their power over you. I will take the whole curse into my body, your sickness and sin and hurt and death. And by My divine blood I will break the curse. Through My resurrection, I will give you new and immortal life. You cannot win this fight by your own strength. But I am fighting for you. When death and the devil grab hold of My weak flesh, they will learn all too soon that they have grabbed hold of the almighty God; and I will tear them limb from limb and utterly destroy them. I am here with you. Lean on Me. You are safe; you are forgiven; there is nothing now that can separate you from My love.”
The Good Samaritan Jesus comes to you and He cleans up the wounds of your sin in the waters of baptism. He pours on the oil of His Holy Spirit to comfort you and the wine of His blood to cleanse and purify you in Holy Communion. He gives you lodging in the Inn which is His holy church. Here you are continually cared for through the preaching of His words of life. For although your sins are fully forgiven, yet the wounds of sin are not fully healed. We still live with their effects in this world, don’t we. The Church is the hospital where those wounds are tended to by the Great Physician, lest they become infected. The innkeeper is the pastor; Jesus provides the innkeeper with two denarii, so that the Lord’s overflowing compassion might continue to be given to you in His ongoing ministry of the Gospel. Jesus promises to pay whatever it takes to restore you. For in fact He has already paid the full price, fully atoning for your transgressions by His sacrifice on the cross.
In particular, those two denarii also point us to the resurrection of Jesus. A denarius would pay for one day’s room and board. So a two denarii stay would mean that the man would be up and out on the third day. This is what Jesus has done for you. He paid not with gold or silver but with His holy precious blood and His innocent suffering and death, and He rose on the third day so that you may share in His bodily resurrection and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness. It is as we heard in the OT reading: “After two days He will revive us; on the third day He will raise us up, that we may live in His sight.”
And now that you are raised up, you are freed to truly go and do likewise. You can do good works now not with some self-justifying motivation but simply out of love for your neighbor in need. We can delight in God’s commands now because the threats and punishments have been taken away through Jesus, and we see how His commands order all things for our good. We live in Christ by faith, and He lives in us to serve and help others–whether that’s in the ordinary way of our daily callings, or whether it’s in unusual opportunities like the Good Samaritan had. As members of the body of Christ, you are the hands and feet of Jesus to love even those who are difficult to love. After all, that’s exactly how it was for Him with you.
And when you falter and fall short of doing that, you don’t have to rationalize things and try to justify yourself. Jesus has justified you. You are in the family of God. And so the promised inheritance is yours in Jesus, a free gift, won by His death, delivered by water and the Word, sealed by His body and blood. As you rest and recover here in the Inn, be strengthened in the certainty that very soon, your Good Samaritan will return to you as He has promised. The risen Jesus will come again and take you to be with Himself in the place that He has prepared for you in His everlasting kingdom.
In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit