By Paul Koch –
I have occasionally been asked about my preaching style. That is, every now and then someone will wonder why I preach the way I do. How do I choose what to focus on from a given text? Why don’t I use notes when I preach? Why won’t I just stay put in the pulpit like a good preacher? And to tell the truth, the short answer to such questions is that I am personally a terrible sermon listener. When I try to put myself in your shoes, when I actually sit in the pew and listen to a sermon, I get all fidgety, and it’s hard to keep focus and stay on track. My wife would most likely tell you it is easier to sit with all five of our children by herself than it is to be next to me. So, I have tried to make it a habit of wondering what it is like to be where you are, to be the listener rather than the speaker. I wonder what sort of questions you might be asking yourself, what sort of thoughts are going through your mind when you come to church. In fact, I wonder if you ever question what this is all about. When you get right down to it, what is church about?
I mean, is church primarily a place people go to for guidance on living a better life? A lot of people see it as such. Church is a place where morality is taught, where values are impressed upon our children. You go to church and learn that there is a faithful and unfaithful way to conduct your life. God has set down expectations for his creatures. How we treat one another, how we react to our enemies, how we live together and respond to our government are not left as vague ideas but are clearly expressed by our faith. Church is a place where we find guidance for how we are to carry ourselves in this world. You are to be distinct. Love, marriage, sex, eating and drinking, these are not to be engaged in the way the rest of the world does.
And while some see church as primarily being about what a good life looks like, others see it as a support system or community that stands out from the rest. Church is about being a sanctuary. Perhaps it doesn’t answer the question of what a good life looks like, but what a good family looks like. Church establishes boundaries for a safe space where there is a responsive community to the needs of those within its walls. Is this what church is about for you? Is it about the traditions and the history that binds us together? For many, I’m sure it is, and that is a good thing to celebrate and even long for. However, beneath all of this, beneath the formation of a community, the development of character, or the teaching of morals lies a more profound question. A question that our Lord was actually asked by an expert in the law.
In Luke chapter 10, we read about an exchange between Jesus and this young man. “Teacher,” he asks, “What shall I do to obtain eternal life?” And the answer to this question is the core of what the church is all about. What you shall do to obtain eternal life is the business of the church. It is ultimately why you got out of bed this morning to come here. It is the reason you keep coming back. It is the question you desperately need answered. Eternal life, paradise, the glorious hereafter where there is no more weeping, no more mourning, no more sorrow or death. What must you do to inherit this? To possess it. What must you do not to wonder or hope or dream about it, but to know that eternal life is yours?
Now, in response to this inquiry, our Lord puts it back on this expert in the law. He asks him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” When you search the Scriptures, what do you find? What must you do to inherit eternal life? And he is quick to answer, “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 you neighbor as yourself.” This man summarizes with beautiful precision the entirety of the commandments of God. Do this and eternal life is yours. That is what the law teaches. And so, Jesus replies to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” If the great question of the church is what I must do to inherit eternal life, the answer is clear. In order to have that life, in order to be sure, to be confident you must love the lord with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind. He must be first. You must fear, love, and trust in God above all things. But that isn’t all. You must also love your neighbor as yourself.
So, the question for you is simple. Have you done what is necessary to inherit eternal life? Do you love the Lord like this? Is he your everything? Seriously, think about it. According to the clear teaching of the law, are you sure of eternal life? No? What about your neighbor, do you love them like yourself? Do you prioritize their needs, sacrifice for them protect, and provide for them? Perhaps not. Though there is some hope. Maybe today is the day when you get it right. After all, you’re in church, beginning the day with the gifts of God. This is a good way to start. You might get some guidance, some wise words that will finally overcome your hurdles and set you on a path to success. Maybe today is the day when your love will meet the demands of your God. Then again, let’s be honest. This day won’t bring any more success than yesterday, and tomorrow doesn’t look good either.
This young man hears Jesus’ words and asks a follow up question, a point of clarification that he assumes might solve his desperate plea. “Who,” he says, “Is my neighbor?” So, our Lord tells him a story. A man is going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and along the way he is attacked by robbers. They steal all he has and brutally beat him. They strip him of his clothes and leave him laying half dead in a ditch on the side of the road. But don’t worry, for a priest is walking down the road. A man of God who lives by the commandments, who loves not only God but his neighbor. Now seeing this man. what does he do? Does he help? Does he rush to him to save his life? No, he crosses to the other side and leaves him to die. Next comes a Levite, another keeper of God’s commands, and what does he do? The same thing. But have no fear, for one more comes down the road, an unlikely passerby, a Samaritan. Now. the Samaritans were despised by the Jews, looked down upon, ridiculed, but what does he do? Everything. He saves this man’s life. He goes to incredible lengths. He binds up his wounds and carries him upon his own animal to an inn. He continues to pay for his care to bring strength back to his battered body. When he leaves, he even gives money to the innkeeper to continue his care, saying, “Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.”
This parable of the Good Samaritan is powerful. It begins to clarify our questions and help us find some comfort. If your question, like the lawyer, is who my neighbor is, here we see an answer. Your neighbor is the one in need. If you see the church primarily as a place that provides community and a sanctuary from this world, your neighbor is clear. They are those sitting around you today, those who need your help, your love, your care. Then again, if you see the church as a place of teaching towards a good and upright life, this parable shapes your instruction. You are to have compassion, to live better than those other religious hypocrites. You are called to be Good Samaritans in whatever vocation you find yourself in. You are to be a people who not only talk the talk but walk the walk.
And so, we hear this parable and think that the great questions of the church have been answered. Loving neighbors, loving God, this is what it is all about. But if we stop here, we forget the great question, the prime question that started the whole thing. What must you do to inherit eternal life? For we know that you will not do, you cannot do, what the law requires you to do. You remain helpless, unable to save yourself. Notice how our Lord finishes the parable. The lawyer had asked, “Who is my neighbor?” and Jesus asks, “Who proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” The answer is clear, of course. The one who showed mercy. But Jesus has turned thing upside down. This means that the neighbor who you are to love as yourself is the one who showed you mercy. This takes you out of the roll of the priest or the Levite or the Good Samaritan and puts you in the position of the man lying half dead in the ditch.
The parable actually answers the great question that defines the church. You cannot justify yourself. You cannot inherit it by our own wisdom or strength. You are helpless, dying, unable to do anything. Your Good Samaritan is your Lord Jesus Christ, who has compassion on you. He binds up your wounds, anoints you with his washing of Holy Baptism. carries you to the inn, to the church, to the place where he has provided the gifts to care for you. He has declared that he will return and make what he has begun complete. So, there is assurance and confidence. There is boldness in your faith, for it rests not on your performance not on how you serve or love but how he served and loved you. In Christ alone you are forgiven. In Christ alone you are justified. In Christ alone you are welcomed into eternal life. He is your Good Samaritan.