An expert in the Law was not only an expert in the Ten Commandments or even in the books of Moses but they were experts in the commentaries handed down concerning the right way to understand Moses, the faithful way to implement his teaching in one’s life. It is this sort of an expert who is given the chance to ask our Lord an incredible question. In many ways it is the central question to the quest for salvation, the crucial bit we need to have sorted out if we are to live in the assurance of the promise of eternal life. And this lawyer does not have to sift through mountains of documents or consult with the expert, he gets to receive an answer right from the source. Though perhaps he does not know it at the time, he gets to ask this crucial question directly to the living Word of God Himself. He stands up and asks Jesus, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Life eternal, life beyond this veil of tears, life in paradise with the Creator of all things, what must I do to inherit such a thing? What pattern do I follow? What task must I accomplish? What must I do to possess such a thing as eternal life?
No doubt he is not the first to ask this question and he certainly is not the last. Ever since the fall and being cut off from the tree of life, humanity has dreamed, hoped, and longed for eternal life. Since being banished from the Garden, we have been forever on a pilgrimage to find the answer to this very question. Over the years there have been answers, in fact, many answers. Some turn us toward our own center, toward a mindfulness or inner peace that we ought to seek out. To be at peace is to move toward nirvana, to escape pain and desire and there find eternal peace. Others would have us roll up our sleeves to get to work for the benefit of others. Sometimes it is directed to those in need, to the poor and orphan. Other times it is focused on the propagation of the institution which holds the keys to such a paradise. So, when someone asks, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” any religion worth its salt is ready to give an answer. Do these things, follow this course of action, check these boxes, and you too can inherit eternal life!
Our Lord’s response, however, is a bit different. He begins, as He usually does, by asking a question of His own. He says, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” He turns this guy to the work he has already done, and he has an answer, of course. “You shall 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 neighbor as yourself.” To which Jesus says, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” This is a tall order, to be sure, but the lawyer asks a follow up question just to be clear. I mean, loving the Lord with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind is bold enough, but he would like some clarity on the second part. So, he asks, “And who is my neighbor?” Just who is it that we are required to love as ourselves? Is it everyone? Is it those who believe like we do? Is it those on the same path, the same pilgrimage as us? Who is this neighbor we are supposed to love?
As an answer to this, Jesus tells one of His most famous parables, the parable of the Good Samaritan. The contours of this parable are already familiar to most to us. A man is going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and along the way he is brutally attacked by robbers. Not only do they take all his possessions, but they strip him naked and severely beat him. They leave this man half dead in a ditch on the side of the road. The thrust of this image is that without help, without the aid of some passerby, this man will most certainly die. But, as luck should have it, he is not alone on the side of the road for a priest comes into view. Regrettably, the priest is bound by the laws dealing with clean and unclean things. This man on the side of the road looks dead, is probably dead, or will at least die soon. In order to remain ritually clean for the duties in the Temple, he plays it safe and passes by on the other side of the road. But then we are told a Levite comes down the road next. Unfortunately, his actions are not much different from the priest. He may not be part of the priesthood, but as a Levite he still has a role to play in the operation of the Temple. He too does not want to risk becoming ritually unclean. So, he just passes by on the other side of the road, also ensuring this man will die from his wounds, which is until the Samaritan appears on the scene. Now Samaritans were not regarded well by the Jews in our Lord’s Day. They were viewed as half-breeds, ridiculed, and despised. Yet, it is this unlikely candidate who proves to be the hero of the story.
The Samaritan goes above and beyond in his care for the dying man. He binds up his wounds and anoints them. He clothes the guy and places him on his own donkey to bring him into town. In the town he settles him in an inn and pays ahead for the care needed to nurse this man back to health. He even says how even though he must be on his way, he will return and pay whatever else is needed in the care of this once dying man. The Samaritan is literally the savior of the man on the side of the road. Because of his actions, he will live. The law governing the Priest and the Levite were of no use, had no ability to save, but this Samaritan overcomes it all with an act of great mercy.
So, we have several big questions that hover over this whole scene. The first question and perhaps the greatest questions is, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” This is governing the whole exchange between Jesus and the lawyer. The follow-up question flows from the answer which comes from the Law, to love the Lord with your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself. As a result, the second question is, “Who is my neighbor?” After telling the parable, Jesus adds a critical third question, “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” Of course, the answer is clear. You get it. I get it. The lawyer in the text gets it, the one who showed mercy.
But I want you to take note of a subtle switch our Lord has done in this text. He does not say, “Who saw the dying man as his neighbor and so loved him as himself.” No, he flips it and says, “Who proved to be a neighbor to that man.” In other words, who was the neighbor that the dying man in a ditch on the side of the road ought to love as himself? That is the question. So, to run this through all the questions so far. To inherit eternal life is to love our neighbor as ourselves and our neighbor is the one who finds us half dead on the side of the road, binds up our wounds, carries us to the inn and pays for our care. Therefore, the inheritance of eternal life is not something of our own work, it is not our own spiritual quest, or our searching for inner peace. Eternal life is not about how well we find the hurting and the needy and care for them. It is of first importance to recognize we are the ones who need the help. We need the healing. We need mercy if we are to inherit eternal life.
This makes the Good Samaritan our Lord Jesus Christ. He alone is the one who shows mercy. The Priests and the Levites, the doers of the Law cannot save you. The Law will leave you dead on the side of the road. This unlikely hero, this One despised and maligned by so many is the one who shows mercy. He gives you life by taking what is rightly His and giving it to you. You are healed by His wounds and forgiven by His actions. In fact, we might even say that as He has gone away, He has given from His abundance to the innkeepers to continue to care for you. He gives His Word and Sacraments to the Church. He gives the proclamation of forgiveness for you. He says, “Do not worry. I will pay it all back when I return.”
And because of Jesus, you live. Revived and brought in from death on the side of the road you are called to love your Good Samaritan, your Lord Jesus Christ, as yourself. What you must do to inherit eternal life, Christ has done for you. He has shown mercy. In that joy, in that assurance, He then calls you to go and do likewise.