For thousands of years the people of God had prophecies about Christ and foreshadows of his coming, but did not see the fulfillment. Adam and Eve knew that God would send a Savior to defeat the devil, that the Savior would be God in the flesh, that he would be born of woman. Eve rejoiced when Cain was born, “I have gotten a man, the Lord!” But the time of fulfillment had not yet come, and Adam and Eve longed the more greatly for the Savior. As time went on, kings like David and prophets like Isaiah had more about the Christ revealed to them, and they recorded those things for the instruction of men, but they did not see the fulfillment of them. The psalmist Asaph captures well the longing of the saints of old: “O Lord...there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you” (Ps. 73:25). “Stir up your might and come to save us! Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved!” (Ps. 80:2-3).
How blessed are we who live in the time of fulfillment! Jesus says as much in the opening verses of today’s Gospel: “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.” “My eyes have seen your salvation!” you sing with Simeon each Sunday. Jesus has given his body and blood once for all on the cross and now distributes it to you in fulfillment of all his promises, bestowing on you grace and mercy and forgiveness and life and salvation. We are those “on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Cor. 10:11). All our desire should be directed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which has been revealed to us.
It angers God when we desire things that are contrary to his Word instead of desiring his Word. It angers God when we desire to gratify the sinful passions of our flesh. It angers God when we vent our anger. It angers God when we covet the possessions of others and direct our desire to the things of earth instead of the things of God. But, in light of the coming of Christ and the fulfillment of the ancient promise, there is one thing that especially angers God. It is what the lawyer desired in today’s Gospel. We’ll see what that was in a moment, but first, let’s review what happened.
A lawyer stood up to test Jesus, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus put the question back to him: “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” The lawyer answered, “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.” This is the same summary of the Law that Jesus himself has given elsewhere. Jesus said to the lawyer, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”
“Do this.” Simply love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind. Simply love your neighbor as yourself. Then you will inherit eternal life. This Word of Jesus should convict us of sin, for which of us has loved God or neighbor as he should? This Word of Jesus should leave us longing for righteousness, since it leaves us seeing no righteousness in ourselves.
Yet the lawyer persists, and, writing by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the Evangelist Luke notes his motive. The lawyer is “desiring to justify himself.” That means he desires to make himself righteous before God. This is the most evil desire that man can desire. It angers God when any of our desires do not accord with his Word, but it angers him most when, in this time of grace, in this season when Christ has been revealed, men seek righteousness from themselves instead of from Jesus. To seek righteousness from oneself is to trample Christ underfoot, despise his blood, and exalt oneself over him.
Now to be clear, it is good to desire to be righteous before God. This is indeed the deepest longing of the fallen human heart, whether people realize it or not. We long to be righteous before God, and that is a good longing. But it is a lie of the devil that we can make ourselves righteous before God. And this lie gets much traction with our proud flesh, which never wants to admit that it is insufficient, but always persists, like this lawyer, in trying to justify itself.
The natural man can only think of righteousness according to his own works. He looks for some rule to follow so that he can assure himself that he is righteous. The Pharisees loved their made up rules, because by them they thought they could assure themselves of their righteousness. The papacy promoted their invented rules about fasting and works of penance and other such things for the same reason. The world around us makes up its rules as well: in what way you must speak about homosexuality and gender identity and other abominations, what words you must ban from your vocabulary, what you must celebrate and approve. Even with masks and social distancing and the covid vaccine, while some people comply with these things out of concern for health, many more comply because of the sense of righteousness that comes with compliance. Some of the advertisements for the vaccine make it seem like you’re going to be the savior of the world if you get injected. The flesh loves it when people pander to its desire to make itself righteous.
Now “if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law.” Paul writes this in Galatians 3. But that’s an “if” that does not exist in reality. God makes it clear in Romans 3, “by works of the law no one will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” That’s what the law does. It does not serve as a means for becoming righteous. It is the means by which we discover that we are unrighteous. There is no justifying oneself. Only one man’s righteousness is righteous before God in heaven, and that is the righteousness of Jesus. Either you have his righteousness, or you have no righteousness at all. As for our so-called righteousness, Isaiah puts it bluntly, “all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (Is. 64:6).
Jesus tells the lawyer a parable, the Parable of the Good Samaritan, as it’s come to be called. The lawyer had asked, “And who is my neighbor?” He wanted Jesus to put a limit on who qualifies as a neighbor. Loving your neighbor as yourself couldn’t possibly refer to everybody, because that would be impossible. The lawyer wants Jesus to say, “Love this person, and don’t worry about that person.” Instead, to show the righteous requirement of God’s perfect law, Jesus presents the lawyer with a perfect John Doe. This man on the side of the road has no identifiable features: his clothing has been stolen, he’s been bloodied beyond recognition. The lawyer probably sympathized with the priest and Levite. They didn’t know if the man was dead or not, and they would become unclean if they came into contact with a corpse. They wanted to keep God’s law, or so they reasoned, and so they couldn’t help the man, never mind that God’s law says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
But there’s no escaping the fact that the despised Samaritan is the hero of the story. He walks by and he has the right reaction toward the beaten man. “He had compassion.” The Samaritan didn’t stop to ask himself which action would make him righteous in the sight of God: helping the man or leaving the man. The Samaritan’s heart went out to the man who fell among robbers, and there was for him but one course of action. He had to help. He was compelled to do so, not by some law that had a whip to his back, but by his own heart. The lawyer must admit in the end who proved to be a neighbor. It was the one who showed mercy. And Jesus leaves the lawyer with the same command he had stated earlier: “Do.” “You go, and do likewise.”
Such is the comfort that Jesus gives to those who want to justify themselves. He’ll have none of it. He’ll leave men to stew and fester in their own unrighteousness until they despair of themselves. But he does not leave us in utter despair, just despair of ourselves. It angers God to the utmost when we desire to justify ourselves, but with a healthy despair of ourselves, wrought by the law of God, then we’re merely left with the desire to be righteous, and that is a God-pleasing desire. For those who desire to be righteous and who know that righteousness is not going to come from themselves, Jesus has something else to teach with his parable.
For those who have nothing of their own, who are beaten and stripped and left half dead, who can’t lift a finger to fulfill the law of God, Jesus comes and has compassion. He binds up our wounds in his wounds. He pours on the oil and wine of his Gospel, saying, “I have done what you could not do. I have fulfilled the law of God. I give to you my righteousness, not by your works, but by faith.” And he plays the part of the servant, letting you ride while he does the work. And he brings you to the inn of his church and appoints pastors to be the innkeepers. He gives them what they will need to care for your souls, and he promises to return. For him our souls long. Jesus is our desire, for he alone can make us righteous before God.
As we await his coming, he nourishes us, and we begin however imperfectly to abide by his law. Indeed, we delight in his law. It is no longer a terror to us, because our righteousness is in Christ and he forgives our transgressions of the law. Now we can look at the law of God as a good thing, as his good and gracious will for our lives. We love our neighbors and prove to be a neighbor to those in need. Christ, forgive us when we are cold-hearted toward those around us, especially those of the household of faith. But it is a comfort that love and compassion for others is not some product of our own manufacturing. Rather, as it says in Romans 5, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” Having the love of the Good Samaritan is a gift of God, a result of having received the love of Christ. Apart from him we are nothing and have no love. And so we dare not trust in our imperfect love of others: first, because our love isn’t perfect, and second, because we owe it to Christ that we love at all. The righteousness of Christ is not like a set of training wheels that’s designed to teach you to do it all on your own. No, the righteousness of Christ is our life, our everything, now and forever, no matter how well we keep the law in this life. We always need him, and we cannot be righteous without him.
It takes a great deal of teaching to turn our desire for righteousness away from ourselves and toward Christ. We have two teachers being installed today, Nathanael and Hannah. And Hannah, you’re being commissioned today. You’ll be teaching Christ’s dear little Christians. There’s much that children need to learn: to read and write and understand numbers, to grow in virtue and good works. But there is one thing that children need to know more than all else, and they know they need to know it; they long to know it, because all men long to know it. They want to know how to be righteous before God.
Now I’m proud of the education we give the students at Mount Hope. Children learn the foundations of Western Civilization, study Latin, sing good hymns, write good poetry, read good literature. But what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? If our instruction does not point children to Christ and his righteousness, then what are we doing calling ourselves a Christian school? If we only teach children things necessary for this life, what are we doing any different than the world does? Children want to be righteous. Their keen sense of justice and their ferocious desire to be right while another is wrong makes this plain. Children want to be righteous, and we teach them not to seek that righteousness in themselves, not to think they’re righteous just because someone else did wrong. We teach them that their righteousness is in Jesus, and in him alone. We teach them to sing, “In Thee alone, O Christ, my Lord, / My hope on earth remaineth; / I know Thou wilt Thine aid afford, / Naught else my soul sustaineth. / No strength of man, no earthly stay, / Can help me in the evil day; / Thou, only Thou, canst aid supply. / To Thee I cry; / On Thee I bid my heart rely.”
“Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2). Christ has come; our righteousness has been revealed in him. Blessed are our eyes, because they have seen God’s salvation, and blessed are our ears, because they have heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and blessed are our tongues, because they take up the new song of our Lord’s redemption. God grant that we always look to Jesus for our righteousness and teach the children of our churches to do the same. Amen.