What shall I do to inherit eternal life is a nonsense question. I used to want to blame Jesus for not pointing this out. It seems unfair. Even dishonest to the lawyer. The lawyer asks a nonsense question, why not answer and say, “You can’t do anything to inherit eternal life. Inheritances are given, and they’re given to children, not because the children do anything, but because the Father loves them.” This is what Jesus ends up saying, just not in so many words. And there’s a reason Jesus goes about it the way He does.
The lawyer came to test Him. The lawyer wants Him to say something against the Law, wants Him to say something like I wanted Jesus to say: the Law can’t save you. Only I can. And then the attacks would come: “Jesus denies the Law, Jesus says the Law isn’t good enough, Jesus says He’s greater than the Law.”
But Jesus is a friend of the Law. He’s actually the Law-Giver. He’s God. He tells the lawyer to obey the Law, Love God above all things and your neighbor as yourself, and you’ll live. This is what the lawyer needed to hear. It’s what I need to hear. It’s what you need to hear. Do it and you will live forever. Seriously. All the dreams of eternal youth, of unending happiness, perfect health, constant enjoyment, you can have them all, if you only do this. Jesus says so. The entire Bible says so. So do it. Love God above all else, with all your heart and all your strength and all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself. Never put yourself first. Never doubt God or question anything He allows in your life. Do it, and you will live forever.
But if you fail, you die, you inherit not eternal life but eternal punishment.
It is true and your conscience needs to know it, as Jesus made this lawyer know it, what Paul says to the Galatians. If there had been a law that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin.
The problem is not with the Law. Of course you should love God above all things and your neighbor as yourself. God made you. He gave you literally everything you are and have. And you of course are no better than your neighbor, so if you care for yourself, of course you should care for your neighbor just as much. That’s the Law. It’s good. The problem isn’t with the Law, it’s with you, it’s with me, it’s with the lawyer. We can’t do it. And we need to realize again and again – it is so easy in the hustle and bustle of daily life to forget it – we need to realize again and again that we owe this to God and to our neighbor and we don’t pay it. Think of the prodigal son. Think how despicable his actions are. Dad, give me my inheritance, I don’t want to live with you, don’t want to thank you, care for you, be with you, give me what I want and I’ll live it on my own. That is what we do with God when we don’t acknowledge Him, when we doubt Him, when we consider it a favor done to Him to pray to Him. We don’t come close to loving Him with all our hearts and we don’t come close to loving our neighbor as ourselves. It’s simply horrible.
This is what Jesus is getting the lawyer to realize. And He’s doing it because He loves that lawyer. You might not like the lawyer, you might think he’s a real jerk, who goes and tests Jesus? But Jesus loves that lawyer. And He loves you. He loves jerks, ingrates, failures, people who test His patience again and again. He loves sinners who cannot keep the Law, cannot love Him as they should and must.
So Jesus tells the most beautiful story ever told. It is the story of the Gospel. The man leaves Jerusalem and travels toward Jericho. On the way robbers jump him, strip him of his clothes, beat him half to death, steal everything from him, and leave him bloodied, naked, halfdead on the side of the road. This man is the lawyer. He’s you. He’s every man or woman who has ever realized what the lawyer now realized, what Jesus trapped Him into seeing – you will live if you obey the Law, but you haven’t, so where does that leave you? It leaves you naked, exposed, beaten, helpless, with nothing to offer but groans that hope for pity.
And here is where you see that the Law can’t help. It can only rub it in. I suppose the man may have lifted up his head a bit, tried to see out of his swollen eye, as the priest came by, as the Levite came by, maybe had that glimmer of hope that they would help, but no. They walk on by. The Law can’t get you out. You haven’t obeyed it. What’s it going to do, except to tell you to get up and try again. Love God. Fail in nothing. Acknowledge Him in everything you do. Love your neighbor. Make him just as much your concern as yourself. But I can’t! you say. I’m down. I’m out. I acknowledge it. I’ve failed. I can’t do it. No excuses, do it, and do it again, and do it now, and do it always. The Law can only kick you when you’re down.
But then the Samaritan comes. And He sees the helpless mess, the as good as dead man. And He pities Him. He has mercy on Him. He does what the Law cannot do. He requires nothing. He issues no command, except of Himself. He binds his wounds and cleans them with oil and wine. He picks him up and puts him on His own animal, and at His own expense, He cares for him at the inn. This is the Gospel. It is the work of Jesus.
I listened to some conservative preaching yesterday on the radio. I was trying to get the Wyoming game on the ride back from Buffalo, but there was a weather delay, so I ended up getting preached to for an hour or so by conservative American evangelicals. And I enjoyed it a lot. I enjoyed their commitment to the Bible as God’s Word. I loved how they took a strong stand on the moral issues, on abortion, on marriage between one man and one woman. I appreciated their insistence that faith in Jesus alone saves. But after an hour or so, I looked over at my wife and said, it’s been how long, and they haven’t preached the Gospel. They’ve preached around it, talked about faith, talked about God’s mercy, but not once did I hear about the blood of Jesus cleansing me of all my sin. And theology and preaching and insistence to keep God’s commands and stay true to His Word, is all too much for a man who knows he’s a sinner and who knows he can’t meet this standard of perfection, and he hasn’t, it’s too much, I can’t do it, so give me the Gospel, because that’s all that can help a sinner.
So hear the Gospel. Jesus does it all. You have not loved God above all things, and the very God whom you have doubted and ignored and resented, whose anger and punishment you deserve, He looks on you in pity. He loves you, not because you are worthy of the love, but because He is Love and because He is faithful, even when you are faithless. He looks at you and pities you. The Son of God becomes a man. Your God makes Himself your neighbor. He takes what is His, not bandages but His own righteousness, and He clothes you in it, so that it is as if you had always loved God as a perfect son, because you have His Son’s perfect obedience. And He gives what is His, not oil or wine, but His own blood, and He sheds it, and pays with His own agony to relieve you of the suffering of guilt and shame. He takes you on Himself, bears your burden, not with a donkey, but with His Holy Word, which takes away all your guilt and brings you into the Church, where He cares for you. That word, “cares for you,” occurs again and again in this Gospel. He cared for you when He lived for you, when He suffered for you, when He died for you, He saw you then and cared for you specifically then. It’s why He came, why He lived, why He suffered, for you. And He cares now. It’s why you are in His holy Church, the inn, where He orders the inn-keeper, the pastor, to take care of you, to feed you with His body and His blood, to make you know that you do not need to justify yourself, because He justifies you now, forgives you, declares you a child of God and therefore, therefore, an inheritor of everlasting life.
The lawyer had asked the question, “And who is my neighbor.” And Jesus reverses it. He answers the question, by showing the lawyer what a neighbor does. It’s what Jesus does for us. And now the command is no haunting, horrible, condemning thing. You go and do likewise. That is, live in the Gospel. Don’t ever leave it behind. Don’t ever make it secondary. Live in it. See what Jesus has done for you, let it every day cleanse your conscience, see that His crucifixion and suffering forever avail before the throne of God to declare you perfect and righteous, see His pity and that it does not stop. And then go and do likewise, not because you are earning life, but because you already have it, and mercy, love for sinners, the Gospel of your Lord Jesus, has captured your heart. Amen.