Who Is My Neighbor?

by The Rev. Mark T. Buetow

St. Luke 10:23-37

OK. I'll admit it. Jesus is making me nervous. As a Lutheran, it's been drummed into my brain my whole life: we are saved by grace, not by our good works. Jesus saves us, not what we do. Our sins are forgiven because Jesus died for them, not because we do good works for other people. So when this young expert in the Law of Moses says, "Love God. Love your neighbor" and Jesus says, "Do this and you will live"--that makes me nervous!

Is Jesus telling this guy that if he loves God above all things and loves his neighbor as himself, he'll be saved? Get to heaven? Have eternal life? The Law says "Love God and love your neighbor." To show us what that means, Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan which shows that we're supposed to help people in need. And THAT is what most people think the Christian faith is all about: be good to other people and you'll get to heaven. That's why I say it makes me nervous when Jesus tells this guy: "Do this and you will live." But as always, Jesus' words aren't there to condemn us but to save us. His Word isn't given to us to teach us how to earn eternal life. His Word is given to teach us how HE saves us. Jesus doesn't tell the story of the Good Samaritan to teach the guy some moral lesson on how to be nice to people. He tells him the story to save him from trying to save himself.

The Gospel says that when Jesus answered him, the young law expert "wanting to justify himself" asked, "Who is my neighbor." There's the key. He wanted to justify himself. To justify means to show why he's right. He wanted to save himself. To show Jesus that he can keep the law. And it's our problem too. We want to justify ourselves.

To justify means to make up a reason why we're right. Husbands and wives often try to justify themselves when they buy something they weren't planning to come home with. Kids justify themselves when they make up reasons why their grades weren't as good as they should be. To God, "justify" means to "be right and make right." For us, though, "justify" seems to mean "make up excuses." The Law of God is simple, as the young law expert knows: You love God above all things. You love your neighbor as yourself. In fact, you can't love God without loving your neighbor, as Jesus taught him. But we, like the lawyer, want to justify ourselves. The Law says, "Love God. Love your neighbor." We say, "But I can't do it." The Law replies: "Love God. Love your neighbor." And we say, "I can't do it. But I have a good reason for not doing it." And the Law replies: "Love God! Love your neighbor!" "No, we say, it's impossible." And the Law just does its thing: "Love God. Love your neighbor. Or go to Hell!" That's what the Law says. That's all it says. You can't make excuses. You can't get around it. Either love God and your neighbor or you are doomed.

That is why, when the man gets beat up and robbed and left half dead in the story, the priest and the Levite pass by on the other side. What Jesus is teaching this lawyer who wants to justify himself is that HE, the man, is the guy who is beaten up and robbed. His righteousness is stolen by the devil and he is beaten to a pulp by sin. And when the Law comes, what does it do? It can't help. It can't save. It can't rescue. It just tells us what to do and what will happen if we don't do it. That is why the priest and the Levite, who represent the Law in Jesus' story, just go on their merry ways. They can't help. But a Samaritan does. He has compassion on the man. And having compassion doesn't mean he just stands there and feels sorry for the guy, it means he does stuff. He cleans and bandages his wounds and takes him to the inn to recover. He pays the expenses.

So when the Law doesn't save you, the Lord has compassion. And God's compassion doesn't mean that He sits up in heaven feeling sorry for you. It means He does stuff. And what He does is to send His own Son into the flesh. And Jesus is born and has compassion on sinners. Not by feeling sorry for them but by doing stuff. He suffers Himself to be arrested and mocked and beaten and spit upon and jeered and hated and crucified. He carries our sins on Himself and dies for them on the cross. He is beaten and hangs all the way dead on Calvary for sinners. That's the Lord's compassion! The compassion of our Lord is not in His somehow taking pity on our puppy dog eyes! His compassion is to come to us who are half-dead from sin, who have been beaten and robbed by the devil, and to save us. To rescue us. To heal us.

But the Samaritan's compassion doesn't stop there. He takes the man and carries him to an inn and puts him in the care of the innkeeper and makes sure to provide for all his expenses. So it is that Jesus doesn't just die for us and then go away. He pours His oil and wine from His own wounds into the wounds of our sins. That is, He washes us in the waters of the holy font and pours into us His own blood. He carries us, by the preaching of the Gospel to the inn of His church. There he puts us under the care of his pastors, his innkeepers, that we might have rest from our sins. He covers all the expenses and makes sure that he'll cover more if there are any. That is why in the Christian church there is no limit to the forgiveness of our baptism, no limit on how many times the absolution can be spoken or Jesus' body and blood be given and received.

Do you see, dear Christians? We are half-dead and lying by the side of the road. And we'll die all the way, eternally, if the Law has anything to say about it, because it just passes us by. But not so Jesus, our Good Samaritan. He comes into our misery and mess and saves us. He is teaching this young lawyer guy that it is HE that needs saving. He is teaching us that it is WE who need to be saved. No justifying yourself. No making excuses to the Lord. The Law will pass you by and leave you dying. But the Savior gives His life to save yours. You will not die because Jesus has gone through death and suffering for you, in your place. That is what it means that God truly justifies you. Not your excuses, but the wounds of Jesus. Not your works, but the Word and Sacraments of Jesus. You can't justify you. But Jesus does by what He has done for you and in your place.

Now, I don't want you to think there is nothing to do for your neighbor now. The lawyer's problem was that he wanted to say he loved God without doing anything for anyone else. God doesn't need our hugs and kisses. We love God BY loving our neighbor. What Jesus is teaching this man and us is that our neighbor was not put on this earth to be the way in which we get ourselves to heaven! But our neighbor is given to us to love and serve. Jesus is teaching us to have compassion on others not by thinking about them but by DOING for them. When you see someone in need, don't mess around with whether you like them or don't like them or whether they've done anything for you or things like that. Rather, if you see them in need, help them out! And NOT because it saves you. Your salvation, your justification, is a done deal. Squared up by Jesus. The price is paid by the Samaritan and His money purse. You—you are free to have compassion on your neighbor, precisely because you DON'T have to impress God. Which is a good thing, since we often mess up loving our neighbor so much. Never mind! Back at it. When you find yourself trying to be religious without loving your neighbor, repent! Likewise, when you find yourself trying to justify what you do or don't do to God, repent! Back to the inn, back to the church, back to oil and wine, that is, font and altar and Word. More Jesus for you. For He doesn't leave you but comes back to check on you. That is, He comes over and over to give you His gifts for forgiveness and healing.

There is a wrong way to read the story of the Good Samaritan. The wrong way is to think that Jesus is teaching us how if we do good things for other people, we'll get to heaven. That's what the young lawyer thought. Jesus spoke to rescue him from that way of thinking. The right way to read and hear this story is this: in our sin, we are the guy in the ditch. Jesus is our Good Samaritan who rescues us and saves us. Yet if Jesus is the Good Samaritan, then we are the Good Samaritan too. Because in Jesus, God the Father smiles upon all of our good works, no matter how weak they look to us or the world. If Jesus ain't the Good Samaritan, ain't nobody the Good Samaritan. But since He is the Good Samaritan, so are you in God's sight. And that's not you justifying yourself. That's God Himself justifying you in Jesus. That's Jesus being your neighbor. Amen.

Pastor Mark Buetow serves Bethel Lutheran Church in Du Quoin, IL. He also serves as the Higher Things Internet Services Executive and taught as a Plenary Speaker at the Amen conferences.


Created: August 21st, 2008