What’s the difference between a vacuum cleaner and a lawyer on a motorcycle? The vacuum cleaner has the dirt bag on the inside. What’s the difference between a jellyfish and a lawyer? One is a spineless, poisonous blob; the other is a form of sea life. How does a lawyer sleep? First he lies on one side, then he lies on the other. I’m sure you have heard your fair share of lawyer jokes. Why are lawyers such an easy target? Why do they rank just above members of Congress and used car salesmen in terms of trustworthiness and respect? We meet a lawyer in today’s text who embodies the worst characteristics of the profession: he’s sneaky, he’s deceptive, and he’s looking to twist the law to serve his own purposes. Sadly, lawyers aren’t alone in this last area. Today, Jesus exposes the lawyer in all of us in his response to the most important question that can be asked: what must I do to inherit eternal life?
This parable is one of the best know sections of Scripture. It’s referenced by news anchors and politicians and civil rights leaders. You’ve probably heard at least one sermon on this text. Here’s how it often goes: the priest and the Levite were heartless, evil men. Don’t be like them. Instead, be like the Samaritan. Be compassionate. Stop and give a couple bucks to the guy holding the sign by the highway onramp. Slow down and ask if the stranded motorist needs help. If you do that, you will satisfy God’s law and earn your way into heaven. Go and do likewise, then, is supposed to be the Gospel, the “good news” in this parable. Is it? If I tell you to be a “Good Samaritan” and send you on your way, will you be sure that eternal life is yours? Let’s look at the parable in a little more detail and see.
In 1st century Israel, the scenario posed by Jesus in this parable was an all-too-common one. The roughly 17 mile road from Jerusalem to Jericho was notoriously dangerous, passing through rugged, barren terrain and filled with pilgrims coming to and from the Temple, the road was a favorite haunt of thugs and thieves. This man was probably returning home from offering a sacrifice or attending a festival when he was jumped by robbers who stripped him, beat him and left him to die in a ditch on the side of the road.
Three men had the opportunity to be a neighbor to this poor soul. The first, a priest, a man of God, a man who knew God’s mercy, showed no mercy himself and passed by on the other side. The second, a Levite, a temple assistant, who knew God’s Law, including love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18), also passed this poor man by. Naturally, we ask: what were they thinking? How could they be so heartless and merciless? It’s frighteningly easy for us to get inside their heads, isn’t it? First, if the robbers were still in the area, they might wind up in the same ditch – how would that help anyone? Best to let someone else deal with it. Second, it wasn’t as if they could just stop, dial 911, wait for the ambulance to show up and then go on their way. If they stopped to help, everything fell on them. These were important men with things to do and people to see. Third, they may have had legal concerns of their own. There was an OT law that said that anyone who so much as brushed against a dead person was considered ceremonially unclean (Numbers 19:11) and, for a priest or Levite, would disqualify them from serving in the temple (Leviticus 21:1-4, 10-12) – in other words, if the guy was already dead and they touched him, they would not be able carry out their duty to the Lord – surely honoring God was sufficient reason to ignore this man. And so, in their minds, they had good, legal, justifiable reasons to ignore this poor man.
Then a third man passed by. He was not a temple worker. In fact, he wouldn’t have been welcomed in the temple. He was a Samaritan. The Samaritans were a mixed race, consisting of the Jews left behind after the Assyrians had conquered the Northern Kingdom and foreigners whom the Assyrians imported. Samaritans were the object of Jewish ridicule, hatred, and even curses.  Well, this Samaritan also came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went down into the ditch, cleaned and bandaged his wounds, set him on his donkey and took him to the local inn where he paid for him to spend the night. The next morning he left the man in the hands of the innkeeper, gave him two day’s wages and left his tab open in case there were any additional charges. Who, then, was the neighbor to the man who fell among the thieves? (So much did the Jews hate the Samaritans that the lawyer wouldn’t even identify him by name!) Not the priest or the Levite, but the half-breed heretic to whom no Jew would give the time of day much less a drink of water (John 4:9). The Samaritan wasn’t worried about defining who his neighbor was – rather, he understood the spirit of the law: he saw someone in need (there’s the definition of neighbor), had compassion on him, and helped him.
Now that you know who your neighbor is and how you are to treat him – go and do likewise. Yep. Walk out those doors and do the same thing. Help every man, woman, and child who happens to cross your path in life, regardless of how busy you are, regardless of your circumstances, regardless of what it will cost you. And while you’re doing it, do it with the purest of intentions and attitudes. Do it not out of obligation or fear of punishment or the promise of reward but purely out of love for God and love for others. Oh, and do this perfectly every day of your life if you want to earn your eternal life by what you do, because that’s what God’s law demands.
After all, a question about eternal life is what inspired this parable in the first place, wasn’t it? A lawyer came to Jesus and asked him Teacher…what must I do to inherit eternal life? And yet, while Jesus answered the lawyer’s question, he wasn’t really looking for an answer. He knew what the Law said, he rattled off Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 without hesitation. This was not a question borne out of curiosity or the honest inquiry coming from a troubled conscience – this was a lawyer doing what sleazy lawyers do: try to manipulate the law to serve their own purposes. It comes out crystal clear in his second question: and who is my neighbor? This question exposes the lawyer’s heart. If I know who my neighbor is, then, I also know who my neighbor is not. Then I can actually be justified in not loving and helping some people – such as Samaritans. After all, the lawyer inside us argues, God can’t expect me to love everyone all the time – why, that would be impossible! But if I can narrow the scope a little bit, lower the bar just a tad, then I stand a chance of doing it, keeping it and therefore justifying myself by my works – earning salvation by works of the Law.
We may make fun of lawyers for being devious and manipulative, but are we really any different when it comes to God’s Law? The lawyer inside us even has a name: old Adam. Old Adam is convinced that he can do enough to earn eternal life – that he isn’t the problem, God’s Law is, and that what needs to change is the law. You’ve heard his arguments before, haven’t you? Is this a sin? Is that a sin? Can I do this, go there, watch that without sinning? These days people bounce from church to church asking, “does your church, your pastor permit this, that or the other thing?” Here’s a hint: if you have to ask, you already have your answer. What that old legal-beagle Adam wants is not God’s Law explained but God’s Law limited, restricted, modified. Like the very best, most highly paid lawyers, he will search high and low for that tiny little loophole, that intricate work-around, that one exception God overlooked to cling to in the hope that maybe, just maybe, keeping God’s Law isn’t impossible for me, maybe I can justify myself and then I…don’t…need…Jesus. And, we don’t even have to go to law school to perfect these techniques.
Do any of these sound familiar: 1) Justification by Loophole – did God really say? At what point does it become “adultery”? How often do I have to go to church? How much of an offering is enough? 2) Justification by Comparison – I’m not as bad as those people. I go to church. I’ve never driven drunk. My family is intact – unlike some I know. 3) Justification by Virtue Signaling Labels – I’m pro-life, pro-marriage, pro-environment, pro-universal healthcare, pro-human rights, women’s rights, animal rights and therefore God must be satisfied with me regardless of the other stuff I do. 4) Justification by Inner Goodness – “I may have my flaws and weaknesses, I may not always show it, but deep down, I’m really a good person.” 5) Justification by Appeal to Justice – “She gossiped about me so I’m justified in gossiping about her.” 6) Justification by Imaginary Laws – I don’t drink, smoke, gamble or dance. Never mind there are no commandments against those things – I keep them and God ought to give me credit for it – or else, he’s the one with the problem. There are countless others. I’ll stop at six. Do you get the point?
The purpose of this parable is not to teach us what we can do to inherit eternal life (after all, an inheritance isn’t about what you do – it’s about someone else dying!). The Law can’t get us to heaven. Paul says if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law (Galatians 3:21). It’s not even primarily about teaching us who our neighbor is – because that’s not the real problem, the real problem is that we aren’t good neighbors! The Law was not given to justify us, rather God gave the Law so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God (Romans 3:19). Jesus told this parable for the same reason: to silence our self-justifications, to humble us and bring us to our knees in repentance. That’s where the law, the go and do likewise should have led that lawyer, and where it should lead us.
So where’s the good news? One of the unique characteristics of Jesus’ parables is that we are invited to identify with the characters. Which one are you? Sinful pride wants to identify with the Good Samaritan. The Law exposes us as the priest and the Levite. But what about the Gospel? Which character are you in view of God’s grace? According to the Gospel you are that sad sack of bones lying in the ditch. The moment you were conceived you were ambushed, beaten and left for dead by the devil and the original sin you inherited from your parents. You were not just half-dead, you were fully dead in sin (Ephesians 2:1). All the good works in the world wouldn’t heal you and all the sacrifices you could offer couldn’t earn you a ticket to heaven. Left to yourself, you would have died in the ditch of your own sin, destined only to hear God’s verdict of guilty and be sentenced to an eternity in hell’s prison.
But then along came the most unlikely hero. Who is the most unlikely person in all the world to save you from the wrath of God you justly deserved? God himself. And yet, there God was, stooping down out of heaven, conceived in a virgin’s womb, laying in the hay in a stable, walking those same dangerous roads of ancient Israel, preaching and teaching and healing. Jesus was the Good Samaritan who reached into the ditch of this world to rescue us, bloodied and beaten and hopeless. He found us, not the other way around. He washed us in the waters of Baptism and bandaged our wounds with his forgiving love and brought us to the inn of his Church, where he has left the tab open to provide us with limitless help and healing. Jesus loved his neighbor and he loved God – perfectly, every day, his whole life. His love – not ours – fulfilled the Law of God for us. And, then, in the twist that no one saw coming, he traded places with us, he became the man who fell into the hands of robbers, crucified between two of them, bloodied and beaten by a world that wanted nothing to do with him. He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification (Romans 4:25).
Do you want to stand justified before God? Then don’t be a lawyer, don’t look to justify yourself with loopholes and exceptions to the Law – because there aren’t any. Instead, look to Jesus. Trust in him and not yourself. For a man is justified by faith alone in Christ alone apart from any works of the law (Romans 3:28), including the law that commands us to love God and love your neighbor as yourself.
Did you catch the answer to that lawyer’s first question, that most important question: what must you do to inherit eternal life? Don’t do anything. Just lie there and let Jesus, the real Good Samaritan, come to you and wash your wounds with his forgiveness, bandage and pay for your sins with his body and blood, and keep you safe and sound in his Church until he returns to take you to heaven. Amen.
 Franzmann, 385