Sermon audio here.
In today’s Holy Gospel, a lawyer puts our Lord’s knowledge of inheritance law to the test. He asked, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” It was a pretty silly question. Birthrights can’t be earned; they’re passed down from parent to child. It’s not like you get to look around and say, “The estate of Bill Gates looks pretty sweet, I’m going to inherit that.” It doesn’t work that way. Inheritances belong to families, and you don’t get to choose what family you belong to.
No sane person will think they can make Bill Gates their father. As irrational as this is, people try to do this with God all the time. They say things like, “I’ve chosen to make Jesus my own personal Savior.” That’s like saying, “Mom, I’ve chosen to make you my own personal mother.” You don’t choose your parents—God chooses them for you—and you can’t make God your Father any more than you can make Bill Gates your father.
So the first thing we need to get straight is who chooses who. Sinners can’t make themselves children of God. Here’s how St. Peter puts it:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you,” (1 Peter 1:3–4).
It’s important to pay attention to who’s doing the doing. Peter didn’t say, “Blessed be those who, according to their great wisdom and good nature, chose to have themselves born into God’s family and have made Christ their Savior.” As much as we like to have choices and be in control, you have no choice or control regarding your birth. You can’t will yourself into existence, nor do you choose the time or place or family you inherit.
These are all given, not earned. In Holy Baptism, God has caused you to be born again to the living hope of salvation earned by Christ for you on the cross and demonstrated in His resurrection. God has made Himself your Father and has adopted you as His child at the font.
You cannot be a Christian if you choose Christ. The only people who need a Savior are those who sin, those who reject Christ daily in thought, word, and deed. You can only choose Christ if you never sin, because to sin is to reject Christ.
But the lawyer didn’t want God to choose him; He wanted to prove that he could choose God. He wanted to earn something that could only be given. So he asked, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
Now you might think Jesus would have corrected him at this point and said something like, “No, you don’t get to choose me, nor can you earn my inheritance,” and then gone on to preach the Gospel. But instead, all the lawyer gets is law: “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.” “Do this,” our Lord says, “and you will live.” [i]
But this is impossible and he knows it, so his next move is to try and get Jesus to grade on a curve. Apparently the lawyer thinks the fact that nobody’s perfect somehow puts him in a position to negotiate with God. But God is holy. He doesn’t settle; He demands absolute perfection.
What this means is you can’t give God what He demands. As our epistle says, “The Law was added because of transgressions.” The law’s like a leash.
There’s this little dog, a beagle I think, that lives down the street from me. Every time I run by it, the thing starts foaming at the mouth and charging toward me. The first time this happened I thought, “Great. So this is how it’s all going to end. I can just see the headlines now: “Pastor eaten for dinner by Snoopy.”
Fortunately, the little vampire was on a leash and could come no farther than the edge of the sidewalk. Even so, being on a leash didn’t remove his bloodthirst. If anything, it made it worse!
In the same way, God’s Law is like a leash, restraining sin. It doesn’t remove our ungodly impulses, but it does keep them in check by threatening us with punishments. But being kept on a leash doesn’t make you righteous.
The lawyer wanted to shorten the leash. He knew if he needed to love everyone as himself, he’d be dogmeat, so He asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Again, he’s wanting Jesus to grade on a curve. He’s trying to get Jesus to draw a circle—hopefully a really small one—around certain people so he could love them and forget about everyone else.[ii]
But the truth is, even if that circle only included one person—the person or people you love most—you will never love them as much as you love yourself. Parents often say they love their children more than themselves—and we may want to—but which parent always puts their children’s needs first and never gets frustrated or angry with them? Repent, for you are your own highest priority, which means God is not.
Worse, the circle is a lot bigger than just your loved ones. It includes strangers and even your enemies. God calls you to love everyone, no exceptions, with the self-giving love of Christ. God has drawn a circle, and it’s in the shape of the planet earth. That’s your neighbor circle.
Or think about this in terms of a list. Maybe your list of neighbors starts out completely full, but that’s just too many people, so you’re always looking for excuses to cross people off.[iii]
Our sinful flesh is so perverse that it actually likes when other people offend us, because then we think that absolves us of any obligation to them. Love keeps no record of rights and wrongs and always desires to reconcile. To limit your love in any way is to choose sin over Christ.
What the Samaritan did for the man who fell among the robbers is not only remarkable because he helped someone else at his own expense, but because he helped a bitter enemy. This is what Jesus was doing on the cross: not dying for those who chose Him, but dying for those who chose sin.
If God graded on a curve, even then you wouldn’t measure up. But what God demands, He Himself provides. Jesus didn’t need God to lower His demands. He kept God’s Law perfectly, yet died as a transgressor in order to give transgressors the life the Law promises to those who keep it.
Jesus never gives up on you or looks for an excuse to blot your name out of His Book. The only excuse He looks for is for the Father to forgive those who don’t deserve it—and on the cross, that’s exactly what He gave Him.
You’re like the man who fell among robbers in today’s Holy Gospel, lying in the ditch, naked in your shame, beaten up by your own sin, and left for dead.
But then along comes a merciful Savior, who bandages you up and gives you much needed shelter in His Holy Christian Church. It was as if He went back to the robbers, caught them in the act, and said, “Leave this one alone, take me instead.”
They beat Him and stripped Him, but they didn’t stop when He was half dead. Jesus gave His life completely, rose again, and makes you who were half dead fully alive by His life-giving Body and Blood.
Christ had a choice, and He chose you. He chose you even though He knew your love for others would continually fail. Knowing that you would put yourself first, even before Him, still He chose you. As often as you hear the preaching of the Gospel and receive the Sacrament, Christ freely gives you the inheritance you never could have earned.
The most valuable and important gifts you could ever receive, Christ gives you in His Church. Neglecting these gifts comes from self-righteousness, or Satan’s lie that you’re a good person and don’t need the care your Good Samaritan gives you in this place.
What shall you do to inherit eternal life? Nothing. Jesus has done it all for you. “For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise,” (Gal. 3:18).
What shall you render to the Lord for all His benefits to you? 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 love your neighbor as yourself.
Soli Deo Gloria
+Rev. Eric Andersen
St. Luke 10:23–37: God Doesn’t Grade on a Curve
The Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity, 2015
Zion, Summit: https://www.facebook.com/zionlcms
Immanuel, Hodgkins: https://www.facebook.com/immanuelhodgkins
Around the Word Bible Studies: http://www.whatdoesthismean.org/bible-studies.html
[i] Wolfmueller, sermon for Trinity 13