Luke 10:25-37: Inherit Eternal Life?

Love God and love your neighbor. What could be simpler? You can condense the entire Law of God in one word: Love. Is God’s Law that simple? Not when the lawyers are done!

A lawyer, an expert in the Torah, came up to Jesus to test Him. That was his first mistake. Test Jesus, and you will find Him testing you. So, to test Jesus, the Pharisee asks him the fundamental question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

The Pharisee asks the most basic of all religious questions. But let’s parse his question for a moment. What does a person do to inherit anything? Nothing: someone dies, and you happen to be on the receiving end of the inheritance.

Jesus realizes the Pharisee is testing Him, so He answers his question with a question. “What does the Law say?” Here, Jesus uses “Law” to mean the books of Moses: The Torah. What did Moses say? What is in the Torah? How do you read it?

The lawyer responds with the Law: Love God with your entire being and love your neighbor as yourself. That is what he believes someone must do to inherit eternal life. To inherit, you must love God and love your neighbor.

The Pharisee still uses the language of inheritance, even while the meaning is no longer there. You can’t do anything to receive an inheritance: someone bequeaths it to you after he dies. You can’t do anything, except to be born into the right family.

So the Pharisee uses the right language even while his self-made theology stripped away the meaning of the word. He understood the Torah as a set of works: works someone needs to do to make himself right with God. If you do what God expects of you well enough, you’re in—if not, you’re out.

But then, it wouldn’t be an inheritance, but earned wages—something you do to deserve it, not something God does. We’re wired that way from the fall into sin. If we do care about God, it is a god of our making, who rewards us because of what we do.

The Gospel, what God did and does to save you, all too often degenerates into a religion of works. Why was Luther excommunicated from the Roman-Catholic Church, followed by the Reformation? The life-creating power of sins forgiven because of Jesus degenerated into a religion of contributed works aimed at deserving God’s grace.

Now, two ironies confront us. The first was having to earn an inheritance. The second is doing something to be a benefactor of God’s grace. Now, if you can do something to get God’s grace, it is no longer grace. The language is there, but is the meaning stripped away from us, as well?

So, how does Jesus answer the Pharisee’s question? He doesn’t, but instead asks a question in return. Jesus redirects the spotlight, and the lawyer is now on the stand. The lawyer answers, “Love God and love your neighbor.”

Jesus agrees: “You gave the correct answer. Do this and you will live.” If you want your works to save you, love God and neighbor without flaw, and you will live.

The lawyer realizes he is cornered, which is what happens when you use the Law to justify yourself. The Law will turn on you and condemn you. Why is that? God didn’t give His Law to makes us right with Him. The Law is to kill sin and the sinner and to silence every mouth. The hammer of the Law exposes our sins and keeps hitting us until we realize we need a Savior from sin!

Lawyers, however, can’t be silent; their vocation requires them to speak. Trying to wriggle away from the unblinking stare of the Law, he responds to Jesus: “Who is my neighbor?” If I can define who he is, I can gut the Law, and I can stand, uncondemned. Now, I can be good enough.

Ah, if you want to be right with God based on what you do, Jesus will always give you something you can’t do—always! So, Jesus tells a parable of a man who got beat up while traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. The road was a hideout for bands of thieves, who robbed and beat this poor man and left him for dead in the ditch.

Three men passed by the man who looked to be dead. Three men had the opportunity to be a neighbor to the man thrown into the ditch. The first man was a priest, who was returning home from his priestly duties at the Jerusalem Temple.

The Priest spots a crumpled shadow of a man lying in the ditch. Now, if he happened to touch someone dead, he would become unclean and could not serve as a priest for a while. The Priest would need to be purified and offer a sacrifice. He finds it easier to do nothing.

The second man was a Levite, a priest’s assistant. He also takes a look, but like the Priest, he keeps a safe distance. The Law is the same for him. The same Law, which commanded him to love his neighbor, also demanded him to be ritually pure. He finds it easier to do nothing. You have your way out. Why should I love my neighbor, who might be dead? Why risk ritual impurity when he’s most likely no longer alive?

What do you do when God’s Law corners you and demands you to act? What should you do when you must break a commandment to fulfill the Law? Jesus confronts us with two answers: Legalism and Liberty.

Legalism says you must keep the commandment. The Priest and Levite were not wicked or evil; they were legalists. They knew what the purity laws demanded. God’s Law will do that: He will command you to “love God and love your neighbor,” but the Law will not give you the ability to love as God commands. You can legislate behavior, morality, but you can’t legislate the heart, love. For love is an act of freedom, not the Law.

Jesus now brings in the Samaritan, the half-breed, whom Jews hated and reviled. We call him “good,” but we can do better; for sin dirtied the Samaritan just like the Priest and the Levite. Oh, he looks to be the better man—but look deeper.

The Samaritan is free of the Law, which allows him to act. He isn’t required to be pure so he can act on his compassion. He goes to the man and finds out he isn’t dead. So, he treats his wounds, puts him up at a local inn, and even pays for his expenses.

So, of the three, who proved to be a neighbor to the man beaten up by the thieves? The answer, of course, is obvious. The one who showed him mercy—the Samaritan, who stopped and helped the man in the ditch.

Jesus tells the Pharisee, “Go and do the same.” If you are to do the works needed to earn eternal life, love the man in the ditch. Whomever God places in your path, no matter the personal cost or inconvenience, love him! Oh, now this begins to hurt!

Is Jesus serious with His answer? Yes! He is the greatest teacher who ever walked this earth, who gazed into the hearts of those who came to trap Him. The only way to break the hardened, legalistic heart is to take the Law and intensify it until the Law becomes undoable. Ask a Law question and you will receive the Lawman’s answer.

Only someone freed from the Law is free to do the Law. Remember that. Only someone freed from the Law is free to do the Law.

Until we believe “no condemnation now exists for those in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1), we will never be free. Until we realize “Christ is the end of the Law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Romans 10:4), we will never have the Samaritan freedom to love others in need. Without the freedom that comes in Christ, we will not love God and others without having some resentment.

In Jesus, God became our neighbor. He joined us in the ditch, where sin had left us for dead. The Word became flesh to live among us, to be God with us, and to fulfill the Law for us. He frees us from the burden of the Law. Christ became our neighbor, embracing us in our death.

Jesus heals our wounds with His wounds, applying the healing wine and oil of His Word and His body and blood to restore us. He forgives and frees us from the Law—so we might then do the Law: Love God and love our neighbor from hearts freed from having to be good enough to please God. Now you can’t lose!

Examine the man left for dead in the ditch. Does he resemble someone you know? “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). That beaten and broken man in the ditch is Christ, hidden inside your Christian brother to serve.

Dear baptized believer in Christ, living in Samaritan freedom, thanks to Jesus, you get to help him. Your Christian brother (or sister) is a gift, an opportunity to serve as Jesus serves you, to love as He loves you.

What must you do to earn eternal life? Everything, more that you can ever do, and you must do it all perfectly. Until all notions of doing something to make God delight in you are beaten and left for dead in the ditch, the Law must come to you to do that.

But if you have given up on yourself trying to earn God’s favor, then the Law has done its work. What must you do to inherit eternal life? Nothing. For an inheritance is received, not earned! You receive it because you were born from above into the right family, God’s family, in the waters of holy baptism. Amen.