The beginning of every service of Holy Communion is supposed to convince us that we are sinners — sinners who need God’s forgiveness, sinners who need God’s help. Some Sundays we hear the Ten Commandments, most Sundays we hear Jesus’ Summary of the Law. In either case the point is the same: “These are God’s moral standards. I have not lived up to them. I am in church to deal with those facts”
Today’s Gospel is the story of a man who hears the Summary of the Law and then looks to skirt the issues. Jesus tells him to love God and love his neighbor, so he tries to get Jesus to define “neighbor” as narrowly as possible. He wants to know the minimum standard to stay on God’s good side — he wants Jesus to define boundaries for loving your neighbor.
St. Luke says the man wanted “to justify himself” — he wanted Jesus to tell him that as an upstanding Jew, he was doing fine, and that he didn’t need to change his ways one bit. We may possibly have known people who look at things that way.
Jesus does not spare him at all. He tells him a story which indicates that anybody who needs you to help him is a person you should help. To love your neighbor is to help him–to do what is best for him. Jesus places no comforting limitations on the obligation to love — such as, “You only need to help people you approve of,” or “You only need to be good to people who are good to you.”
The hero of Jesus’ story is a Samaritan. The people who were listening to Jesus hated Samaritans. The negative examples in the story are a priest and a Levite. The people listening to Jesus would have thought a priest and a Levite were the most righteous and godly people of all.
Further irony comes into play because Jesus’ listeners would most certainly have thought the mugging victim was a Jew himself, since we know he was traveling from Jerusalem. So the scene Jesus presents is that of a fellow Jew shunned by his own kind, and rescued by an avowed enemy. All of this goes to show that when it comes to Jesus, our normal preconceived notions aren’t often very helpful.
In any event, the parable of the Good Samaritan fleshes out what the Summary of the Law means. As far as my own situation is concerned, the parable only makes things worse. I might be able to convince myself in the abstract that I love my neighbor, but in the real world, I have to admit I often fall short of the kind of absolute and universal commitment the Samaritan displayed toward the mugging victim. So if that is what God demands, where does it leave me?
As is the case so often, St. Paul comes to the rescue. In today’s Epistle he tells us that God made promises to Abraham. Then God gave the Old Testament Law to Moses about 430 years after Abraham. “Love God and love your neighbor” is the summary of that Law.
People got the idea that the coming of the Law put conditions on God’s promises to Abraham. Now his people would receive the promises only if they kept the Law. St. Paul says that is not so–a promise with conditions is not a promise. A promise with conditions becomes a deal- a quid pro quo arrangement.
St. Paul says that when God makes a promise, he keeps the promise. The purpose of the Law is not to make God’s promise conditional. The purpose of the Law and the Summary of the Law is to put us exactly where we found ourselves after we examined the parable of the Good Samaritan.
The purpose of the Law is to show us that we cannot keep it, and that we need God’s forgiveness and his help. Listen to St. Paul’s last words to us today. First of all, “The scripture hath concluded all under sin.” That means that everybody is a sinner, nobody lives up to the example of the Good Samaritan all the time, and God knows all that perfectly well. So we can relax — we don’t need to waste a lot of energy pretending we are perfect.
Then he says that after you admit that you are a sinner, “the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe.” That verse is full of good things. God’s specific promise to Abraham was that he would have land and descendants — a never-ending relationship to God in both space and time. Jesus is the seed of Abraham — his lineal, biological descendant. So we get in on the promises by being baptized into Jesus’ body. We receive God’s promise to be with us forever.
Faith in Jesus Christ means accepting the forgiveness he bought for us on the cross. His blood is what makes us right with God.
If we can accept what Jesus has done for us already, then we have a new and better motivation for trying to do what is best for other people. We can try to love out of gratitude to God, not out of fear.
Jesus told the man who wanted to justify himself to do what the Samaritan did. He tells us the same thing, with the guarantee that he will forgive us when we don’t do it. Or, put another way, “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table, but thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.”