The Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity: Eternal Life Through the Law or the Gospel?

Parable of the Good Samaritan
A Samaritan stops to help a man wounded by thieves, while a priest and a Levite pass by (Luke 10:23–37). From a book by Martin Luther interpreting the Epistles and Gospels, 1544.

Lessons: Leviticus 19:9-18, Galatians 3:15-22, Luke 10:23-37
Hymns: LSB 553, 683, 845, 713, 649

Listen to the entire service here (the sermon alone is above).

      Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

      In today’s Gospel, a lawyer tests Jesus. Lawyers, in those days, were scholars of the Law of Moses. These were men involved with the Church, not the secular courts. This lawyer asked Jesus, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus replied, saying, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” It’s interesting that Jesus directed the lawyer back to the Law to obtain eternal life instead of pointing him to the more excellent way—through the Gospel.

      Our Lord’s response is very different than the responses given to similar questions found in the Bible. In Acts 2, St. Peter preached a wonderful sermon on Pentecost showing how Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament through His death and resurrection. He concluded his sermon, saying, “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” At this, the crowd was cut to the heart and asked, “What shall we do?” Peter showed them the way of salvation, saying, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2:38-39). The way to eternal life is found in Christ Jesus. Repent. Be baptized into Christ. Through Jesus, you will receive the forgiveness of sins, declaring you righteous and acceptable to Heaven.

      In Acts 16 when Paul and Silas were imprisoned for faithfully preaching the Gospel, they were praying and singing hymns to God. Suddenly around midnight there was a great earthquake, shaking the foundation of the prison, and the prisoners’ doors were opened, and their chains were unfastened. The jailer wanted to kill himself, thinking the prisoners all escaped, but Paul cried out, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” Trembling, the jailer fell down before Paul and Silas and asked, “What must I do to be saved?” They said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” and they spoke the Word of God to them. Then the jailer and his family were baptized into Christ (Acts 16:25-33).

      Why did Peter, Paul, and Silas proclaim salvation through the Gospel of Jesus Christ while Jesus taught the lawyer salvation through the Law of God? Can there possibly be salvation through the Law? After all, as Lutherans we tend to know very well that we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ (Eph. 2:8-9). We know that we are not justified by the works of the Law (Rom. 3:28). We know that all our righteous acts are like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). We know that we cannot achieve Heaven through our own doings.

      But Jesus said to the lawyer that he will live if he loves the Lord his God will all his heart, soul, strength, and mind; and loves his neighbor as himself. That seems to suggest one can be saved by the observance of the Law. And that is true—if one could keep the Law.

      The reality is we cannot keep the Law. Jesus illustrates that reality by teaching the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was a particularly dangerous road. A Jewish man was travelling down that road and robbers attacked him, stripping him, beating him, and leaving him half dead. A priest—a man of God—saw him and passed by on the other side. Another man of God did the same—a Levite. These are the ones you would think should be the first to help, but they fail God’s call to love. Yet, a Samaritan did not fail. He is hated by the Jews, yet this Samaritan comes to the aid of a Jew. He bandages his wounds, brings him to an inn, takes care of him, pays the bill, pays even more for additional lodging and recovery, and promises to pay any additional debt that may accrue.

      Who among us does that? We are too busy calculating our moves. Will robbers attack me, too, if I stop to help? Will that man half dead give me hepatitis or another blood-borne disease if I treat his wounds? Will I be late for something if I take the time to help? Will he pay me back if I’m kind to him? Do I have time for all this trouble? How much work will it take to clean my car after that bloodied man sits in it? Can I afford his bill? Shouldn’t the government pay his bills? Isn’t there someone else who can do this instead of me? Did he have this coming and who am I to stand in the way of fate? Since I don’t know the man, can I refuse to get involved?

      Oh, the excuses we invent just to let ourselves ever so cleanly off the hook! Whatever we can do to not get involved! How loveless we can be. Repent.

      But do I have to repent and help? Isn’t there another way? Can’t you see how pure and good my excuses are?

      You know, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, the lawyer tried to justify himself when he asked, “Who is my neighbor?” He was looking for that loophole—that excuse—that way to prove himself to be right or innocent even though he is not. Any attempts to do the same will not go well for us. Instead, Jesus teaches us to love our neighbor as the Samaritan did. No excuses.

      The Parable of the Good Samaritan is a more colorful way of teaching what Jesus proclaimed in His Sermon on the Mount, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). That is what the Law demands. Even Jesus in the New Testament taught the full weight and severity of the Law.

      And in doing so, He also shows that our observance of the Law will not result in salvation. It is impossible to save ourselves through our most righteous acts. For if we kept the whole Law but break just one bit of it, we are guilty of breaking the entire Law (James 2:10). So, if you have broken even the smallest commandment, you are ineligible to obtain eternal life through your keeping of the Law. Not only that, but we have inherited the sin of Adam. So even if we could somehow keep the entire Law, we still would be counted as sinners for we cannot and are not born sinless. David rightly admitted this, confessing, “Surely I was sinful from birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:5).

      Despite being a scholar of the Law of Moses, the lawyer did not understand the impossibility of fallen man to achieve eternal life through the Law. He figured he could somehow save himself. And so, Jesus responds the way He does with the lawyer. He is teaching that the way of salvation cannot be obtained by any of us through the Law. And we are glad Jesus does, for now we have the wonderful Parable of the Good Samaritan. It certainly teaches us that we are to love our neighbor—those in need whom God has placed in our lives.

      And the parable certainly teaches us the love Jesus has toward us. Picture Christ as the Good Samaritan. He saw us dead in our sins and trespasses, poured out on us the waters of holy baptism, tended to our wounds with the salve of the Gospel, brought us to the inn of the Church, paid our entire debt on the cross, and promises to cover for all our sins and iniquities until He returns again in glory. What a blessing!

      The lawyer was looking for eternal life on his own terms, for he was secure in himself and his own righteousness, and he was secure in his false understanding of the Law. What the lawyer needed was the Law to show him that he must come down from his pedestals of self-security and false belief. That’s what Jesus taught him.

      Those at Pentecost who were cut to the heart and the Philippian jailer and his family were looking for eternal life according to God’s terms. They had already been convicted of their sin. Those who heard Peter preach at Pentecost realized they were guilty of our Lord’s death. They crucified Him even if they weren’t there, for the Lord laid on Jesus the iniquity of us all. The jailer, too, was convicted. He did not wish to live, for he was afraid of what his superiors would do to him if the prisoners got away. He thought he was better off dead, except he would have died apart from faith in Jesus and would have gone to Hell. But when the jailer saw the kindness of Paul and Silas who had not escaped, he wanted to know the true way of salvation.

      That is why Peter, Paul, and Silas answered the same question in a much different way than Jesus. We treat souls according to what they need. We diagnose their situation and apply the Law or the Gospel as needed. This is true soul care. In German, a pastor can be called a Seelsorger—literally, one who provides care for souls.

      Both the Law and Gospel are necessary for salvation. In fact, the Law of God is good and wise. We need the Law’s instructions on what God expects of us. We need it to accuse us of our sin so that we turn to the Lord in repentance. And we need it to curb our sinful actions. Jesus used this good Law properly with the lawyer. Peter used this good Law in his sermon at Pentecost.

      But when the crowd was cut to the heart, Peter then gave them the Gospel, teaching salvation by faith in Christ alone. For Jesus alone was crucified on our behalf. He alone paid for our sins. He alone declares us righteous. He alone opens the gates of Heaven to us. Jesus alone is our Savior, Redeemer, and Propitiation (1 John 2:2). Jesus is the only Way to eternal life. No one comes to the Father except through Him. Our epistle summarizes this all so well with these words, “Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe” (Gal. 3:21-22). Amen.

      The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus to life everlasting. Amen