Fifth Sunday after Pentecost – July 14, 2019
Jesus on Trial
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Our text is from the Gospel reading. Jesus asked, “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Here ends the text.
Jesus was on trial. It was like he was sitting upon the witness bench in a courtroom. He was charged with several offenses. He had been fraternizing with sinners, prostitutes and tax collectors. He associated with Samaritans, those half-breeds of ancestry and religion whom the Jews spurned. He blessed those sinners whom God had apparently cursed with disease and demons, misfortune and poverty. He was showing mercy to those who didn’t deserve it. And worst of all, he was telling these base people of society that the kingdom of God was theirs. He had the nerve to tell these lawbreakers, of all people, that they would inherit eternal life.
So a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. Like a prosecuting attorney, he approached the witness bench and smugly looked down on Jesus. The lawyer had his plan for questioning the defendant well rehearsed. He would get Jesus to answer a few questions, get him to acknowledge the facts of the Law, and then show how Jesus’ words and deeds were inconsistent with the Law. Open and shut case. The key argument here was to establish what the Law required to inherit eternal life and then show how Jesus’ teaching contradicted the Law. The lawyer started with a relatively easy question. He wouldn’t begin his attack on Jesus or any of his followers just yet. He even used himself as the example. He asked Jesus, “So, tell us Teacher, what must someone like myself, or what must I do, let’s say, to inherit eternal life.” In a sense, “Let’s define the requirements for upstanding and righteous citizens like myself and then we’ll see how your rabble measures up to the standard.” He followed one of the first rules of questioning a witness, “Never ask a witness a question you don’t know the answer to yourself.” But instead of answering, Jesus upset the flow of the trial by asking the lawyer a question. “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” The lawyer couldn’t believe it. Jesus was playing right into his hands. He was leading the witness right down the path he wanted. So he answered his own question, “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 love your neighbor as yourself.” He succinctly summarized the two tables of the Law. Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly.” This was going to be easier than the lawyer thought. He already had Jesus agreeing with his first premise. You must keep the Law to inherit eternal life. Now to spring the trap. He would begin his attack on these followers of Jesus, who obviously hadn’t kept the Law, and then he would debunk Jesus’ teaching that these people would inherit eternal life.
But then Jesus added, “Do this, and you will live.” The lawyer halted his interrogation a moment. He didn’t like this last comment. It put him on the defensive. Jesus was on trial here, not him. It seemed to imply that maybe he hadn’t done this. He paused a moment in order that he might justify himself. He asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” He thought he knew the answer to this question. My neighbor is my fellow countryman, a blood relation, an upstanding person like myself who also loves me. If this were the answer then he could easily justify himself and get on with Jesus’ trial. But in a sense, what he was also asking was, “Who is not my neighbor? Whom can I exclude? Who don’t I have to love?” This is what lawyers are good at doing, finding loopholes in the Law. Holes that are just the right size for them to crawl through but no one else. The party of the first part, that’d be me, is to love the party of the second part, that’d be my neighbor. Now let’s define this party of the second part so I can determine who I have to love and who I don’t.
But in answer to the lawyer’s question, Jesus tells him a story. A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho. Could be any man, any nationality, religion, or class. He was attacked by robbers who stripped him and beat him and left him half dead. His social status, whatever it had been, could no longer be identified. He could be a wealthy magistrate of the Jews or he could be a bum of one of the Gentile nations. Who could know? Now just by “chance” a priest was going that way. He saw the man, but passed by on the other side. If the man died in his care, it’d be terribly inconvenient. He’d be ritually unclean from touching a dead body. Couldn’t do his temple duties. Better let someone else help the man. Then a Levite came to the place. He saw the man, but he too passed by on the other side. Robbers might still be around. Could be a trap. Better not to get involved. The two standards of society, a priest and a Levite, fail the test. Then along comes a despised Samaritan. But when he saw the man he had compassion upon him. He cared enough to do something to alleviate the man’s suffering. He went to the man, treated his wounds with oil and wine, and put him on his animal. He took the man to an inn and cared for him at his bedside. The next day he paid the innkeeper two days wages to take care of the man. And, if necessary, he promised to pay even more when he came back.
And then Jesus sprang his trap. He asked the lawyer a question he already knew the answer to. “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” Suddenly the tables were reversed. The lawyer was on the witness bench, and Jesus was standing over him. The lawyer was on trial, and Jesus was the prosecuting attorney. The lawyer had to admit, “I suppose the one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.” Jesus had led the witness exactly where he wanted him to go. You see, keeping the Law wasn’t about identifying who is and who isn’t our neighbor, who to love and who not to love. But it’s about being a neighbor to everyone, loving everyone, no matter their social status, condition, or inconvenience to us. And this is exactly what Jesus was doing. He was having compassion on the poor and sick, Jew or Gentile. He was showing mercy to sinners, tax collectors and prostitutes. Jesus was being a neighbor who loved everyone, especially when they didn’t deserve it. Jesus was keeping the Law. But this lawyer, who had to ask who his neighbor was, obviously wasn’t keeping the whole Law. And if he hadn’t loved his neighbor, how could the love of God be in him? He condemned himself by his own words. “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Love God and love your neighbor. Keep the Law, but he hadn’t. Therefore, no eternal life for him. Trial over. Case closed.
But before we’re too quick to close the books on this case and give three cheers for the cleverness of Jesus who outwitted a lawyer, we might look at our own case. Can we honestly say that we’ve lived up to the standard and kept the Law with no loopholes? Have we loved everyone, regardless of culture, religion, or political affiliation, even our enemies? Not just saying the words, “I love them,” or feeling sorry for them, but showing compassion to them, even when it’s not convenient for us? And if we haven’t loved our neighbor can we say that we truly love God when we fail to keep his command to love one another? Jesus said, “Do this, and you will live.” But like that lawyer, we haven’t done this. Therefore, no eternal life for us. These are harsh words. But these are the words for anyone who would justify himself.
But thankfully Jesus didn’t close the books on our case or even for that lawyer. You see, Jesus didn’t give those harsh words of law because he hated that lawyer. Jesus is the good neighbor who loved him. Jesus hoped that by showing him how difficult it was to keep the Law that he would quit trying to justify himself. Instead, he would seek God’s mercy. By turning the tables on that lawyer, Jesus hoped to turn him from his self righteousness to God’s grace. And that’s what he wants for us.
Though we may sometimes behave like that priest and Levite who passes by our neighbor on the other side, we’re really like the man beaten by robbers. The devil has tempted and assaulted us and left us to die in our sins. But Jesus was the Samaritan, despised by the Jews. As the incarnate Son of God, he took our same road and found us, though not by “chance.” Jesus had compassion on us. He healed us of our sins and paid for our recovery, not with oil or wine or silver and gold but with his holy precious blood and his innocent suffering and death. Jesus didn’t come to abolish the Law or make it easier. He fulfilled the Law for us with no loopholes. He truly loved his Father and loved all people. He had mercy on the tax collectors and prostitutes and sinners like us who could never justify ourselves. But by his righteousness, he justifies us before God.
What shall I do to inherit eternal life? I don’t do anything to inherit a gift. Jesus does it for me. It’s all his mercy. Believe this, and you will live. Case closed. Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.