Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Parable of the Sinful Samaritan

Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity
August 25, 2013
Growing up vacationing in a motorhome, one of the things I got used to noticing were stickers on RVs that had a big smiling face of a man with a halo over his head and the words underneath, “The Good Sam Club.” The Good Sam Club, of course, took its cue from Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. Here was this Samaritan who saw a person in need and stopped to help him in his need. When RVers joined the Good Sam Club, they were pledging to help fellow RVers in their need.

In the parable, Jesus obviously is distinguishing the Samaritan from the two Jewish characters in the story, the priest and the Levite. Those two did not stop to help the man in need, but the Samaritan did. The Good Sam Club did not form as an organization for theological motives, but simply to provide a way for people to join together to help each other out. However, often Christians take a similar approach to their theology. What is Jesus teaching us in the parable of the Good Samaritan? We should be like the Good Samaritan, of course!, and not like those wretched Jewish priests and Levites who wouldn’t even stop to help a poor soul in need.

But if this is really what Jesus is getting at, then what truly is the difference between His religion and, say, an organization such as the Good Sam Club? There is no difference. The man who was testing Jesus was wanting a theology similar to what can be found in a secular organization such as the Good Sam Club. Jesus, however, is teaching something radically different.

Looking again at the parable Jesus teaches, what is the difference between the Samaritan and the two other guys, the priest and the Levite? The answer is: absolutely nothing. There is no difference. The priest and the Levite were obviously sinful human beings. Their actions attest to that. The thing that is easily missed is that so was the Samaritan. The Jews found it easy to notice that those heretic Samaritans were sinners. And they were right. The Samaritans were sinners, just as the one in Jesus’ parable was. What might have been harder for them to realize is that they were just as much sinful people as those hated Samaritans were.

So the Parable of the Good Samarian might better be titled the Parable of the Sinful Samaritan. There were three sinners who traveled the road the man was on who had been beaten and left for dead. There was no difference between them. For that matter, there was no difference between these three and the robbers and the man who had gotten beaten up! All were sinners.

Jesus’ response to the man is striking. Surely it can’t be right. The man asks what he must do to gain eternal life and Jesus directs him to the Law? What does it say? How do you read it? The man answers correctly. Exceptionally well, in fact. “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.” Wow, the man knew his stuff. That is the essence of the Law of God, the summary of the Ten commandments. And what does Jesus say to him? “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”

So is Jesus now teaching salvation by works? Is He directing the man to the Law so that he can indeed gain salvation by what he does rather than by grace alone? Is Jesus, after all, doing what every other religion does and teach that there is something we must do in order to gain eternal life? What Jesus is doing in fact is answering the man in the way he is approaching God. If you want to know what you can do to gain favor with God, Jesus will tell you. You must be perfect. You must go to the Law of God and keep it down to its last jot and tittle. So, yes, what Jesus said is true. Do this and you will live. You will have eternal life exactly as you have desired it.

But don’t we know deep down that that can’t happen? That it’s not that God will renege on His part of the bargain, but more that we simply will fall short. That far from keeping all the Ten Commandments, we’ll be lucky if we can get beyond the first one.

Ask a Law question and you will get a Law answer. The man asks Jesus about God and salvation but from a Law standpoint. Not from how God brings it about, but from how he can do something whereby God will be expected to grant him eternal life. Ask a Law question, get a Law answer. And the Law will always fail you if you hang your hat on it. That’s what Jesus shows in his parable of the Samaritan. This was Jesus’ response to the man’s second attempt at getting a satisfying answer to his question.

Jesus’ first answer was straight-forward. You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live. But the man, Luke says, wished to justify himself. That’s easy for You to say, Jesus, keep the Law and you will live. But I want to show you that I am one who deserves eternal life. So if I am to love my neighbor as myself, who is my neighbor? The answer is the one who is not worthy of your time or your money or your effort. The answer is the one you would just as soon ignore. The answer is the one you naturally think of as one who is opposed to you.

This is who the Samaritans were. They were the enemies. And it wasn’t a one-sided thing. The Samaritans hated the Jews just as much as the Jews hated the Samaritans. Each thought they were the true people of God. So when this man, a Jew, asked Jesus who he should love as himself, his neighbor, he was expecting the guy down the street; his fellow Jew; a person who is worthy of love; something along those lines. But not a Samaritan! Not the hated half-breeds from up north. Not someone who is not worthy to be spoken of in polite company.

But this is the beauty of Jesus’ parable. It is the beauty of His answer to how one gains eternal life. The Samaritan is not the one in need. The Samaritan is not the one in the story who needs help. It is indeed a fellow Jew. And what happens? The two other Jews in the story pass right on by. And they are not even your ordinary Jews, but a priest, and a Levite! These do not see a neighbor in that man lying there half-dead. Their own fellow Jew. What if it had been a Samaritan? It wouldn’t have made a difference. These religious Jews weren’t about to stop and help one in need.

But it was the hated Samaritan who did. The man had asked, Who is my neighbor? Jesus responded with a question of His own. Who was the neighbor to the man who needed help? It was the Samaritan, of course. Or, as the man said it, “The one who showed him mercy.” And this is where we see how Jesus teaches the man that it is not by works that he will be saved. It is not by anything he will do or any attempt to justify himself that he will gain eternal life. But it is rather by mercy. It is rather by God’s pure gift to the man.

Ask a Law question, and you will get a Law answer. When the man responded to Jesus, getting it right once again, “The one who showed mercy on him,” Jesus said, “You go, and do likewise.” Do this and you will live. Be a neighbor to the one in need. Have mercy on the one who is your sworn enemy. Give of your own time, your own money, your own effort to help the one who is left for dead, and you will live. You will have eternal life and blessings beyond your wildest imagination.

And is this because you have done all this? Has Jesus reversed course again and reverted to teaching salvation by works, by what we do? No, He has done just the opposite. To see this, we go back again to our alternate title of the parable, the Parable of the Sinful Samaritan. The fact that the Samaritan was the good Samaritan wasn’t due to him being somehow a better person than the priest or the Levite. It was due to him having been justified, as the man testing Jesus had sought, but justified by grace. Justified by the Gospel, by God forgiving him his sins. Not by keeping the Law. Not by attempting to show his worth to God. The priest and the Levite were prime examples of the Law of God, but they did not see the need for showing mercy as they had received it. The Samaritan was outside of the Jews’ law.

As he walked down that road he did so as a justified sinner. The priest was a sinner, and so was the Levite. The Samaritan saw a man in need. One who was as he was. The Samaritan received mercy and simply did what people who have received mercy do, they show it others. Especially those in need. They do not consider that the person they’re helping is not worthy, or their hated rival, or cannot repay them. They just do it. Having received mercy, they give mercy. They live under mercy, they are merciful to others.

We can be grateful that there are people who want to be in organizations like the Good Sam Club. We can be grateful that there are people who simply help others out whether they’re in an organization for that or not. We can be grateful that there are people who want to be good people. Mostly what we can be grateful for is mercy. Not what we can do, how much we can do, what will be enough for God to take us in. Simply mercy. God’s mercy in His Son. The sinless one who walked the road we were on and picked us poor sinners up and poured out for oil His own blood to wash away all our sins. Who did not walk on by but walked to the cross so that He could suffer as the sinner in our place. He did this for those who did not deserve it, you and me. He did this for those who are not worthy, everyone.

There is one who is good and He is Christ. There is one who needed no justification but is the one who has justified all in His suffering, death, and resurrection. There is one who gives you balm in your need, medicine for your soul; one who brings you to the Inn of the Church and there feeds you with His body and blood. Who forgives you. Who strengthens you. Who preserves you in body and soul to life everlasting. Amen.


Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Greater Glory of God

Twelfth Sunday after Trinity
August 18, 2013
What God has done is glorious. That was the estimation of the people. Here this man was deaf, and he could now hear. Here this man could speak only in jumbled words, and now he was speaking clearly and freely. This was glory that only God could bring about. “He has done all things well,” the people proclaimed. And there is no question. This was a great glory of God. God bringing healing to this man. God restoring this man, bringing this blessing to him.

But there is a greater glory of God. The crowds alluded to it, though without question did not fully realize it. It is in what they said. “He has done all things well. He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.” Mark says they were astonished at this glory of Jesus bringing hearing to the man and the ability to speak. Mark recounts their words. But he wasn’t simply stating what they stated. He was putting the words of the crowd in his Gospel account as a direct reference to the promise of the Old Testament of the Savior who would come. He would be the one, as today’s Old Testament reading says, that in the day He would come “the deaf shall hear the words of a book, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see.”

This was a promise of the greater glory of God. Would it be amazing glory for the deaf to hear and the blind to receive their sight? No doubt. But the Old Testament didn’t spill all those pages of ink simply to tell us about the glory of God in healing people of their infirmities and physical limitations. That’s great glory, to be sure. But there is a greater glory of God.

God gave His words to the prophets in the Old Testament to tell of the one who would come to restore. The bringing of hearing to the deaf and sight to the blind wasn’t simply for healing, which is great glory in itself. It primarily was for the greater glory, restoration. God brought restoration to that man that day. He could now hear. He could now speak. He was restored to how God had originally created the crown of His creation, human beings. We weren’t created for ears that don’t hear. God did not bring us into existence only for us not to be able to see His glorious creation. God’s will was that we share in all His glory.

But we were the ones who chose to listen to words other than His alone. We were the ones who choose to look to ourselves and the enticements of the world rather than to Him alone for all good that we need. We chose our own way. That is why some are deaf and some are blind and some are paralyzed and some suffer from chemical imbalance and some suffer injury and some contract cancer and why all have limitations, aches, pains, hardships, and things generally don’t work the way they should with our bodies and minds. Sin entered the world and along with it a host of disease and disaster and illness and tragedy.

God’s will is clear. We see that from His amazing decision of creating us and giving us everything that is His. Why is it when you have everything you want more? This happened when Satan fell, rebelling against his Lord. It happened when he tempted Adam and Eve. It happens when he tempts us. God gives us more than we could ever want or imagine, but we want what we think we don’t have. Because of our rebellion, we live in a fallen world. It is a world of sickness, sin, and trouble.

It is most certainly great glory that God gives healing where we need it. He invites us to pray when we or our loved ones are suffering from pain or sickness. It is wonderful glory when God gives the answer of yes to our prayers for healing of physical and temporal hardships. We should never let up in our prayers in this regard, He has promised to hear us and to bless us according to His good and gracious will; at times with physical healing.

But even so, there is a greater glory of God. This doesn’t minimize His glorious work of healing cancer, or depression, or heart murmurs, or any number of medical issues we face. Rather, His glorious work of healing and restoring points us to His greater glory. Those who witnessed a man who was not able to hear or to speak normally now hearing and speaking as they were able, caught on to the glory of God. They were exactly right in what they exclaimed about Jesus. But they did not see exactly how they were right. Jesus’ work of restoration—bringing hearing to this man, restoring sight to that one, giving strength to paralyzed legs to another, casting out a demon from a child, and a multitude of other miraculous actions—was all a work in progress. In other words, when Jesus brought hearing and clear to speech to that man on that day, that wasn’t a one-time action to be understood on its own. It was part of a larger, glorious work of God being brought about through this man the Old Testament prophesied of.

For there was a greater glory God was yet to bring about. It was a work which culminated in the cross. Whereas Jesus had spent three years bringing healing and hope to the downtrodden and the sick, on the cross, He was the one who was brought low. He was the one who suffered. He was the one who was brutally treated. He was the one who took on Himself all our infirmities and rebellion. He was the one who suffered as though He were the guilty one. He was the one who suffered as the sinner, in the place of every sinner—you, me, and everyone who has ever lived and ever will live. There was a greater glory of God, and this was it. There was an act in which He had done all things well, and this was it.

If the man who had his ears opened by Jesus and his tongue loosed by Jesus thought that this was the most glorious thing he could experience, well, he hadn’t seen anything yet. Or heard anything yet, for that matter. It was at the cross where his path to God was opened up. It was at the cross where the bonds of his sin was loosed. The man who received his hearing and his speech received a greater glory when the same Lord who gave him his hearing and speech was silent as His Heavenly Father laid on Him the iniquity of us all. There was a greater glory of God and it was in this, in God forsaking His Son so that we may be restored.

There was a greater glory in that though the man whose ears now worked and mouth now spoke clearly could wake every day to an amazing new life of hearing and speaking, would at some point face what is due all of us, because of sin: death. He would die one day. And he knew that. We all do. Whatever glory might be shown in your life, whether through God granting you healing, or preserving you in an accident, or whatever way He helps you, you know that at some point you will die.

But there is a greater glory God has shown in His Son. It happened to Him. He was laid to rest in a grave. He has gone the way before you. He has sanctified the grave so that you don’t have to fear it. The greater glory of God was submitting to the grave but not be bound by it. Because death cannot hold the Lord. The greater glory of God is that in three days He Himself was loosed from the tomb. The bonds of the linen were unbound. He rose having conquered sin, death, hell, and the devil. The greater glory of God is that no matter what you face, whether illness or trials or temptation, Jesus has conquered all of those things in His death and resurrection.

All of this Jesus has accomplished. He has accomplished it for you. It is a done deal. He did it. It is a historical event, an action He has brought about in the past and so it cannot be undone. Salvation is not up to speculation, it is true. And it is true for you.

But there is a greater glory. With God it’s not quite like, and that’s all there is to it. No, with God, there’s always a greater glory. With a great God comes great glory. And with God bringing about His glory through His Son, there’s always greater glory to be given; greater glory to be received by us. That’s why there’s a greater glory for you in your Baptism. The death He died, He died for all, including you. In Baptism you were joined in that death He died for you. The resurrection He rose to, He rose for you and your life without death having power over you. In Baptism, you were joined in that resurrection He rose. There is greater glory in your Baptism than an anything you might wish for in terms of blessings in this life, as great as those blessings are. In Baptism, He has restored you. He has opened up for you not only your ears and your eyes and your mouth, but your whole being! You have new and eternal life in Christ!

Even so, with Him, there is always greater glory. In sending His Son to take a man who could not hear aside. To touch Him. To lift up a sigh to His Heavenly Father, and to give this man hearing and clear speech. We see that the greater glory of God is to do the same with you. Restoring you in body and soul. Touching your lips with the bread of His Meal, with the wine of His Supper. Imparting to you for your eating and drinking His body and blood in and with that bread and wine. You may long for healing. You may long for the day when your troubles and trials subside. Here at His Table, He gives you refreshment from your sorrows and troubles. He restores you in body and soul. He gives you His body and blood. He forgives you. He strengthens you. He sustains you and lifts you up.

He has done all things well. Amen.


Sunday, August 11, 2013

Confidence and Humility

Eleventh Sunday after Trinity
August 11, 2013
Confidence is not to the exclusion of humility and humility is not to the exclusion of confidence. If you are not humble in your confidence, the fault is not with confidence. Likewise, if you are humble, but lacking in confidence, you are not truly humble.

The difference is found in what your confidence is in. It is found in why you are humble. Confidence and humility are not at odds with each other but rather form a beautiful marriage. Trying to divorce the two from each other does disservice to both and to the perfect marriage found in both of them.

Jesus told a parable to people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt. They were completely confident but lacked humility. The problem wasn’t that they were confident, it’s that they weren’t humble. This led them to be confident in the wrong thing: themselves. Since they were confident in themselves, they saw what was lacking in others and treated others with disdain.

Luke says that Jesus told this parable to those people; people who had that problem. Who were they? Were there some who weren’t that way? Are there some still today who do that? Are there some who don’t? Luke doesn’t specify who they were, just that Jesus told the parable to those who operated this way.

The best bet in this situation is to not speculate. No specific people are mentioned, just that there are those who are this way and Jesus was speaking to them. Confidence in yourself would assume He was speaking to someone else. You know, someone who really needed to hear it. Humility would assume He was speaking to you. That is, someone who really needed to hear it. So let’s go with that application. He’s speaking to you and me. Confidence abounds, but in the wrong thing. In ourselves.

This confidence Jesus is talking about is not self-esteem. It’s not, I feel really good about myself, or, I feel confident that I’m really good at certain things. It’s a confidence based on being convinced of something that gives the confidence. When comparing yourself with others, you find much good about yourself and much lacking in others. This kind of confidence is blinding, because you see only what you want to see, in yourself and in others. It leads to an inflated sense of yourself and disdain for others.

In Jesus’ parable, He reverses the roles of the two characters. The Pharisee is the one we’re supposed to look up to and follow the example of. The tax collector is the one we are supposed to take notice of and not follow that path. But Jesus reverses the roles. The Pharisee has a lot of confidence, but it is all in himself. The tax collector only has humility, there is nothing in himself he can see worthwhile in making an appeal to God.

The Pharisee actually speaks the truth. His confidence in himself is warranted, because he is indeed a good person. He prays, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” He does not act in selfishness like those he mentioned, who act in ways that are selfish and that harm others. Rather, as he states, his actions are selfless. He does things that are not geared toward himself but toward others. His confidence abounds because he believes that what those others do warrants condemnation, and what he does warrants favor.

Jesus turns the tables on those who think this way. This actually is utterly self-centered. The focus is not on God, but on self. The prayer is not for God’s will but rather for God to acknowledge the goodness of the Pharisee. The confidence is not in God but in self. The Pharisee went home from the temple not justified, but righteous in his own eyes. He went in that way and he received his reward. He was convinced he was right in this. How fortunate God was that there are people like him!

The tax collector was everything the Pharisee said about him. He was not worthy to be in the presence of God, and so he stood far off. He was not a good person and so did not even lift his eyes in the presence of God. He was overwhelmed with his sin and guilt, sorrowful over his state. He beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” What the Pharisee accused the tax collector of, the tax collector confessed of himself. The Pharisee compared himself to the tax collector. The tax collector compared himself to God. The Pharisee pointed out that the tax collector was not worthy, and the tax collector agreed. He could not stand before God stating anything good within himself as the Pharisee did about himself. All he could do was confess his sin, and so he did.

But whereas the Pharisee appealed to God on the basis of confidence in himself, the tax collector appealed to God on the basis of humility and a plea for mercy. That’s the difference between the two, but notice the similarity. One was humble, the other was not. The tax collector had no confidence in himself, but in humility appealed to God on the basis of His mercy: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” But in this was the very thing he had in common with the Pharisee, full and complete confidence. It wasn’t as the Pharisee’s was, in himself. It was rather confidence in God.

The Pharisee was confident but not humble. The tax collector was humble and also confident. The Pharisee’s confidence led him to no humility. The tax collector’s humility led him to full confidence. The Pharisee had confidence in himself, and therefore no humility. The tax collector was in complete humility and therefore complete confidence, but not in himself, in God. This led to the conclusion of Jesus that “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” His conclusion bears out that what is needed is not humility to the exclusion of confidence, but rather humility that leads to confidence. It is humility regarding oneself and confidence in God.

The one who has confidence in himself does not have confidence in God and certainly not humility. The one who is humble has no confidence in himself and therefore must have confidence solely in God. This is why Jesus says, “I tell you, this man—the tax collector—went down to his house justified, rather than the other.” The appeal to God for mercy is met with the giving of mercy. God justified that tax collector. “God, I have nothing to give you, because all that I am and do is sinful. Therefore, be merciful to me.” And this is what the man received, mercy. He was justified, forgiven. He was declared innocent of all that he had done. The Pharisee, on the other hand, walked away guilty of his sin even though he remained confident in his self-righteousness.

So for you and me the choice is clear. We can walk away from here in confidence and leave the humility to others. Or we can walk away from here in humility and complete confidence. The difference makes all the difference in the world. The righteousness of the Pharisee got him by in this lifetime. The humility of the tax collector and the confidence he had in the God of mercy got him through this lifetime and to eternity. You and I have come here today as did the Pharisee and tax collector. Blessed are we if we do not seek to know who is who and which one applies to what people we know, but rather see in ourselves what the tax collector saw in himself—sin, wretchedness, unworthiness. Nothing in himself worth having confidence in.

And blessed are we if we see also what he saw in God—mercy, love, abounding grace, forgiveness. Blessed are we if we see that confidence is a good, holy, wonderful thing, for the God who has given us His Son is the God worth having confidence in. That is because it is confidence based on the humility of God’s own Son, humbling Himself on the cross to bear the sin of the world and yet fully confident in His Father that His suffering was not in vain. It is was rather what accomplished salvation and the basis for the Father’s mercy on sinners.

It is indeed humbling to admit our sin. To confess our wretchedness and unworthiness. It is indeed a blessed thing to be exalted by the gracious and merciful God, for He is the God who justifies you. He is the God who forgives you on the basis of His own Son, the Exalted One, humbling Himself on the cross, thereby showing and delivering His mercy to sinners such as we are. Sinners who have no confidence in ourselves but are given the green light for full confidence in the one who paid the penalty for our sin and guilt and condemnation. The one who blesses us with the blessing that though sinners, we go home justified.

And going home justified means not simply going home today justified. It means living daily in this mercy, this justification. It means going home to the place our Father has prepared for us. It means receiving in humility and full confidence that the body and blood of our Lord we receive at His invitation is that very body and blood which justifies us sinners now and forever. Amen.