Justified, Gift, Jesus
St. Luke 10:23-37
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
St. Luke 10:25 And behold, a certain lawyer stood up and tested [Jesus], saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
Dear fellow redeemed in Christ our Lord… Sometimes it is helpful to ask the right question. No, let me re-phrase that; it is ALWAYS helpful to ask the right question. Unfortunately, only seldom do the right questions get asked.
You all know – at least all of you SHOULD know – something that this lawyer in our text did not: namely, that you don’t do anything to inherit eternal life. In the truest sense of the word, to inherit something is to receive it as a gift without any strings attached, without any conditions. You inherit, say, your grandfather’s mint-condition 1956 tractor simply because you are your grandfather’s grandchild, and certainly not because you deserved it or worked for it or even had the money to buy it. You inherit it simply because he chose to give it to you as a gift, because that is the kind of person he is.
That is what this lawyer in today’s text did not understand. And not only did he not understand what an inheritance was (and being a lawyer, he should have known at least that!), he completely missed the boat when it came to eternal life. His wrong question showed clearly that he expected himself to be able to do something – anything – to gain what he could not work for or buy.
And how I wish that every preacher and teacher in the church of God today would do a better job of explaining this to their people. Instead, you hear things like this: “Do good works to the people you like and you will impress God. God will have to like you if you do good in this life. Getting to heaven means being good at least 50.1% of the time; do that and you’ll get there.” And one of my favorites, “You do your part, and God will do His part…” as if God needed you to give Him a jumpstart. Please!
You see, many of today’s preachers have spines made of linguine when it comes to making their people happy. All too many preachers are all too willing to tell their people almost anything they want to hear… Because if they don’t, the people will get mad and start talking about the preacher and keep talking to others about him and maybe, just maybe, they will actually talk to him and try to get him to lighten up a little bit and not talk about sin and confession and repentance. They want to feel good about themselves, and they had better hear that from their preacher OR ELSE!
And from that, all the wrong questions begin to get asked. “Pastor, why don’t you do what they do over at the other church; they seem happy and upbeat.” But the real question behind that kind of question is this: “Why don’t you stop preaching about repentance and confession of sins and Jesus’ disgustingly bloody death; all that stuff just makes people feel bad about themselves. Tell us what we need to do to inherit eternal life.”
But here’s the deal. If a pastor stops preaching about repentance and sin and confession he will be failing in his duty as a preacher of Christ who Himself preached repentance for the forgiveness of sins and commanded that His pastors do that. If the pastor shuts the heck up about repentance, sin, and confession his people will never know about the things that really help them to understand their relationship with Christ. If the church – and all the people in it – are not shown their sins and how far short of God’s glory they come daily, they will have no need for Jesus and what He gives. If they are not shown their sins they will find themselves constantly asking the wrong questions and, to their utter frustration, getting answers they do not like. But worse than that, if God’s people are not shown their sins, if they are not called to repentance, there is a good chance they will wind up in hell – a situation for which the preacher will have to answer to God.
So, not wanting any of that to happen, I now tell you: repent of this lawyer’s mentality; repent of thinking that you can affect your own forgiveness or salvation. Repent of thinking or saying out loud that the Divine Service and prayer offices don’t meet your felt needs or speak to you. And as a result, repent of thinking that you need to have what other churches have – more jazzy songs, puppets, plays, and less formal liturgies. Repent of thinking that you can order God around and tell Him what to do. Repent of any notion that you can come up with a better way to deliver God’s gifts than in the liturgies of Christ’s church on earth which have stood the test of time for 2,000 years. Repent of thinking that you know better than God. For when you do, you will learn, by God’s grace, to ask better questions. And you will be happy with the answers.
Learn from the lawyer in today’s text. When asked by Jesus what he understood the Scriptures to say in response to his wrong question, the lawyer gave a seemingly good answer. He thought he had it all figured out. He knew he was supposed to love God with all his heart and his neighbor as himself. Jesus even commended him for saying so!
But listen closely to verse 29: “But he, wanting to justify himself, asked, ‘And who is my neighbor?'” At first glance we would say Hooray! Throw the confetti! Strike up the band! The lawyer finally asked a better question, a right question. But wait – unfortunately he asked that question for the wrong reason; he did it that he may JUSTIFY himself. He was trying to make it sound like he actually COULD love his neighbor, like he could indeed do all that the Law required. So all he is trying to do is to impress God to get eternal life. And that means he’s back to square one; he is simply asking his original wrong question – “What must I do to inherit eternal life” – in a different way.
What does it mean to justify yourself? It means to show someone else why you’re right, why you are allowed to do what you do. When your kids don’t do the chores they were assigned, they have to JUSTIFY themselves as to why they didn’t do what they were told. “I was busy; I got distracted; my friends came over. I forgot.” When you don’t meet a deadline at work, you are more than ready to give reasons – excuses, really – and to JUSTIFY your actions; you give reasons why you are right and why your actions should be considered acceptable. The last thing you will ever do is admit you blew it; admit your responsibility for failure, and ask for forgiveness. No, you need to convince others that you are right.
But that doesn’t work in the kingdom of God. This lawyer wanted to JUSTIFY himself. He wanted to show Jesus something; He wanted to prove to Jesus not only that he knew what the Law said, but also that he could actually keep it and thereby impress God. He wanted to demonstrate to Jesus why he is so deserving of eternal life.
When you think you can somehow talk your way into God’s good graces; when you think that you can fool the Lord into believing you are WORTHY of His favor, that approach is the devil’s work. And because that is exactly what it is, it needs to be called what it is. It is sin, it is idolatry, it is wrong. Now the Law comes to strip you naked and rob you of your supposed worthiness; it comes to beat you up and leave you lying within an inch of your life, naked and bleeding in a ditch. That’s the Law’s job – to rob you of any notion that you can actually earn God’s favor by what you do.
But then along comes Jesus to save you. Jesus is the neighbor who takes care of you. He is the Samaritan. Jesus comes to save you by giving you Himself. You are the one lying half-dead in the ditch. You are the one unable to heal yourself. You are the one who is unable to pay for your medical needs.
But Jesus, takes your place. He’s the one beaten literally to death and stuck up on the cross in your place in order to pay for all your sins. Jesus allowed HIMSELF to be numbered among the criminals, hung between two thieves, hung there in your place.
And this death and His triumph over death are your rescue from the ditch. Jesus, coming out of the grave, lifts you up. He heals your wounds by pouring in the oil and wine of the Holy Sacraments where you are washed clean in the waters of Holy Baptism, fed with Jesus’ body and blood in Holy Communion, and delivered from your sins in Holy Absolution. These are the ways Jesus continues to feed you, take care of you, and strengthen you every single day.
You could not do anything to save yourself or heal yourself or to inherit eternal life. You were dead in your transgressions and sins. But, as Scripture declares, “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom. 5:8). He came to free you. He came to bring you joy. He came to enable you to receive with thanksgiving His preaching of the Law to strike you down, and the preaching of the Gospel of His forgiveness to build you back up again.
He takes you to the inn, His holy church, where He provides His gifts to the innkeeper, your pastor, who administers care and comfort to sinners. You, who could do nothing to save yourselves, are rescued by Jesus your neighbor, your Good Samaritan.
You inherit all that is Christ’s – not because you deserve it, not because you can buy it, not because you can work for it. You inherit all that is Christ’s simply because He has called you to faith, and He wants you to have life abundantly and to the full. He wants you to have Him – all Jesus, all the time.
And here in this place, that’s exactly what you get. Sin and grace. Law and Gospel. Condemnation of error and proclamation of truth – all to the glory of God and for the good of all His people.
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.