WHAT MUST I DO TO INHERIT ETERNAL LIFE?
If you ask the wrong question, you’ll get the wrong answer. If you ask a person how to get to Indiana when Pennsylvania is your destination, you’re going to have a problem. That’s what the lawyer in the parable did (which may not be a parable at all), he asked two wrong questions. The first because he wanted to trick the Lord, and the second because he wanted to justify himself. Talk about foolish endeavors. While we might obtain good standing before men, good standing before God is unachievable. We can neither trick God into giving us a glad eternity, nor justify ourselves before Him no matter how hard we try, because we have been robbed of righteousness by the devil.
But what’s impossible for us, because we’re robbed of righteousness by the devil, is entirely possible for Jesus who is the Good Samaritan. He finds us where we are, has compassion on us when no one else will, binds up our wounds, brings us to the inn of the church, appoints inn-keepers to care for us, pays the price for our salvation, and will return again to give us the eternal life that we all hope to obtain.
The parable is neither a morality play, nor is it about obtaining God’s eternal applause for a job well done. The parable is about Jesus who does what the Law cannot do, namely, rescue us from death, cleanse us from our sins, make us righteous before God and give us eternal life. Now it’s a fact that we all want life. We all want to be healthy, happy, successful and prosperous and we don’t ever want it to end. No surprise there. We were created by the Living God, made in His image and formed in His likeness. Every fiber of our being longs to live, thrive and survive. But the devil ruined it all. He came into the garden, tempted Adam, led him into sin and every generation since has inherited and imitated Adam’s rebellion – and this is bad because in God's economy the sentence for sin is death. What a contradiction! Living creations of the Living God, condemned to death because of sin, but that is our true condition, and the source of all our frustration.
Death is repulsive to us; a stranger; an enemy we want nothing to do with. But like the robbers in the parable it always lurks around the next corner. And like the robbers, it doesn’t usually finish us off with one big chop. Instead it breaks us down day by day, week by week, torments us with temptation, and beats us with guilt, shame, illness, injuries, troubles of all sorts until there is nothing left. Is there any hope for us? Is there any way out?
Many answers have been proposed. Adam and Eve thought they could cover their sin with fig leaves. They were the first Green Energy Czars of history but it didn’t work then and it won’t work now. The builders of the Tower of Babel thought they had the answer, but God frustrated their plans, as He always does when we get to be too big for our britches. Ever since sin entered the world, and death by sin (Romans 5:12) an endless parade of social, economic, legislative, technological and religious solutions have been proposed to turn things around; to make the world a better place and give men the joy they all desire. But they all break down because they all ask the wrong question that the lawyer asked Jesus that day: what must I do to inherit eternal life.
Do you hear the error?
What must I do?
How can I save MYSELF?
O, how we love that question! It appeals to our pride like no other and makes perfect sense to intellects disabled by sin. “How can I save myself?” It’s all we know, and when we’re not busy destroying ourselves, we’re busy saving ourselves, but nothing works. What’s the evidence, you ask? Hospitals are still full; pharmacies are in no danger of closing; nursing homes are experiencing a bull market and Death still bats a 1000. Cemeteries are as busy as ever…but don’t worry because there’s always room for one more.
What must I do to inherit eternal life? We naturally think that heaven is something we can merit but Jesus sets the record straight. In the parable the Priest and the Levite represent the Law, but they were of no help to the dying man. The lawyer thought that by a series of good works, prayers and devotions that he could extort God’s favor, and we think the same. But there’s nothing more deadly than self-righteousness whether the Christian kind or the socialist kind.
The defect isn’t in the Law. St. Paul asserts that: the Law is Spiritual, but I am Carnal, sold under sin. (Romans 7:14) The problem is not the Law; the problem is us. We are powerless to love God or our neighbor as the Law demands. The bar is set so high that we can’t even see the top of it let alone jump over it. We are perpetual under-achievers in the spiritual arena, moral midgets, lawyers to the -enth degree and the microscopic standards we set for ourselves won’t get us where we want to go.
There was another error in the lawyer’s question as well, an internal contradiction. “What must I "Do" to Inherit eternal life,” he asked? But Inherit and Do are very different creatures! One is a wage for services rendered, the other a gift. St. Paul writes in Romans 8:16 that by faith we become “heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him,” and suffer we do.
The parable is not about us and what we do. The parable is about Jesus. He is the Good Samaritan! He is the one who finds us on the side of life’s road; beaten by sin; robbed of righteousness; stripped of life and bereft of peace and joy. Unlike the priest and Levite who, coming upon the scene, crossed to the other side, Jesus saw our distress and came to our aid. He gladly paid the price of our salvation by giving His sacred body to die our death, and pouring out His holy blood to cancel out our sin, give life to the dead and restore us to un-ending health. Jesus did more besides. He brought us into the inn of the church and appointed inn-keepers known as pastors to continue our treatment. He gave them instructions to care for us until His return, to administer the wine and oil of His Word and Sacraments, not just once but continually. We need that Word to be applied liberally and constantly to us for it and it alone makes our sorrowing spirits sing. It alone is light for our darkness, wisdom for our foolishness, balm for our sorrow and only it can treat the wounds we suffer daily at the hands of sin, death and the devil. It and it alone is pure joy, pure goodness, pure beauty and pure truth in a world where nothing is innocent, nothing is holy.
Jesus is the Good Samaritan, we are not. But having received divine Mercy we are in a position to understand it, and commissioned by our Lord to go and do likewise. This is what we are to be engaged in from the day we are baptized until the day the Good Samaritan returns to give us eternal life as an inheritance. Amen.
Rev. Dean Kavouras