It took the whole story to get him there, but at last Jesus drove the lawyer to speak the word that is at the very heart of the Law: mercy! Mercy - undeserved, unexpected, unlooked for kindness from our neighbor.
When the Israelites took captive their kinsmen in Judah, they were in danger of bringing wrath upon themselves – wrath, because that is how God deals with those who give themselves over to wrath against others, even as He is merciful to those who give themselves over to mercy (James 2:13). So Prophet Oded stands firm and calls the Israelites, who lived in Samaria, to repent. His call is heard, and the princes of Israel interpose. The captives are clothed, shod, fed, and anointed, and the feeble among them are even carried all the way back home to Jericho. This is mercy. Can you imagine what it would be like if you had been taken as the spoils of war and humiliated and you’d lost your home, your freedom and your future, only suddenly you find those you thought were your enemies clothing you, feeding you, giving you your freedom back, opening up a future you thought was lost, showing unexpected kindness – Can you imagine that? Behold! That is mercy.
Mercy is at the heart of the Law because the Law is the will of God for the human race. And mercy is the will of God for the human race precisely because humanity was created in the image of God and God himself is merciful. Do remember how God proclaimed His name to Moses? “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” (Ex. 34:6)
"Love your neighbor as yourself." "Do this and you will live." So spoke He who is eternal truth. It was no lie. The path to life is the path of love, of mercy. But immediately the lawyer is squirming. You know why. He hasn’t done it, anymore than you have. He is not on the path to life, but on the path to death, which seeks to deal with the neighbor by giving him his due, what you think he deserves, paying him back in kind. So to wiggle out of the implication of Jesus’ hard word, the lawyer asks: “And who is my neighbor?”
Wrong question! Totally wrong! Asked so that he could know whom he would be authorized to despise and treat with contempt. Whom he wouldn’t have to bother with because they weren’t really his concern. It was a “let’s get practical here, Jesus” kind of answer. “I can’t be loving everyone, so who should I spend the effort on? Who is my neighbor, who’re the people I really have to bother about?”
Jesus’ famous story flips the question. Not “who is my neighbor?” but “am I a neighbor?” “Who proved neighbor?” Jesus asks when He’s done. “The one who showed him mercy,” answers the Lawyer. And again Jesus pushes it: “You go and do likewise.” You go and show mercy. You go and prove yourself a neighbor. Go on! Get with it!
“How can I?” you wail, “when I fail so often to love. When I don’t love God with my all. When I don’t love my neighbor as myself. When I am such a wretch at being a neighbor?”
But that is the point of Jesus’ story. For who is this man tripping down from Jerusalem to Jericho? The fathers and Dr. Luther all agree: he is Adam. He is the father of our race, and look at what happened to him, for we are in him. He falls in among thieves who rob him and beat him and leave him mortally wounded along the roadside. The thieves being the devil and his evil angels. But then along comes someone who might help. The priest, the levite, which we should take as the law of Moses and its priesthood and sacrifices. But look! They can see and prove that the man is mortally wounded, that he is dying and in need, but what they cannot do is help him in any real way. They pass on by on the other side.
And then arrives the Samaritan. There’s a double meaning there. The Jews, of course, would have despised the Samaritans. If anyone did not deserve to be treated as a neighbor it was those pretentious half-breeds to the north! But if the Jew looked upon the Samaritan with contempt, that is not how THIS Samaritan looked upon the Jews or any of fallen humanity. Samaritan means “Keeper” or “Defender.” And so the Samaritan, moved with pity, rushes in to do for the stricken man, for the fallen human race, what no regulation or observance of the law could ever do. Instead of giving what is due to the one who regarded Him with contempt, He shows mercy. Our Jesus.
He tends the man, pours in the oil and the wine, which we may take as types of the holy sacraments, puts the man on his own beast, which the Fathers take as our Lord’s flesh, and so laden with us, carrying us on His back, He brings us to the inn. To the place where we are gradually healed, restored, clothed, cleansed. He brings us to the Church.
You see, God has shown this mercy to you! Jesus is your Good Samaritan, Your Defender and Guardian. He has not just passed by you in your need. He came to you who like to deal with everyone by the standard of “what’s fair” despite how you suffer from all the wounds of that way of dealing yourself. For you Your Jesus suffered, died and bled – all of which was not fair – but in mercy He did it to provide the healing medicines of His Word and Sacraments with their power. He has entrusted you to the keeping of the Church that you might be restored. A little better each day. A life that grows constantly towards the mercy you have received so that you become merciful too, and learn to lay aside the whole wrathful way of treating others that insists on getting your deserts and giving each man, woman, or child theirs. Instead you’ve been surprised by mercy, and now you’re growing in that way of living. As you are constantly mercied by God, He is transforming you into a mercy giver. The requirement of the law is thus fulfilled in you who live at the receiving end of His mercy. No need to justify yourself, then. Christ has justified you all on His own.
Mercy. The word at the very heart of the Torah, the Word of God. Mercy, the word at the very heart of Jesus, emblazoned on the Manger and theCross of Him who came into our flesh, suffered, died, and rose again to lift us up, clothe us, feed us and bring us home to God. The mercied people who learn the joy of living in such undeserved kindness every day and are tickled pink that they get the chance to share it with others – thanking God for His merciful forgiveness which covers even our flawed attempts at mercy with the blood of Mercy, the blood of Jesus, which He gives us anew today at this table of mercy. Amen.