Tuesday of Trinity 13: Does Jesus Teach We’re Saved by Deeds of the Law?

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And behold, a certain lawyer stood up and tested Him, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What is your reading of it?” So he answered and said, “ ‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,’ and ‘your neighbor as yourself.’ ” And He said to him, “You have answered rightly; do this and you will live.”

There are three “do”s in the Gospel for this week. (1) What shall I do to inherit eternal life? (2) Do this and you will live. And (3) “Go and do likewise.” The Greek word for “do” [poieo] is used each time.

We cannot escape the “do.” Why would we want to? Because “doing” something places the burden of salvation on us, and that (a) frightens us because we are sinners, and (b) seems to take glory away from Christ, who is solely responsible for saving us.

But there sits the “do” offering no escape. We’d hope Jesus would say something to the effect of, “It’s not what you do; it’s what I do for you.” But He doesn’t. In fact, He endorses the lawyer’s “do” answer – He Himself contributes to it! The lawyer asks, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus effectively answers, “Do this: love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself. Do this and you will live.”

Love God and love neighbor is the fulfillment of the Law. That is not only the lawyer’s reading of it, but Jesus’ as well. A good Protestant will lead us away from the Gospels and run to St. Paul. But there’s no reprieve from him either. As he writes:

“God…will render to each one according to his deeds: eternal life to those who by patient continuance in doing good seek for glory, honor, and immortality; but to those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness – indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish, on every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek.”

He also writes, “Therefore we make it our aim, whether present or absent, to be well pleasing to Him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.”

Yet, obviously, there’s more to the “do,” else Jesus wouldn’t have been needed. If eternal life simply came down to loving God and loving neighbor, something any Jewish lawyer would have rightly recognized, what was the purpose of Jesus? Was it just to make the Law more difficult to keep? “You have heard it said you can obey the Law this way, but I say to you something way more difficult.” Wow. That’s good news?

Obviously not. And obviously the whole point of the parable of the good Samaritan, as wel as the whole Gospel, is to do what Jesus says He came to do, which is not pour new wine into old wine skins. The whole point of the parable is to lift us up to a greater fulfillment of the law, and the reason the whole episode is recorded in the first place is to demonstrate how Jesus’ teaching lifts us out of that of the law and its scholars. Again, this is sort of obvious.

And in St. Paul’s case we get a similar dynamic. After all, the first of his passages quoted above, if you follow the development of his theology after it in his letter to the Romans, does not end there. Yes, St. Paul wraps up his point, anchored in that passage quoted above, with “the doers of the law will be justified.” Whoa! That’s not exactly Reformation doctrine!

But then read what follows, from Romans 2: 14 to Romans 3: 19. His argument is, in a nutshell, “Yeah, doers of the law will be justified, but no one does the law!” And so his conclusion is, “Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin.” And then he proceeds to “the righteousness of God apart from the law” centered in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

So that takes care of Paul. But what about Jesus? Jesus is ultimately doing the same thing St. Paul is doing, but in a different, less systematic, manner.

Jesus too begins with the premise that the Law is authoritative and gives the recipe for salvation. “Love God and love neighbor.” And Jesus’ purpose in coming wasn’t just to say, “Hey, you people, you need to love God and love neighbor! And you, you lawyers, this isn’t just Jewish neighbors, but Samaritan ones too!” Don’t be racists. Oh how today’s left would love it if that was the big point of this week’s Gospel and all the Gospel. But it isn’t, of course.

No, the big “new wine not fitting old wine skins” teaching of Jesus wasn’t that we should love people of different cultures. The Jews had that teaching already. As the law says, “You shall neither mistreat a stranger nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

What then? What’s the “new wine”?

Recall that Jesus had just gotten done saying, “All things have been delivered to Me by My Father, and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, and who the Father is except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him.”

There’s the “new wine.” The “new wine” is what, ironically, the disciples were filled with on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit filling them and their message with the realities restored when Jesus sat down at God’s right hand, the vision of our restoration with the Father, our justification before God.

The new wine is centered on Jesus, not the law. But Jesus is the fulfiller of the law, so it’s not to be discounted. Rather, it’s to be built on. Which is exactly what Jesus does in our Gospel for this week!

The key comes in the phrase, “But he, wanting to justify himself.” This parallels the point in St. Paul’s argument when he argued no one keeps the law. “For all have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God.” What St. Paul teaches in systematic theology, Jesus demonstrates in His dealings with the lawyer. He fell short of what God intended, by seeking to use the law to limit whom he should love: “Who is my neighbor?” The law shows the way, but everyone falls short of the law, always. Jesus made this same point when He taught what the Law truly means in the Sermon on the Mount.

And just as in the Sermon on the Mount, where righteousness is not something “done,” but something “done to” those who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness (that is, for Jesus), Jesus does something similar in this parable. He places the lawyer in the parable not as the one who must decide what to “do,” but as one who can only be done to.

There’s the new wine that doesn’t fit old wineskins! The way of the Law is, “Love God and love neighbor,” and we hear “do.” We hear a “you” understood, understood in the imperative. “You shall” is the heartbeat of the Law. But we never really fully “do,” do we? We fall short as subjects of the Law’s sentences. This is why the Lord in Jeremiah had to promise a new covenant rooted not in us teaching each other the law, but in a new “teaching of the heart” rooted in forgiveness – that’s the “blood of the everlasting covenant” in which we learn fervent love for one another.

So Jesus puts us as the objects of the sentence. Wow, that’s different! That’s like putting new wine in old wineskins. The old wineskins are us as the subject; the new wine is us as the object; the twain don’t quite fit.

But look at what Jesus does. “Which of these three do you think was neighbor to [the injured man]?” We never think of the actual neighbor in the commandment, “Love your neighbor,” do we? We only think of him as some abstract object of our love. Jesus puts flesh and blood on the neighbor, showing him who he is. And now WE’RE the one helpless, lying on the side of the road, only able to be passively worked on. Now “WE’RE” the object: the neighbor loves you as He loves Himself (as the Father loves the Son?).

Jesus even gives us a choice. Which one do you want as a neighbor? The one who interprets the law like the way the lawyer wanted to? Or the one who is willing to risk becoming unclean so we might live?

I, like the lawyer and anybody not suicidal, choose the Samaritan. Actually, the lawyer doesn’t say “Samaritan.” He rightly (or maybe unwittingly, as perhaps he simply didn’t want to admit a Samaritan is the good guy in the story) abstracts the Samaritan and says, “the one who showed mercy.”

We choose the one who shows mercy. To which Jesus says, “Yeah, that’s right. Go and do likewise.” Huh? “Do” what? The question is “Who is my neighbor so I can properly know what to do to him and inherit eternal life?” The answer is, “Our neighbor is the one who shows mercy to us when we’re lying half dead on the side of a road.” OK, so now how do I “do” that?

Well, I guess to “do” that we would need to “do” being half dead on the side of the road and “do” choosing option “C” over against the priest and Levite. The part about being dead on the side of the road is pretty easy to do, I guess. I guess we embrace that status. Of course we would need to recognize the spiritual dimension: “I am dead in my sins and cannot save myself. Have mercy on me!” But who can have mercy on us in our sins? Obviously not Samaritans.

Duh. The Lord. The Lord Jesus who died for our sins. So, what should we “do”? We should pray, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

That’s what we should “do” rather than “justify ourselves” as the lawyer did. That’s the new wine that doesn’t quite fit the old wineskins of the law as given and unfulfilled.

And isn’t that exactly who we learned a few weeks ago goes home justified? The one who prays, “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner”?

The Gospel is consistent. Perhaps this passage from Hebrews sums up this devotion best of all: “Now may the God of peace who brought up our Lord Jesus from the dead, that great Shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, make you complete in every good work to do His will, working in you what is well pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.”

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