Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ. Amen
“Teacher,” the lawyer said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall 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.”
Sometimes the question is the problem.
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
In asking that question, the lawyer already presupposes the wrong answer.
To ask what I must do, is to assume I must do something.
But what if eternal life is a gift, not a reward? That’s what grace teaches us. That’s what we believe and profess.
What we couldn’t do for ourselves, Jesus did for us.
The Bible tells us in Romans 6:23 “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
That contrast, between ‘wages’ and the ‘free gift’ is so important. We will sin. And if our eternal salvation is dependent on our getting what we deserve, we’re in trouble.
But eternal life is a gift, not our wage.
Going back to the lawyer’s question, there is another thing to note.
He not only asks ‘what must I do’, he asks specifically about ‘inheriting’ eternal life. Inheriting. Not “earning”.
I recently received an inheritance from my father. I didn’t do anything to earn it or deserve it. I was named in the will, alongside my brothers and sisters, the ELCA, and Flathead Bible camp, not because of my own merit, but because mom and dad loved us (and the Church and Bible camp) and they chose to give their estate to us.
That being said, the only thing I ‘did’ was to survive my mother and father.
The inheritance was their gift to me.
Because eternal life is an inheritance, what we have done doesn’t matter. What God has done is what matters. That’s grace.
That’s the first point.
But there is a counter point to that.
Jesus says that the lawyer is correct.
“You shall 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.”
What we do matters.
Love God. Love your neighbor.
Do this and you will live.
How do we reconcile that with eternal life being a free gift? It seems like a big contradiction.
Back to the question.
The lawyer asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Here I’d suggest to you that the problem is with the word “must”.
Love is a gift, not a reward.
Love cannot be compelled, but rather is contagious. We love because we have been loved.
We are to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, strength and mind, because God first loved us in that way.
Were it not for God first loving us, we would not be able to love God in return.
But love cannot be commanded or demanded. It cannot be coerced. It is instead, contagious.
My wife doesn’t love me because of what I’ve done. The love we share is a gift, a precious gift. In many ways, I don’t deserve it. And neither have I earned it.
Having said that though, love changes everything.
It changes how I act. It affects what I do.
I treat Karla differently because I love her. But she doesn’t love me just because of the way I treat her.
If that were the case then when I failed to treat her as I should, she’d quit loving me. That’s not the way love works, though.
Love is always freely given, or it is not given at all.
Love demands nothing, but affects everything.
That bears repeating.
Love demands nothing, but affects everything.
So the first point is that there is nothing we can do to inherit eternal life for it is a gift.
The second point is that we are to love, and that affects everything we do.
Now comes the big question.
Well, first of all, we are to love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind. Got that.
And also, we are to love our neighbor as ourselves.
But who is my neighbor?
When the lawyer asked Jesus that question, you get the definite sense he was trying to get off the hook.
Who is my neighbor? Who am I to love?
And so Jesus told a parable. A man is robbed and left for dead alongside the road.
Two of the religious people of his day passed by him, but did nothing.
A foreigner, saw him and cared for him.
Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
Who are we to love?
“But who is my neighbor?”
We struggle with this commandment on two fronts.
We question who our neighbor is.
And we debate what is truly loving.
All of us have people we struggle to love.
And all of us wonder how we might truly love those we do care about.
Here is where following Jesus can get really controversial.
Some have been thrown into prison for providing water to migrants in the desert of the Southwest.
What is the loving thing to do in a circumstance like this?
Remember the parable of the last judgment and Jesus’ words “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me”?
Some would say that the loving thing to do is to provide food and water to these people in the desert, regardless whether they are legal or not. They see this as ‘loving our neighbor’.
Others see this as aiding and abetting criminal activity and in fact, those who have done this have been charged with crimes and put in prison.
Who are we to love? And how are we to love? And when are we to love?
Like I said, trying to follow Jesus can be controversial. Not everybody agrees who our neighbor is and who to love them.
Karla and I grew up in very different neighborhoods.
I grew up in Montana, Wyoming, and South Dakota. For the most part I knew only white people and Lutherans at that. That’s a pretty small cross section.
Karla on the other hand grew up in the inner city of Seattle amid all sorts of religious, racial and ethnic diversity.
It was easier for me to love my neighbor than Karla, because almost all of my neighbors were just like me.
Who is my neighbor???
When Jesus tells this parable of the Good Samaritan, he changes the question.
The question we should ask is not “Who is my neighbor?”, but rather “Who can I be a neighbor to? To whom can I show mercy?”
The point Jesus is making is this.
You may not have the opportunity to love and care for all people, but who can you show mercy to today, at this time, in this place.
There is nothing we can do to inherit eternal life for it is a gift.
We are to love, and that affects everything we do.
And finally, that we are to love and show mercy to those we have the opportunity to do so.
This is what it means to live as a Christian.
- We are loved by God.
- We are called to love God and our neighbor in return.
- And we are therefore to show mercy as God has shown mercy to us.