The Eighth Sunday After Pentecost August 3, 2014
1 Kings 19:9-18
281, 24, 289, 651
May God our Father bless you with strength of faith and joy in the sure and certain fact that his Son, Jesus Christ, has paid the full penalty for your sins. Amen.
Most of us admire clever—clever people, clever sayings. There is just something hard-wired into us that thrills to an ingenious solution to a seemingly impossible problem, or a clever saying that just hits the nail on the head in a most unique and interesting way. Take a walk around an old farm or ranch sometime—one that is or used to be run by a clever family—and be amazed at the myriad of different solutions they devised over the years to solve the ordinary and extraordinary problems of life.
Nor is “clever” the exclusive possession of the human race. I knew a man in Florida who is completely confident that he once saw a fox carrying a rather large chunk of wood in its mouth as it slowly backed into the water of a small pond on his family farm. The fox was finally so far into the pond that only his eyes, nose, and the chunk of wood were out of the water. Ducking finally under the water and turning away, he released the broken branch he had been carrying and thereby rid himself of every last flea. They had all taken refuge on the branch. True or not, this certainly qualifies as clever.
Who doesn’t appreciate a clever, pithy saying—especially one that conveys a universal truth? Clever sayings like these:
Yet, as with most things in life, here too there is a good and a bad, a positive and a negative kind of clever.
Today’s text gives us two examples of clever, one bad and one good. That portion of God’s Word according to which we will be guided and instructed this morning is found in Luke’s Gospel, the 10th chapter:
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.”But he, wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”Then Jesus answered and said: “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a certain priest came down that road. And when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite, when he arrived at the place, came and looked, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was. And when he saw him, he had compassion. So he went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; and he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said to him, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you.’ So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?” And he said, “He who showed mercy on him.” Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
These are God’s words. They are perfect in every way. May God the Holy Spirit grant you the grace to trust that these are God’s words and to hear and learn from them accordingly. To this end we pray, “Sanctify us by the Truth, O Lord. Your Word is truth.” Amen.
Did you happen to catch the bad example of clever as you heard or read the text? It came from a lawyer which in Jesus’ day probably indicated an expert in the Mosaic Law. Isn’t it entertaining to read how Jesus’ enemies continued to try to trip Him up and always failed miserably? Yet, human pride being what it is, no doubt this man reckoned he was up to the task. He could and would succeed where others had failed. He didn’t have a chance, but his ego must have told him otherwise, so he opens the show with a carefully devised question, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” [v.25]
You and I could obviously read such a question and put the best construction on it—assuming that the man really was just interested in doing the right thing. Our text, however, makes clear that the man came not to learn but to test. He came not to be taught by Jesus so much as to twist Jesus’ answers into something that could be used against Him. The question itself was flawed, since “what shall I do to inherit?” is a nonsensical question. An inheritance, by definition, can’t be earned. The question was a trap, and Jesus, recognizing it as such, doesn’t approach it from the direction the lawyer had intended. In fact, walking around to the back side of it, he turns the question back onto the lawyer: “What is written in the law? What is your reading of it?” [v.26] Jesus was masterful, as always. There was no way Jesus could be condemned for simply asking a question.
The man actually gave a good, factual answer to a point. His answer: “ ‘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.’” [v.27] was actually a good answer but to a slightly different question. The question he answered was, “What must I do to earn eternal life?” Jesus had pointed him to the Law, and the man had answered with God’s perfect summary of the Law.
Jesus again responded factually and forthrightly, but in a way that no one could challenge: “You have answered rightly; do this and you will live.” [v.28] No member of any religious group in Jesus’ day could have challenged this answer as incorrect, nor would they try to do so. It is, in fact, sin that separates us from our God and prevents our entrance into Heaven. Jesus’ answer to the lawyer was, “Right! If you have no sin, you will earn your way into Heaven.”
The lawyer obviously recognized the problem immediately. The problem was that he had sin—loads of sin, buckets of the stuff. No matter how good he looked on the outside, he had a front row seat to the reality of his own sinfulness. He could fool others, maybe, but not himself, and he certainly could not fool God.
But here’s where the “bad clever” part came in. Rather than allow his own heart to be condemned—as it should rightly have been, the lawyer seeks to establish a legal loophole. Since he knows full well that he has in no way loved every single one of his fellow human beings as he has loved himself, he cleverly tries to change or diminish the commandment. He tries to simplify the law to a point where he can claim he has kept it. He, therefore, follows up with his seedy little: “And who is my neighbor?” [v.29] His thought process must have been something like “I love my parents, wife, and children. Maybe that’s enough. If that’s the legal definition of “neighbor” maybe I’m good to go.” Or maybe his plan was to diminish Jesus’ popularity by getting Him to define “neighbor” as including Israel’s enemies.
Again, lest we be tempted to try to put the best construction on his question and imagine that the man is just trying to learn from Jesus, our text makes clear that this was anything but the case: “But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus…” [v.29]
This is the nasty sort of clever that God hates. It is, nevertheless, the sort of clever that you and I tend to employ on a fairly regular basis. Every single human being hearing these words knows full well that we are absolutely incapable of living perfect, sin-free lives. We are, in the first place, born with the sin we inherited from Adam and Eve. We are born spiritually dead and hostile to our Creator God. We are, therefore, born losers in God’s eyes—absolutely powerless to earn our way back into God’s good graces by our words or actions. Being kind and loving to our own immediate family members doesn’t come close to fulfilling the second half of God’s own summary of His holy will: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39).
But you and I would like to think we fulfill this law wouldn’t we? We would love to reduce, dilute, adulterate God’s Law to the point where we begin to feel good about our general conduct. We would love to believe that the ugly festering cancer of our sin is really just a bruise or scrape that will heal on its own. We don’t even love our immediate family members like we love ourselves, but all the old Adam is really looking for is a bit of artificial comfort, just some peace of mind.
Stop for a moment to contemplate how often you—consciously or not—employ this same twisted cleverness in your own life. How often do you justify sin in your life simply because no one knows about it? How often do you downplay the severity of sin just because it is not as bad as other sins? How often do you feel better about yourself and your sinfulness just because you did something nice for someone, went to church or communion, or even just because you only did it that one time?
Jesus Himself introduces and represents the right and good kind of clever. He does so first with His answer to the man’s second challenge, “Who is my neighbor?” Recognize that you are in the presence of the Grand Master and marvel again at His incomparable wisdom. Jesus could have simply answered, “Every single one of your fellow human beings is your neighbor.” Surely this would have served to condemn the man, but Jesus wants to be more than just a conqueror. He wants more than just to defeat. He wants to win over.
So He answers with a story and another question. The story is of the Good Samaritan. What may be missed is the fact that Jesus turned the man’s question completely around. The man had asked “And who is my neighbor?” but Jesus answered with a question that came at the whole topic from the opposite direction: “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” [v.36]
The root problem was that the lawyer saw himself as the strong and healthy doer of good deeds. Jesus saw him as the man in the parable that had been beaten by sin and Satan and robbed of any hope of eternal life unless he received some outside help. The world trivializes Jesus’ message with their “Good Sam” clubs. You’ve probably seen the bumper stickers. They portray members with halos over their heads. That’s man’s natural perspective of things. We love to see ourselves as the source of help for others. There is nothing wrong with that when it comes to helping stranded motorists, but to adopt that as a salvation plan is a guarantee of an eternity in Hell.
Jesus wants us to see ourselves as those who need help. You and I are the helpless man in Jesus’ story. Only one thing could save us, and here is where we see Jesus’ other bit of cleverness. If man had to rely on himself, man was forever doomed. The “victim” in Jesus’ story was incapable of helping himself. The last thing he would have been contemplating was just who he would have to “love” to earn Heaven. In his helpless state he was looking for a rescuer, a savior. In the same way divine justice demanded perfect obedience from every human being.
Every human being who failed—sinning even just once—damned himself. Nor could man offer even one bit of goodness to God to make up for even the smallest of sins. In the face of our helplessness, God designed His divinely clever solution to our desperate problem. He sent his Son who was not born with original sin, and that Son did keep every commandment perfectly to the very letter of every single law. Jesus then used that perfect life as the full payment for all of our sins. We could supply no goodness to pay our sin bill. We could not heal ourselves, so God Himself provided what was needed in the form of His own dear Son. He then added the gift of the Holy Spirit to provide for our needs after He left—first bringing us to faith and then preserving us in that faith. From first to last it’s all a gift. Not one bit of it earned or deserved apart from Jesus Christ.
Clever? Unimaginably so, and more than that. God’s solution to our sin problem was purest love of the highest order. It is that love of God for sinful mankind that also today gives hope and purpose to our lives. Such news is just too great to keep to ourselves.
God grant each of us the perfect comfort that comes to all who trust that Jesus did what He set out to do—a clever solution no human could ever have devised. Jesus was born to pay for our sins, and that is exactly what he did. The result? We are forgiven. Marvel anew, be astonished at God’s profoundly ingenious solution to our impossible sin-problem. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.