How Do You Read the Law?


Trinity 13
Luke 10:23-37
August 30, 2015
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO

In the name of + Jesus.


The parable of the Good Samaritan is sparked by four questions. Well, it’s one at first. And behold, a certain lawyer stood up to test Him saying, “Teacher, what should I be doing to inherit eternal life?” (v 25). It’s not surprising that a lawyer would ask a Law question. What should I be doing to inherit eternal life? But Jesus hasn’t come to bring a new Law. The old Law is just fine. And so that’s where Jesus directs him with the first of His two questions.

“What is written in the Law?” asks Jesus (v 26). He turns the man back to Scripture, to the written Law. This astute lawyer—take note catechism children—summarizes the entire Law with two commandments. The first is from Deuteronomy 6:4-5, the shemah, which was the Jewish Creed. Listen, Israel: the LORD our God is one LORD. Love the LORD your God with all your mind, all your heart, and all your strength (Dt 6:4-5 AAT). The second is from Leviticus 19: Don’t avenge yourself or hold a grudge against your fellow Israelites, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD (Lv 19:18).

This is the same way that Jesus sums up the Law with the two great commandments. The summary of the first table of the Law is to love God. The whole mind, the whole heart, the whole strength. The second table deals with love for our various neighbors. Jesus has not come to offer a new and better Law. He’s come to uphold the Law. [Jesus] said to him, “You answered rightly. Do this and you will live” (v 28).

But the lawyer has a very good question in response. And who is my neighbor? (v29). Hence, the parable. Jesus illustrates the Law by giving us a hypothetical neighbor. Jesus supposed and said, “A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and he fell into the hands of robbers who after stripping him and putting a beating on him departed leaving him half-dead. By coincidence, a certain priest was going down that road and upon seeing him, passed on the other side. In the same way, also a Levite, upon coming to that place and seeing him, passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, while he was journeying, came upon him and seeing him, he had compassion. And he went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine, then placing him upon his own animal he brought him into an inn and took care of him. And on the next day, he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper and said, ‘Take care of him and whatever you spend in addition, I will repay you upon my return’” (vv 30-35).

When I was a young boy, I thought neighbor only meant the people who lived in the house directly next to yours. Then as I grew, I realized there were more neighbors in our neighborhood. But it took some extended catechetical training before I realized what Jesus is saying in this parable. A neighbor is anyone who is placed before you with a need. It doesn’t have to be a dramatic need, like being beaten and left half-dead. Many times it’s a small, simple, barely perceptible need.

Many neighbors are in front of you right now. Parents, your children have needs, so they are your neighbors. Children, your parents also have needs, and they are your neighbors. In your extended families, you have neighbors you are called to love and serve as if they were men dying in a ditch. In your business, in your friendships, in your schools there are neighbors who desperately need your care, even if they aren’t visibly bruised and bleeding.

The only thing is that the Law doesn’t work compassion. A certain priest and also a Levite passed him by on the other side. These are men of the Law. They know what God requires; they know what to do. They have the prayer memorized, they know the proper way to sacrifice a turtledove. They know the whole seven-day ritual for restoring a leper to the worshipping community of Israel. They also know what makes a man unclean. Blood. Discharges. Death. They know that if they touch this wounded, bleeding man in the ditch, it means a ritual cleansing of their own.

The Law doesn’t work compassion. It can regulate outward behavior, but it never changes hearts. It hardens hearts. In contrast to the workers of the Law is the Samaritan. He loves mercy. His heart is melted by the plight of the man in the ditch. He sees his neighbor’s need, he meets it, and exceeds it. He gives all that he could need and then some.


 If you’ve been keeping track, I’ve only highlighted three of the four questions that precipitate this parable: two by the lawyer, and one by Jesus. The second question Jesus asks is inseparable from the first. He asks the lawyer, “What is written in the Law?” then immediately follows with, “How do you read it?” It’s not enough to simply know the Law, but it’s also how you read it, how you understand it.

An important figure of speech in theology is synecdoche. Synecdoche is when you refer to a whole thing by one of its parts. And that’s what happens often when we use the word, “Law” to refer to God’s Word, especially in the Old Testament. The Hebrew word that lies behind the word “Law” is Torah, which is what the first five books of the Old Testament are collectively known as. But the word Torah means much more than Law. It’s better understood as “teaching,” or, “instruction.” It involves not only Law, but also promises. St. Paul highlights that the promise also existed in the Torah, because it was given to Abraham. The Law came 430 years later, and it does not annul the promise.

The Law was added to serve the promise. The Law is God’s penultimate Word; it always leads to the Gospel. The Gospel rips the threats and punishments right out of the Law and fills it with love and compassion. How do you read it?

Many people—it’s the natural way—approach the Scriptures as a rule book, as a list of divine instructions to please God with better behavior. But it would be impossible to list a command to regulate every single vocation because every human interaction is different. The Bible would be worse than the IRS code—no one would really know what’s in it; you’d only hope to get close and that no one catches you.

The Samaritan had no law to bandage the man’s wounds, to use oil and wine and not honey, to put him on his own mount and bring him to a hotel on his own dime. That Law simply does not exist. At least to the letter. What he did have was compassion. Even the lawyer recognizes that compassion is what makes a neighbor. But where does this compassion come from?

Some people are just born that way. Some are compassionate, altruistic, always looking out for the little guy, for the oppressed. Some people are the opposite, and need to be pushed and prodded to do even the smallest act of kindness. But even the naturally compassionate—Mr. Rogers called them the helpers—even they do not have the compassion that comes with the promise of God. Every human, by nature, is focused inwardly—we’re driven by fear of threat or promise of reward. And ultimately every act done according to the Law, even works of compassion, are about justifying yourself before God, the universe, and everything. That’s why the lawyer asked his question in the first place—he desired to justify himself.

Jesus won’t allow the lawyer to do it, and with a masterful fifth question, He finally shows how to gain true compassion. “Which of these three do you think came to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the robbers?” (v 36). The lawyer, remember, asked who is his neighbor. When Jesus asks this last question, he doesn’t allow the lawyer to be the one walking by the man in need. He puts him right in the ditch. He doesn’t need to find a neighbor; he needs a neighbor to come to him.

After the Law passes by the beaten and bloodied man overcome by robbers, the Samaritan comes and he acts as if he knew of no command, threat, or reward. He is driven by compassion. He’s motivated by love. His only concern is to stop the bleeding, bandage the wounds, and deliver the man to safety.

Only when you have been brought back from certain death can you really have compassion. And so it is with you. Jesus Christ is your Good Samaritan who has rescued you from death, bandaged your wounds, lifted you up and delivered you to safety to await His return. All on His dime.

And Jesus said to him, “You go and do likewise” (v 37). The compassion of Jesus that brings you from death to life frees you from the threats and rewards of the Law. That’s what it’s like when you come back from the dead—everything afterward is a gift. And so also are the people in your various vocations, your neighbors, children and parents, extended family, employers, workers, pastors, hearers. The compassion of Jesus fills you with compassion. It moves you into your vocation to see the needs of your neighbor and to act as if you knew of no command, threat, or reward. Only love.

The Law Points Us to the Mercy and Compassion of Christ, Which Fills Us with Mercy and Compassion

“Do this, and you will live,” Jesus says. And He did it so that you would have life.

In the name of + Jesus.

Jacob W Ehrhard