I’ve blogged recently about how much easier preaching the Old Testament is when you believe, often against the propaganda of mainline Protestant seminary, that the Old Testament, like all of scripture, is about Jesus. Granted, to believe that, one has to believe that the same Holy Spirit, the very Spirit of Christ, inspired both Testaments—and that the sending of God’s Son into the world wasn’t a surprise or a change of plans for God; rather, from an eternal perspective the Lamb was slain “from the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8).
The gospel of Jesus Christ permeates the Old Testament. And of course it’s often the main subject of the apostolic epistles of the New Testament. It’s become clear to me recently, however, that unless we’re careful, we can end up missing the gospel in the four Gospels themselves!
What do I mean?
I’m thinking, for instance, of the scripture that I preached last Sunday, the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-36, and (even more) this Sunday’s text, Matthew 25:31-46, the parable of the Sheep and the Goats. As I said in my sermon on the Good Samaritan, we can easily turn the parable into a message of works righteousness rather than grace: “What? You call yourself a disciple of Jesus Christ and you don’t love your neighbor the way the Good Samaritan loved this wounded victim on the side of the road? Shame on you! You need to try harder!”
As I said on Sunday, I stink at trying harder! Don’t you? I mean, honestly… If the message of the parable is that we need to be like the Good Samaritan, aren’t we all in trouble? (Maybe I should speak for myself.) But when I hear a “try harder” message, I tend to feel more guilty and ashamed than convicted. Guilt and shame, alongside anger, are default emotions for me, unfortunately; I hardly need extra incentive to feel that way! 😦
Over the past week, I’ve noticed that many of my fellow Christians and clergy colleagues have appealed to the Good Samaritan as scriptural warrant for welcoming Syrian refugees into the U.S. (and especially into those southern states, like my own, whose governors have said they won’t accept any). More than one pastor I read said that this issue strikes at the “core of the gospel.”
Politics aside, does it really? Does the question of whether or how to offer sanctuary to Syrian refugees strike at the core of the gospel? If so, what exactly is the gospel? Is it based on good works? Is it about what I do? Is it about “trying harder” after all?
I hope not. Otherwise I’m in trouble! Aren’t you?
What does Paul say? “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). The law can only condemn me. I have no righteousness of my own; it’s only because of Christ’s righteousness, which I receive through faith, that I’m saved (Phil. 3:9). I hope that this strikes closer to the core of the gospel than anything else!
Besides, it’s not as if social media activism—or “slacktivism”—would bring any of us nearer to the “works righteousness” gospel anyway! I’m not any more like the Good Samaritan if I tweet an angry tweet or post an angry Facebook post than if I don’t. If the gospel is about works, then I’m lost and so are you. We don’t need to try harder. We need Jesus!
What, then, is the primary meaning of the Good Samaritan if not to “try harder”? Feel free to read or watch my sermon. But my favorite part of the sermon was sharing an insight that the Church Fathers shared in their preaching and teaching about this parable: The Good Samaritan is Jesus Christ. We need Jesus to be a neighbor to us. We are the helpless, dying victim in need of rescue. As I said last Sunday:
The most important meaning of this parable is that Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, is our Good Samaritan. We human beings, the apostle Paul says, have made ourselves God’s enemies because of our sin and rebellion against God. Satan has stripped us, beaten us, and left us for dead on the side of the road. We have no one to save us—until Jesus the Good Samaritan comes to us and offers us salvation.
Now, Samaritans and Jews hated one another. They were enemies. An ordinary Samaritan wouldn’t have compassion on his enemy, a Jew—any more than we’d have compassion on those terrorists that attacked Paris on Friday. But Jesus the Good Samaritan had compassion on his enemies. An ordinary Samaritan wouldn’t risk his life on this dangerous road in order to save his enemy, but Jesus the Good Samaritan not only risked his life, he laid down his life to save his enemies. An ordinary Samaritan wouldn’t give his time, his strength, his money, in order to nurse his enemy back to health. But Jesus the Good Samaritan said, “I’ll take the sickness of your sin upon myself, and I’ll suffer your disease for you, even though I’ve done nothing to deserve it; I’ll gladly suffer it”—I’ll take all your bad stuff and give you all my good stuff; I’ll take your sin and unrighteousness and give you my righteousness—so that you will be eternally healed!