Healing Is Better Than Self-Justification
A sermon on Luke 10:25-37
[for an audio recording of the sermon, click here]
Several of the commentators I read this week offered some variation on the theme that it’s really hard to actually engage with the Parable of the Good Samaritan because it is so. very. familiar. Debie Thomas’ assessment along those lines is perhaps the most incisive: “I read, I nod, and I walk away, unafflicted and unchanged.”
She’s making a point that I think is essential to hearing the parables the way that Jesus used them. She’s reminding us that we aren’t supposed to just nod our heads along with the familiar tale. Parables AREN’T fables. They aren’t about “knowing the moral of the story.” Jesus taught in parables, precisely because these reality-challenging stories don’t have a moral at the end. They don’t have a tidy lesson that can be wrapped up in a pithy propositional statement.
Instead, parables tell stories that RAISE more questions than they answer. They are ambiguous. They have sharp edges. They cast the wrong person in the role of the hero, or they violate the rules about how things are supposed to work. And it doing so they ask us to get involved in the story. To wrestle with the complexities, and to ask ourselves how we would respond. They make us finish the story in our own lives.
When we are seeking to learn from a parable (and not just to nod our heads), we need to look for the edge in the story that rubs us raw; the unanticipated plot twist, or the expectation-violating character that breaks open whatever it is in our lives that is holding us away from the thing we need to learn in order to experience the grace of God. For me, this week, that “rubbing edge” comes NOT from the parable itself, but from the lead-up.
As Luke tells the story, a lawyer – an expert in the Mosaic law which ruled the social, religious, and economic life of the Jewish people – stood up to TEST Jesus. Right there we have our first signal that something is getting twisted. The lawyer calls Jesus “teacher,” but he’s not actually interested in learning anything. Rather, he’s playing the role of teacher himself – setting the test.
Of course, Jesus sees through this insincerity, and turns the lawyer’s question back on the man. “What do you have to do to inherit eternal life? You’re the expert in the law, you tell me!”
The lawyer, of course, knows the answer… and he can’t resist the chance to demonstrate his mastery of the law. He rattles off the “pithy propositional statement” that accurately (if unattainably) summarizes the law: “Love God; love your neighbor.”
And Jesus says. “You got it! Go do that!”
But here, the lawyer runs into the jagged edge of Jesus’ teaching. Because the lawyer’s text-book answer does not empower his action. An “accurate summary” of the law doesn’t shape his character. He doesn’t know how to “go do this.”
Or at least, that’s the charitable way to read this story. The reading that hears the lawyer’s second question as a sincere desire to understand how exactly to go about loving his neighbors… or – at least – recognizing them.
But that generous interpretation is not how Luke tells the story, and this is where I run into my jagged edge of learning. Because Luke’s take on this interaction is that the lawyer still isn’t interested in really learning anything. Rather, he wants to “justify” himself. He wants to put himself in the right, to demonstrate that he has nothing to be ashamed of, by pretending like his original challenge wasn’t a set-up. No, no the answer that he already knew still needs more explanation (sarcasm font...)
The irony of this response, is that the lawyer is right! The pithy propositional statement isn’t enough to guide his action. (The way he has manipulatively treated his neighbor in Jesus is ample proof of that!). The lawyer genuinely DOES need the parable in order to actually learn something.
But, according to Luke, that’s not why he asks the question that prompts the parable… he asks the question in order to “justify” himself. And that word – justify – is what breaks me open in this gospel. Because, if I identify with any person in the story, it’s probably the lawyer.
My instinct to try to prove myself to be above reproach runs deep. It runs at least as far back as High School. I was a bit of a goody-goody (shocking, I know!). It was very important to me that I was always in the right – breaking no rules, always doing my homework, never letting anyone cheat off my tests… I imagine I was pretty insufferable. Especially for my little sister. That’s why I can easily forgive her for the truth she laid on my one afternoon, when she told me that other kids in school regularly talked about how self-righteous and defensive I was.
My response… was to get self-righteous and defensive. Protesting against the accusations, and in the process absolutely proving them to be true.
(Sigh) I can look back at my seventeen-year old self, shake my head and laugh at how lacking in self-awareness I was … But, I also know that the same defensiveness is still in me. That desire to justify myself. To show that I’m NOT in the wrong.
I was confronted with that instinct just this past week! (It’s really annoying how sometimes the gospel I’m preparing to preach shines such an unflattering spotlight on the life I’m in the process of living!) This week, that meant illumnating all the ways I kept wanting to defend myself when I was challenged about the way that last Sunday’s worship addressed the current situation of people on our Southern border.
I tried to be thoughtful and prayerful in my responses… At the same time, I have developed enough self-awareness in my 40's to recognize that the defensive instinct is still there too. That desire to “justify myself,” to put myself in the right, to prioritize my reputation over other peoples’ feelings or experiences. And that’s wrong.
Now, there’s a nuance here that’s really important. There is a profound difference between my sinful instinct to justify myself, and our collective work to grapple with the gospel. As the spiritual leader of this congregation, I am called to challenge our community to lean-in to the tough questions. I am called to gather us together, around God’s Word, so we can do the challenging work of seeking the gospel’s guidance in our lives and in our responses to the world around us.
THAT work isn’t about me, it’s about being the church. That work is what I hope we will do in our Loving Dialogue today, after worship. But in order to lead us in that work, I also need to be honest – first with myself, and also with you – about the way that TODAY’s gospel cuts me open… about the reality that my first instinct is often for self-justification. I have to confess this weakness so that we can move past it. Because I don’t want or need our conversation to be about me… I want it to be about the gospel. I want it to be about the way that Jesus changes ALL of our perspectives.
And you know what? Jesus DOES change the perspectives of the people who listen to him. That is the good, good news of this parable for anyone who - like me - struggles with the urge to justify themselves. (Which, to judge from the general trends in both politics and social media, is a sizable majority of our country!) This parable is good news for all of us because of the way it cuts through all the usual scripts for self-justification.
The lawyer asks his question about “who is my neighbor” as a way to justify himself, as a way to prove that he is already in the right … not out of a genuine desire to learn. But Jesus teaches him (and us) anyway! Jesus treats the question about the neighbor’s identity as a genuine inquiry – and he answers it with this poignant story that has turned the “Good Samaritan” into a recognized category in culture, and even law, that far transcends the context of scripture.
But for us that context of scripture is really important. Because that context reveals that the point of the story is NOT – or at least not only – an exhortation to imitate the Samaritan. This parable ISN’T actually about how to be a good person. It’s not about “what we must do to inherit eternal life.” It’s about the identity of the neighbor, and our identity as well!
You see, the lawyer’s self-justifying question was “who is my neighbor.” A question that invited Jesus to (in Debie Thomas’ phrase) “discuss ad nauseum the finer points of responsible neighborliness.”
But instead of telling the lawyer whom he did (and didn’t) need to love, Jesus told him a story. Jesus told the story of a man who couldn’t meet his own needs. A man desperate for help. A man who was first denied help by those he thought would help him, and then received help from the very last person he would have ever thought he could trust.
And after telling the lawyer this story, Jesus asks him one more question: “who was a neighbor to the man in need?”
The answer is obvious. Of course, it’s the third man, the man no one would have expected to be the hero. It doesn’t require any special knowledge for the lawyer to get this question right.
But it requires something much more challenging. It requires him to let go of his self-justification, to release his desire to show himself in only the best light, needing nothing from this teacher he has come to teach.
It requires him to see himself in the story – NOT as the man who helps, but as the man in the ditch.
Because his question had been “who is my neighbor?” And by identifying the Samaritan as that neighbor, the lawyer also identified himself as the one who needed the help of the Samaritan.
As someone who sees MYSELF in the lawyer, this story is pure grace. The kind of grace that cuts me open in order to cut out the lie that it’s my job to justify myself.
None of us can justify ourselves. That’s Jesus’ job! None of us can make ourselves righteous, and always above reproach. We’re all broken. And sooner or later, we will all end up in the ditch.
Maybe that’s part of why God’s law tells us to love our neighbors. So that when we end up in the ditch, there will be a neighbor – maybe even a neighbor we thought was an enemy - to pull us out, and tend our wounds, and teach us that being cared for is so much better than trying to justify ourselves.
Thanks be to God
 The word “justify” comes from the same root as “righteousness.” Here, it conveys the desire to declare oneself guiltless/acquit of a reproach. Full definition and lexicon available at: https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G1344&t=KJV