As a senior in college, I interviewed for a graduate fellowship. It was an intimidating process. All of the candidates met together with the interviewers for a social gathering on the evening before the interviews were conducted. Then, the next morning, one by one, we were shown into a conference room, where a dozen bloodthirsty experts grilled us on every level.
At one point, one of the interviewers asked me a question about quantum mechanics. As I gave my answer, I heard a phrase come out of my mouth that didn’t quite sound right. I saw the eyes of my interrogator light up. He had heard it, too. So he repeated his question to see if I would say it again. But I wasn’t smart enough to figure out exactly what was going on, and I wasn’t self-aware enough to stop and admit that I wasn’t sure what I was talking about. So I hanged myself on my words. And all because that one little thing popped out of my mouth. Within seconds, I could tell that I would not be receiving the fellowship.
Kind of like this week's gospel lesson.
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he said, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" He 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." And he said to him, "You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live."
But then, Luke tells us, the lawyer went too far. Apparently he wasn’t paying attention in law school when the professor taught him not to ask a question he didn’t know the answer to: “But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” Uh oh. When a gospel writer tells his readers that you are trying to justify yourself, it can’t be good. You don’t stand up to Jesus and try to make yourself look good. That just won’t work. So Jesus tells him a little story that cuts his ego in two and leaves him wishing he hadn’t asked that follow-up question.
This week, I find that I am being confronted by my need for self-justification. Instead of asking, “Am I good enough?” I too often ask, “Aren’t I good enough?” Instead of depending only on God’s grace and mercy, I find myself making a case for my own salvation. Like many preachers, I have a high need for affirmation, but this gospel lesson is forcing me to reconsider the source of the affirmation I need. God promises to love me despite my deepest failings, so why am I still trying to prove myself worthy of God’s love? Jesus tells the parable not to shame the lawyer into action or to guilt him into repentance but to remind him of the nature of God’s love. Will he love the way the Good Samaritan does? No. Will I? Will you? No. But God does, and that’s all that matters.