Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Self-Justification


As we make our way through Luke in Year C of the lectionary, we are destined to encounter some of our favorite stories. Luke is the only gospel to include the Parable of the Prodigal Son (back in Lent 4), the raising of the widow's son at Nain (five weeks ago in Proper 5), the miraculous healing of the bent-over woman (coming up in six weeks in Proper 16), the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (on September 25 in Proper 21), and the healing of the ten lepers (on October 9 in Proper 23). This Sunday, we encounter the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).

Unique to Luke and beloved by Sunday school teachers around the world, the Parable of the Good Samaritan is deeply familiar to us. We know it well. Not only do we know what happens--three people come upon a man in distress and only one of them stops to help him--but we also know the implication of this story--that a true neighbor is the one to show mercy despite ethnic differences. Our over-familiarity with the text presents a challenge to the preacher and the congregation. If we all know what this story is supposed to teach us, how will we learn anything from it? Sure, we all need to hear it again, but will we bother to listen?

There is one familiar phrase in this familiar passage that I'd like to tackle. It's the verse upon which our impression of the whole encounter turns: "But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, 'And who is my neighbor?'" Verse 29 changes everything; in our minds, that's where everything goes wrong. Could there be a more basic, instinctive sin than self-justification? That little phrase about the lawyer's intentions completely transforms our reading of the whole story--especially the parable that follows. Once the reader realizes that this man was wanting to justify himself, we discover that the man's initial question about inheriting eternal life was mistaken from the start and that his desire was sinfully misguided all along. The parable, therefore, becomes a technique Jesus uses to humble the man, expose the futility of his self-justifying endeavor, and chastise us to avoid doing the same.

But is that what this story is really about? What does it mean that the man wanted to justify himself? I've read the Greek, and it's right there as plain as day: " δὲ θέλων δικαιῶσαι ἑαυτὸν." It means literally, "But he, wishing to justify himself." There's really no other way to understand it. But what is justification? If I set aside my Protestant presumptions about justification, I begin to wonder what's so wrong with the lawyer's question? What makes his desires wrongly founded? I can accept that, in light of the gospel, his approach to salvation is misguided without casting this story as a critique on humanity's attempt at self-justification.

Instead of viewing this lawyer as a self-interested, self-justifying egotist, try thinking of him as a man of faith who wants to know what all of us want to know: what does it take to be made right? Isn't that the universal question? In religious terms, justification is merely a being made right in the eyes of one's creator and judge. Don't we all want that identity when we stand before God? How else should the man have worded his question? Yes, Luke tells us that the lawyer "stood up to test Jesus," but don't we do the same every time we visit a church and hear a sermon? In our minds, we ask of the preacher, "Is this something worth believing? Is this really what God is saying to God's people?" Again, that's a man looking for a rabbi worth listening to. And the only real judgment for any disciple is summed up in his two-part question: "What must I do to inherit eternal life?...So who is my neighbor?"

I'm not saying that the man was perfect. I'm not suggesting that there wasn't a critical spirit behind his inquiry. And I'm certainly not implying that the man's question about self-justification is free from any trace of ego or self-accomplishing instinct. Sure it is. What I'm wondering is how we are any different? I'm wondering how this passage might get new life if we stop holding the lawyer in disdain and start accepting that this parable isn't a negative teaching aimed at one man but a positive teaching directed at all of us. Just like the lawyer, we want to inherit eternal life, and we want to be sure that we're on the right track. If we start there, it's a lot harder to brush aside this story as something we already know. Instead, it becomes a teaching we crave. This is the key. You want to inherit eternal life? Want to know what it takes to be faithful? Listen carefully! Jesus has a story to tell us.

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