Luke 10:29, "But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbor?"
This morning, many people like to promote the concept of the unity of mankind. Ideas like "one world" are tossed around by those who would like to end all war and have utopia here on earth. In point of fact, people will never be unified in thought and spirit in a peace-driven way because we are so linked in other ways. Mankind shares the commonality of sin, as all humanity was cursed by our first parents in the Garden of Eden. Because of that stained and ruined lineage, we share in many different sins, but one sin seems to be a pastime enjoyed by all: self justification. Justification is a legal term meaning to "declare righteous," and we are all very adept at convincing ourselves that we are "ok." This ugly trait takes on many forms and guises, but open honesty in the face of Scriptural record shows that we all "enjoy it" to some degree.
Our study verse is the opening to what would become Christ's account of what is commonly called the "Good Samaritan." A lawyer has come to Christ expressing - in much the same way the rich, young ruler did - what must be done to inherit eternal life. Christ handles this lawyer much the way he did the other young man: taking their logic and running it to its logical conclusion. Instead of telling people "you are wrong" when they asked foolish questions, Christ would often show them their error through a dialogue that logically took their thinking to its inevitable end. So, when this lawyer wants to know what to do to get eternal life, Christ points him to the commandments. Are the commandments where eternal life is gotten by us? No, but if you are geared into thinking something must be done by you to get to heaven, what better things could be done than keeping the precepts and oracles of God?
When the lawyer recites the heart and soul of God's oracles, Christ commands him to fulfill them. Ah, but then this lawyer shows his real motivation. Part of the heart and soul of God's oracles is to "love thy neighbour as thyself." But, Lord, who is my neighbour? Our study verse shows why this question is posited. The lawyer wanted to justify himself and show to himself that he was doing all right. In other words, if the answer is something I am doing anyway, then I can leave here feeling good about myself. Is that not the way we operate and think? Do not show me the things that I am lacking in, let us just talk about good things that I am already doing!
Christ's account to answer his question probably floored him as the story showed how a Samaritan (despised by the Jews) would have compassion on a Jew. Instead of the Samaritan delighting in someone "getting his due" who despised him, he showed mercy on one that might not have showed mercy on him in similar circumstances. To be a good neighbour - as Christ puts it - is to show mercy on those that are not likely to return it. We are told to do good to those that cannot repay us, rather than selectively showing goodness to those that can and will repay us. (Luke 14:12-14) To be a good neighbour is to show kindness to the less fortunate, our enemies, and expect nothing in return.
Now, having laid out the framework of the story, let us turn our attention to the thought in the verse of self justification. This lawyer wanted reassurance that he was doing well, but I highly doubt he left having received it. The rich, young ruler surely left having not received any self justifying assurance as his departure was with great sorrow. To find the evil in this concept, one needs only consider the first word "self." Self is something that Scriptural commands us to deny rather than promote. (Mark 8:34) Do you suppose the lawyer really wanted to know how to get to heaven or rather hear this man tell him, "You've already done what is needed. Good job!"? People today often do not ask for feedback to get constructive criticism. They ask for feedback to gain "attaboys" so that they can feel good about themselves or their efforts. Many times, questions are asked not to gain information but to hear someone tell us, "I agree with you."
Friends, looking into the glass of God's word, I see many shortcomings throughout the course of my life, but none perhaps as glaring as this one. Our penchant for convincing ourselves that we are either ok or "not that bad" is quite a mental tonic. This is one of many reasons why we should never play games of comparison (II Corinthians 10:12), as we are guaranteed to find two things: 1. People doing better than we are and 2. People doing worse than we are. The first group will make us jealous as we will want what they have, but the second group serves as our own little dataset for self justification. We look at those "pitiful souls" and think, "Well, at least I'm not in that shape!" Many of the dialogues that Christ had with 1st century Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, and lawyers brought to light that they were able to convince themselves that they were better than others. When Christ pointed out their errors, they hated Him for it as he was turning the mirror's true reflection on them.
So, if this is a universal problem, what is the answer? How do we diagnose it, correct it, and quit it for good? Reasonable questions all. The answer begins with the understanding of what we are by nature. We are all sinners by nature, and short of the grace of God, that is where we would wholly be forever. Yet, to rightly move in the direction of self justification course correction, we need to spend a lot of examination on the practices of sin. It is easy to stay in the idea of being sinners by nature as that is a concept that might not plague our ego too badly: we did not do it ourselves - Adam did! We might even convince ourselves that we would not have done what he did. However, when we start examining the practices of sin, it is easy for us to stay on subjects that do not bother us. For example, the sin of homosexuality does not bother me (never has, and I pray never will). Yet, I cannot only consider sins like this and others that have not plagued me. To overcome self justification, I must confront the sins that plague me daily.
Are those sins the same for everybody? Not necessarily. You may be bothered by things that do not bother me and vice versa, but rest assured friends, no one is exempt of sins bothering them. These "pet" or "favorite" sins must be confronted with no less alacrity than the ones we can readily condemn that do not bother us. This can only be done through honest and regular reading and studying of God's word. That is where we find the source of pure information about how to confront our own shortcomings. To stay in this mindset, we need to do this not to make anybody stand up and take notice of us but rather to please our Heavenly Father as we more brightly shine the light out in the dark world that He planted within our soul. If we are being truly virtuous in our efforts, we will neither seek praise nor approval but be convicted that what we are doing is right no matter the pain to our flesh or ego.
Recently, I heard a preacher say this from the stand, "When you're young, you worry about what everybody thinks about you. As you get older, you don't care what anybody thinks about you. Finally, you live long enough to realize that nobody ever was really thinking about you anyway." When we truly deny ourselves, we continue to hold God's word honestly before our eyes so that its precepts and directives convict us regularly rather than seek out approbation from other sources. Constantly looking into the perfect law of liberty will keep us from looking at how others are doing. Rather, it will keep us geared on the path of light that leads to rest and ultimately will please the One who judges rightly all the time. May He find us doing right and not trying to mold "right" around who and where we are.