Wanting to justify himself, he asked, “Who is my neighbor?” (Part 2)
Now I’m going to ask you to open your Bibles to Luke chapter 10 where I’ll begin reading in verse 25 And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
Perhaps you’ve read somewhere before that the Jews were not all that concerned with questions of individual salvation and the afterlife. Perhaps you’ve been told that their concern was more about earthly blessedness and the future ofIsraelas a nation. Don’t believe it. Clearly this expert in the law was concerned about whether or not he would inherit eternal life. Eternal life is not just a concern of Greek philosophy, it is a human concern. Every human being, be they Jew or Greek, is concerned about the eternal state of their soul and that is what this man questions Jesus about.
But this man’s question is also a trap. He is putting Jesus to the test. He wants Jesus to say something like “Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned.” He wants to expose Jesus as an antinomian, a slacker when it comes to the law. But Jesus does what we should all do when we are asked a trick question. He answers it with another question. “He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” 27 And 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.” 28 And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”
Simple, huh? That’s all you have to do to inherit eternal life. All you have to do is love God with your whole heart. Halfhearted love won’t do. No competing idols will be tolerated. You must love God with your whole heart if you want to inherit eternal life. So do that and then there’s just one other thing. You need to love your neighbor in the same way that you love yourself. So think about all the time and energy and money that you pour into the meeting of your own needs and the pursuit of your own happiness and then do all that for your neighbor. That’s all you have to do. Do that and you will live.
You have answered correctly, Lawman! Indeed you are an expert in the law. You have penetrated to its heart and summarized exactly what is required of you. So now, Jesus says, alluding to the words of Lev 18.5 that Paul also quotes when he deals with these same issues of law and gospel, just do that and you will live.
Now this expert in the law is at a crossroads. He knows that he doesn’t love his neighbor as he loves himself. So what is he going to do? He could do one of two things. He could fall at Jesus’ feet and confess his sins and plead for mercy and be justified by faith alone. Or he could try to justify himself. And like we all have at one time or another, he chose plan B and sought to justify himself. Luke 10:29 But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Do you see what he’s doing by asking this question? He’s trying to dumb down the requirement to make it doable. He’s thinking, “obviously I can’t love everybody as I love myself, so maybe I can get Jesus to explain this requirement in a way that will make it more manageable.” He’s looking for a loophole. Note it well: His need to justify himself, his need to convince himself that he is in the right forces him to regard most people as not his neighbor. He is forced to regard the needs of most people as not his concern because if he does accept responsibility for meeting the needs of his neighbor he will be crushed by the guilt. He has to define loving his neighbor as something within his own power so that he can do it and justify himself.
So here’s the money sentence. Are you ready for it? Here’s the sentence that I pray will define the second half of my life and ministry. I conclude from Luke 10:29 that the key to overcoming neighbor-avoidance behavior is believing in justification by faith alone. (2x)
We all engage in neighbor-avoidance behavior. We all try to tell ourselves that we are not responsible to care for the needs of people around us. And the reason we do this is that we are trying to justify ourselves. We are trying to convince ourselves that we are in the right. As I was writing this paragraph Friday in Starbucks I saw a woman wearing a T-shirt that said “I love it when I’m right.” We all want to be right. And if we think too much about the needs of our neighbors, we don’t feel right about ourselves anymore. So we push those thoughts out of our minds. We can’t bear the burdens of others because we are still carrying around the burden of our own guilt. We don’t spend our time and energy loving our neighbors because we are spending all our time and energy justifying ourselves.
But here’s the good news. You don’t have to be right to inherit eternal life. If you will confess your sins to Jesus and trust in his death on the cross as the sufficient payment of the penalty for your selfishness, then you will be declared righteous through faith. The good news is that the righteousness that God requires from you he gives to you in Jesus. Jesus loved God the Father with all his heart, and Jesus loved his neighbor even to the point of leaving heaven to come to earth and die on a cross for us. And that perfect righteousness is imputed to you when you are united to Christ through faith.
Now if you believe that, then you can be free from the need for self-justification. So when you hear the radical command to love your neighbor as yourself, you no longer need to explain it away. You can just do it. Not perfectly, of course, but much more radically. When you are freed from the need to love perfectly you are enabled to love more radically. You are free to try and fail and try again to love your neighbor as yourself. When you realize that you are not justified by your love for your neighbor, then you are able to love your neighbors out of better motives than self-justification.