Luke 10:25-29: And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 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.” 29 But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Just because we can read the Bible correctly does not mean that we will live it correctly. The “lawyer” in this episode was an expert in the Law of Moses. He had spent his lifetime studying the Law. He knew it thoroughly. He interpreted it accurately. When Jesus answered the lawyer’s question (v. 25) by asking in return a question about the man’s reading of the Law (v. 26), the man “answered correctly.” The lawyer stated what elsewhere Jesus identified as the greatest commandments: “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” (v. 27; cf. Mt. 22:34-40 and Mk. 12:28-34).
However, the lawyer was not satisfied with the straightforward implications of the commands which he understood so well. The text says that he wanted “to justify himself,” which means that he was looking for a way to prove that his actions were consistent with the commands to love God and neighbor. Almost certainly the lawyer was looking for justification for his decision to exclude some people from being regarded as his neighbor. He wanted to show that he was not, in fact, obligated to love every person. Commentator Robert Stein explains, “For most Jews a neighbor was another Jew, not a Samaritan or a Gentile. The Pharisees and the Essenes did not even include all Jews.” So, the lawyer asked, “And who is my neighbor?” because he wanted to see if Jesus would allow that some people – such as Gentiles and Samaritans – were exceptions to the rule of love.
The lawyer thus stands as a primary example of the spiritual short-circuit which so often afflicts God’s people: he knew the truth in his head, but he did not love the truth in his heart. Something else – a hatred of Gentiles and Samaritans, perhaps – had a stronger grip on his heart than did the love of God which was to transform him into someone who loved each person he encountered as his neighbor.
Followers of Jesus, we must always be on our guard against the sin of loving something else more than we love the truth of God. We must not think that we can rest satisfied with studying the Bible deeply and understanding it correctly. If we are not living the truth of God out in practical ways, something has gone wrong. We must beware of our strong tendencies to look for “exceptions” to God’s commands, and to find ways to “justify” our actions as legitimate to God, ourselves, and others. If our spiritual life is peppered with the language of excuses such as “but,” “because,” “I can’t,” or “this person or that thing doesn’t count,” then we are allowing our love of sin to dictate our obedience to God.
For many of us the problem does not lie with our level of biblical knowledge. Instead, the problem is to be found deeper, at the level of our affections. Our affections are our desires – what we want, and value, and cherish. Theologian and philosopher James K.A. Smith writes, “What do you want? That’s the question. It is the first, last, and most fundamental question of Christian discipleship… we are want we want. Our wants and longings and desires are at the core of our identity, the wellspring from which our actions and behavior flow. Our wants reverberate from our heart, the epicenter of the human person.”
The lawyer ‘wanted’ to justify himself in some form of disobedience to the command “love your neighbor as yourself.” What do you want? Do you long to know God and to align your entire being with His ways? Or do you desire to appear religious while at the same time clinging to your old sinful habits of exclusion, prejudice, greed, lust, anger, or bitterness? As the parable of the ‘Good Samaritan’ (Luke 10:30-37) shows, Jesus saw clearly what was going on in the lawyer’s heart and his teaching penetrated right to the core of the issue. Jesus also sees what is going on in our hearts. He knows who or what that we want and love more than him. His word will penetrate to the core of our being (Heb. 4:12-13). Let’s allow His word to cut beneath the surface and into our souls, so that he can form in us the holy desire to fully and completely love him with all that we are, and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
Take time now to seek God. This brief prayer can help you get started: “O God, I have wanted other things more than I have wanted you. I have loved my ways of sin more than I have loved you. I have sought to justify my actions and make excuses for my disobedience. I have not allowed your word to transform my heart. Please forgive me, and please change me. Holy Spirit, I invite you to change what I want and desire. Help me to long for God, and obedience to God, above everything else in my life. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”