Over the years, I have often told stories of my different experiences as a pastor in a little town in a valley west of the White Mountains of California. The stories have helped illustrate a point to a client, to a struggling pastor, in my teaching, or in relating to a friend. I have talked about the different people and the parts they played in that particular chapter in my life and how, despite my best efforts and those of the people who cared about me, that little church came to a painful death.

My theology informs me that the moral playing field between people is always level, but as I look back I realize that I have told my story in a way that portrays me as the good guy and those who made my life difficult as the bad guys. It is striking how I could believe such good theology and yet apply it so badly to my own life, as if acquiring an accurate understanding of the theology of man’s sin nature acquitted me of any wrong-doing.

This was the lawyer’s problem in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan as Luke recorded it in chapter ten, verses twenty-five through thirty-seven. A certain lawyer initiated a theological conversation with Jesus by asking, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responded by asking the lawyer, “What is written in the Law? How does it read to you?” The lawyer then quoted two Old Testament passages which described concisely the inner condition of a truly godly man, and Jesus said, “You have answered correctly.” The lawyer had rightly identified the ultimate answer to this critical theological question; he had rightly weighed and summarized the Law; and he was pleased at Jesus’ assessment. But Jesus went on, “Do this, and you will live.”

The lawyer was less pleased with Jesus telling him that he must not merely demonstrate an understanding of the Law, but he must actually love his neighbor in order to inherit eternal life. The lawyer responded defensively, posing a second question, “And who is my neighbor?”

Something in Jesus’ statement penetrated the lawyer’s heart. For a brief moment he was uncomfortably aware that his own description of a truly godly man did not apply to himself. He had not kept the commandment to love his neighbor as himself. Luke observed that the lawyer had a hidden agenda when he asked his questions; he was “wishing to justify himself.” “Justify” is a legal term used for declaring a person not guilty, or blameless. Rather than face the reality that his efforts to know the law without applying it to his life were not pleasing to God, the lawyer attempted to relieve the anxiety that Jesus’ statement created. Instead of responding to his moral Waterloo by crying out to God for mercy, the man hid from the truth of his moral failure by posing another theological question; he directed the conversation back to a familiar and comfortable area where he felt confident and had experienced some success, an area where he could hold his own.

Just as Jesus would not let the lawyer retain his blind, self-sufficient false confidence, so Jesus would not let the lawyer escape the moral pressure that His words had brought to bear. Jesus did not respond by entering into a theological debate about the Law’s definition and limits of the word “neighbor”; rather He responded to the lawyer’s question by telling a story. Jesus used real characters to create a fictional reality into which he invited the lawyer to enter.

A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho: and he fell among robbers, and they stripped him and beat him, and went off leaving him half dead. And by chance a certain priest was going down on that road, and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. And likewise a Levite also, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, who was on a journey, came upon him; and when he saw him, he felt compassion, and came to him, and bandaged up his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them; and he put him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And on the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper and said, “Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I return, I will repay you.” (Luke 10:30-35)

In the course of the story, an anonymous man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho became a victim of violent thieves who left him helpless and in great need. Two men, both religious individuals with whom the lawyer might have more naturally associated himself, passed by the injured man. Because of their “tradition,” they would not consider the injured man to be a neighbor. The third man Jesus introduces into the narrative, a Samaritan, was despised by people like the lawyer. Yet, this “inferior” individual was willing to trouble himself on behalf of the needy man.

In contrast to the religious individuals, the Samaritan was committed to loving God, and he expressed his commitment by making the difficult decision to love his neighbor as himself. The Samaritan clearly inconvenienced himself to help the injured man, quite possibly at personal risk to himself and certainly with some effort and expense. He demonstrated mercy and compassion to the man in need.

After Jesus completed the story, He asked the lawyer the same question (in an altered form) that the lawyer had asked Him: “Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the robber’s hands?” The story’s circumstances put the question into a real-life context, and the lawyer’s only real option was to acknowledge the Samaritan’s compassion and mercy. Responding to Jesus’ story, the lawyer says, “The one who showed mercy toward him.”

Jesus shows the religious men in the story to be people who could have aided the injured man but didn’t; and in so doing, He led the lawyer, a religious man, to see himself in a different light. Jesus gave the lawyer the opportunity to evaluate his own values and beliefs and to see himself from the perspective of the man whose need was ignored. The lawyer’s theology prevented him from acting mercifully; instead, he used it to justify his disregard for the urgent need of a fellow human being. The lawyer’s response to Jesus’ story was theologically correct, and Jesus responded in turn, “Go and do the same,” once again, telling the lawyer that a man who truly loves God does not merely understand the correct answer, but he must live it out.

The lawyer had never had a theological conversation quite like the one he had with Jesus. Little did the lawyer know what was in store for him when he first posed his question. Little did he know the theological, moral, and personal crisis that awaited him or realize what he would confront about himself when he initiated what he thought was a simple theological discussion with the carpenter’s son from Nazareth.

The encounter between Jesus and the lawyer teaches us that righteousness is measured by our actually living as we should, not by our knowledge of how we should live. We must not hide from our failure to do what is required of us by justifying ourselves with our understanding of what is required. It is easy to avoid the truth about our moral failure by hiding behind the pretense that knowing how we should live and understanding what we should do makes a significant difference with respect to our standing with God.

The passage also teaches us about how prone we are to self-deception and how easily we lose sight of what is true. Contrary to what the lawyer would have liked to be true, being able to articulate an understanding of the commandment is not enough to gain eternal life. Ironically, the lawyer, who by profession had the responsibility to defend and teach the truth as revealed in the Law, used his knowledge of the Law as a means of hiding from the truth about himself. Those who have been gifted with the responsibility to teach or counsel others toward the truth would do well to realize the potential to fall into this trap.

Eighteen years after having pastored that church, I had an opportunity to visit that little town in the valley between those mountains. We camped, fished, spent time with some old friends, and my oldest son saw the place where he was born. On one of our jaunts into town, while I was walking between the laundromat and the local grocery store, my good theology and biased story-telling collided. I painfully realized that I had deceived myself into believing that I was somehow morally different from those people who had hurt me. I had compared my good theology and best efforts to make the church survive to their hurtful behavior. I had deceived myself into believing that I was different from them. Like the lawyer, I had gone to a place of comfort: he to articulating his interpretation of the law and I to telling my story with a particular slant. I was the good guy in my story, and those people who had hurt me were the bad guys. My colored storytelling served as a strategy of self-protection. It allowed me to hold on to the false belief that I was right and they were wrong, that I was better than they were. Being “right” also allowed me to hide from the rejection I felt from those who had hurt me and from the pain that I had failed to resuscitate that small struggling church.

Jesus entered into a relationship with the lawyer by joining him in a conversation about the law and how it ought to be interpreted. He then separated the lawyer from his comfort zone by telling him an incisive parable with characters not unlike himself. In contrast to the lawyer’s hidden agenda to justify himself, Jesus’ purpose was to break through the lawyer’s false image of himself in order to help him see himself accurately and thus realize his need for God’s mercy.

God has placed you and me in a world of human relationships, and He intends that through our interactions we would see the truth about our shortcomings so that we might recognize our need for His mercy. Without Jesus’ personal intervention, the lawyer would have remained predisposed toward self-deception. Similarly, without God’s divine intervention in our lives, you and I are blind and we have not eyes to see.