When President Obama nominated Judge Sonia Sotomayor to replace David Souter as a justice on the Supreme Court, his endorsement ignited a firestorm of controversy and suspicion because of a 2007 speech where he outlined his philosophy in selecting Supreme Court justices. The president said:
The issues that come before the court are not sport. They're life and death. And we need somebody who's got the heart to recogni... - the empathy to recognize what it's like to be a young, teenaged mom; the empathy to understand what it's like to be poor or African-American or gay or disabled or old. And that's the criteria by which I'm going to be selecting my judges. (President Obama, July 17, 2007)
Obama's so-called "empathy-standard" became almost instantaneously infamous and led many to believe that the president desired judges and justices who would not only interpret the law, but actively make it.
Whatever one might think of Obama's judicial philosophy, our reading for today from Luke 10 makes one thing is clear: The "expert in the law" whom we meet in this chapter would not have measured up to Obama's benchmark of empathy: "On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus" (verse 25). I like the King James rendering of this verse: "And, behold, a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted Jesus." This expert in the law has an agenda when he speaks with Jesus, but it's not an empathetic one; rather, it's a vitriolic one. This man wants to trick and trap Jesus in his own words. And he tries to trick and trap Jesus with this question:
"Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" "What is written in the Law?" Jesus replied. "How do you read it?" He answered: "'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, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'" "You have answered correctly," Jesus replied. "Do this and you will live." (verses 25-28)
This lawyer tries to bait Jesus with a question. But Jesus will not take the bait. This expert in the law, rather than getting Jesus to answer to his question, ends up answering his own question, and fails to trick and trap Jesus in his own words. And so, Luke tells us, this lawyer tries again: "But the expert in the law wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, 'And who is my neighbor'" (verse 29)?
In 1963, famed psychologists Elliot Aronson and J. Merrill Carlsmith conducted an experiment where they left two groups of children in a room with a variety of toys including a highly desirable steam shovel toy. Upon leaving the room, a researcher informed the first group of children that there would be a severe punishment if they were to play with the steam shovel while informing the second group that there would be only a mild punishment if they were to play with that same toy. Some time later, the researcher returned to both groups of children and told them that they were now free to play with any of the toys, including the steam shovel. Interestingly, those with the threat of a severe punishment went immediately to play with the steam shovel while those with the threat of a mild punishment still did not play with the toy. The researchers concluded that this was a case of "self-justification." Because the children who had received a threat of only mild punishment did not have sufficient initial grounds not to play with the steam shovel, they had to justify in their own minds, on the basis of other grounds, why they should not play with the toy. Thus, even when the threat of punishment was removed, their self-justification as to why they should not play with the toy remained.
Humans, even from their youngest years, seem to have a penchant for self-justification. Even when we know we're in the wrong, we will still regularly seek to minimalize, marginalize, and rationalize our thoughts, words, and actions. But the Christian faith has no room for self-justification. Indeed, the very crux of Christianity is that we do not and cannot justify ourselves; rather, we are justified by Jesus' blood, as Paul says: "We have now been justified by his blood" (Romans 5:9).
Today, is there anything for which you need to stop making excuses? Is there any area in which you need to stop trying to justify yourself and simply, humbly, and honestly admit that you are wrong? If so, then confess your sins instead of trying to justify them. There is no need for that. For you have already been justified by Christ. And he does a better job at justification than we can ever hope to.