“Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life? ‘What is written in the Law?’ he 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.” But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
In the judicial system of the United States, one of the most important principles is that a person is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty. That means the burden of proof is on the prosecutor, not the defense attorney. So while the prosecutor must present enough evidence to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, the guilt of the accused, the defense attorney’s job is different.
As the defense attorney defends a client, they don’t have to prove that person’s innocence; they only have to produce enough evidence or alternative explanations to provide that reasonable doubt. One way that helps me understand the difference is that the prosecution builds a case as someone builds a house. That case is meant to be built as stable and airtight as possible. The defense attorney is trying to put some space between the bricks of that structure or at least to show that the bricks of the prosecution’s case are not actually stable at all.
Chip away, chip away, chip away, until the client is shown NOT to necessarily be innocent but declared NOT GUILTY.
We should all be comfortable with this concept, not only because it’s an important piece of the justice system but also because we are all defense attorneys at heart.
As such, we aren’t necessarily concerned with our innocence; we only want to dispel the notion of our guilt. But Jesus is familiar with people like us.
Our scripture reference today tells of one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. Here was a man who, from the outset, wasn’t really interested in the answer to his question. He was not seeking knowledge or spiritual insight – quite the opposite. Proud of his own knowledge and his clever question, he wanted to test Jesus. But Jesus turns the question back on him, and the one who was trying to trap Jesus was suddenly in danger of being trapped himself.
His answer was right – that he must love God and love his neighbor with his whole being, and yet he perhaps sensed that he was guilty by his own standard. And that coming guilt was too much for him, so he asked for qualification. Like the defense attorney, he tried to chip away at the bricks of the case that was built against him, hoping to find a reasonable doubt. He wanted to find enough wiggle room, not so that he would be innocent, but at least so he might avoid outright guilt.
Don’t we all do that? Isn’t that a familiar posture for us?
Time and time again, we know the good we ought to do, and yet we fall short. But instead of owning the shortcoming, we take the posture of the defense attorney. We look for all the nooks and crannies into which we might escape, trying any way we can to point out the intricacies and special circumstances that will help us escape.
Sometimes we succeed. Or at least we think we do. We walk from conviction, feeling as though we have justified our greed or selfishness or anger, or bitterness. And yet there is always a reckoning to come because we are all guilty. Case closed.
Oh, but there is a simpler way. Painful, perhaps – but so much simpler.
We can avoid all the wrangling, excuses, and self-justification… and just agree with the Lord. We can acknowledge what we both know to be true and, in so doing, be fully confident of the grace that awaits us.
This is the fuel for our repentance, not just once, but every day – we can know that there is yet more grace for us.
Written by Michael Kelley, Guest Contributor