In the previous blog, we met the two main characters in one of Jesus’ parables from Luke 18: the Pharisee and the tax collector. We learned quite a bit about each of them from their posture and attitude as well as the content of their prayers.
But remember? “It’s complicated.” So when Jesus says, speaking about the tax collector, “This man went down to his home justified” (Luke 18:14a), it was anathema. In our hyperactive political climate, it would be almost like Jesus saying, depending on your political preference, that either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump were justified before God. This shocker statement would yield the reaction some of Jesus’ hearers would have had at his saying, “Who’s justified? It’s the tax collector—not the Pharisee.”
Because you see, people assume that if I’m somehow going to gain God’s approval, I must act it out. And the deeds the Pharisee shows are exemplary, even though his attitude is way out of line—and uncharacteristic behavior for a Pharisee.
So what is Jesus saying in this parable, then, by commending the tax collector?
- Stop comparing yourself to others.
First of all, He’s saying something very important: When it comes to our behavior, all of us who are justified before God are a mixed bag. No matter how many tributes we get, no matter how many plaques on our wall, none of it has anything to do with gaining God’s approval.
What matters to God is that we are all debtors to his grace. We’re never in the position of claiming justification for gaining his approval. For, as Paul writes to the Romans, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). We all share this attribute.
And so in essence, the message of the parable is this: The comparison has to stop. If you’re justifying yourself based on someone else’s misbehavior, you’re playing the wrong ball game. It’s never about whether I’m better than someone else.
It’s actually easier to focus on somebody else’s misdeeds instead of examining your own heart. And you may be absolutely right in your assessment, but, Jesus says, you’ve missed the point.
It’s never about comparisons. Never. Because somebody’s always going to be better than you. And somebody’s always going to be worse than you. Instead, focus on your relationship with God. You should be asking, “Where do I need God’s forgiveness? Where do I need God to break through in my life? Where am I a debtor to his mercy? Where do I need to walk into his presence with nothing in my hand that justifies my right to be here, to say, ‘God, it’s on you, and unless you offer me your mercy and your justification, I’m sunk’”?
That’s the key to God saying, “Welcome in.” It’s never based on whether I am good enough. It’s always the act of God’s mercy. Always. For all of us.
- Make a heart-to-heart connection with God.
Whether we’re talking about politics, family or other relationships, we spend most of our days in some sort of squabble. And we also live in an age where our media-driven culture robs us of the capacity for solitude in which to reflect on what’s going on in our own hearts.
It’s so easy to come into a worship service and focus solely on making sure we do it right. And so we go through the motions, and sometimes things go pretty well. But unless there’s been a heart-to-heart connection between God and me, unless there’s been a transaction in which I have been invited in, all I’m doing is creating a Pharisaical atmosphere that emphasizes behavior. And even if we use the name of Jesus, that’s not particularly Christian.
No. What binds us together as Christians is that, regardless of where we are in our walk, we have one thing in common, and often one thing only: We can gather at the foot of the cross and know that the playing field has been entirely leveled, and that each one of us is, in fact, the recipient—the recipient, not the owner, but the recipient—of the mercies of God.
- Find the place of joy.
And that brings joy. To know that somehow by the mercy of God, amidst this mixed-bag, saint-and-sinner life, I’ve been received and made his own. That God has claimed me. That I belong to him. And that I have, in fact, the companionship of his presence no matter what’s going on. Because the commitment Jesus makes, when he says, “I will never leave you or forsake you” (Heb. 13:5) is predicated upon this mercy. Otherwise, you’re always trying to figure out whether you’ve earned God’s presence with you today or not. And that’s just psycho.
But if I know that I walk in his forgiveness and his mercies, knowing I am his and that he has claimed me as his own, so that no matter how many times I fall, he’ll pick me back up—that’s a place of profound and deep assurance. That’s the place of joy. And it’s all based on the mercies of God.
So we make room for one another, we make allowances, as Paul writes, for one another, because we love each other. Because we’re, all together, objects of mercy and his love. And it is out of that that we can say, “Yes, I will, with God’s help,” make the commitments we make and find a way to be the people God has called us to be in a world that is not interested in mercy.
Let’s be different—in the great and profound mercies of God.
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Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.