Our senior pastor Larry Buxton, who’s a baseball nut, says that parables are supposed to be stories that have a “late-breaking curveball.” He threw a curveball this past weekend with his sermon on the familiar parable of the Pharisee and tax collector in Luke 18:9-14. The Pharisee says, “I thank you God that I’m not like other people,” and the tax collector says, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Pastor Larry shared that too often, we come away from this parable thinking that the moral of the story is to be more conspicuously self-deprecating in our prayer life. So we become people who say, “I thank you God that I’m a humble sinner, unlike those Pharisees who thank you that they’re not like other people.”
It’s very hard not to spend your spiritual life defining yourself against other people. Having grown up a moderate Southern Baptist in the midst of the fundamentalist takeover of our denomination, I have been thanking God that I’m not like those fundamentalists since before I knew how to read. To some degree, I haven’t rebelled against my upbringing so much as lived into the dissident that I was raised to be.
I don’t apologize for being zealous about sharing what God has shown me in my journey or for being anguished when people say and do things that make God look less beautiful than He is. But it has been a lifelong struggle to separate my zeal for God’s truth from my poisonous spiritual pride and tendency to make unfair presumptions about where other Christians are coming from when they appear to be engaged in Pharisaic pious posturing (which I of course do in my own slightly more ironicized way).
There’s a joke that a rabbi once shared with me about exhibitionist humility. One rabbi goes into his synagogue and throws himself down before God saying, “Lord, I am a worthless sinner. Have mercy on me.” Then another one comes in and does the same. But then the custodian who’s cleaning the church throws himself down and says he’s a worthless sinner too. And the first rabbi gets mad and says, “You’ve got some nerve trying to say you’re as worthless a sinner as I am.”
So what should be our takeaway from the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector? Pastor Larry’s punchline was to say that it’s not about us, it’s about the merciful God that we share who forgives and restores the Pharisees and tax collectors alike. I definitely agree with that. I am also interested in why Jesus says about the tax collector, “This man went down to his home justified rather than the other” (Luke 18:14). What does justified mean in this case?
I think that the mistake that we make is to assume that we can justify ourselves before God by acting sufficiently humble and self-deprecating. The word “justify” that Jesus uses is the Greek word dikaio, which can really mean both to make a person just and to declare a person to be just. I don’t think we do justice to the justification that is central to Christian theology without letting the word live in the tension between the two meanings of dikaio.
It is true that Jesus’ sacrifice overwrites our guilty verdict for our sins and unilaterally pronounces us righteous. We desperately need to be justified by Christ as a starting point in order to have the safety to confess our sins openly and be liberated from our fearful defensiveness. But God’s arbitrary declaration of righteousness always has the purpose of making us just. And if there is no progress in that direction, it indicates that we didn’t really think the sins we confessed were all that sinful.
When Jesus says that the tax collector went home “justified” rather than the Pharisee, it means not only that he was declared just by the amnesty of God’s mercy, but that his posture of genuine brokenness in prayer meant that God would be able to make him just. In using that word dikaio, Jesus’ parable implies that God was changing the tax collector’s heart so that he wouldn’t jump back into the exact same sins that made him beat his breast before God.
If nothing about the tax collector’s life were to change after saying that prayer, that would show his exhibition of humility to be a mere performance, thanking God that he’s “humble” and not like that arrogant Pharisee. In that case, the Pharisee would actually be the “more righteous one” for justifying himself boldly and openly, rather than cloaking his self-satisfaction in pious self-deprecation.
The reason the Pharisee was not justified is because he didn’t think he needed God’s mercy for anything. People who don’t see anything wrong with themselves have plateaued in their standards of holiness. For too many of us, “sin” refers to the things we thank God that we don’t do like other people whether these things look more like “immorality” on the one hand or “bigotry” on the other. Sin is anything I’m doing that keeps me from being absolutely intimate with the God who is both perfectly loving and truthful.
Whenever we pray, Jesus is standing before us like he stood before the blind man in Mark 10:51, asking, “What do you want me to do for you?” When Jesus asks me what I want Him to do for me, too often my answer is something like: Oh nothing, I just wanted to say aloud all the bad things I’ve done this week so I could get them off my chest and feel better about myself. I’ll see you next week when I come to confess the exact same sins again.
Chad Holtz, a United Methodist pastor whom God delivered from addiction, makes a distinction between being “sorry” and being “broken” that I think is very important to consider:
An unbroken person will still try to justify themselves. They will offer what seems to them a good reason for being who they are and for doing what they do. They will blame their history, their culture, their parents, their church, their spouse, their kids, their job, and on and on. They will continue to insist that they have some rights. They will name certain conditions before they will act.
While doing all of this they may very well say they are sorry. But being sorry is not the same as being broken. And being sorry makes you just, well, sorry.
God can’t and won’t do anything with a sorry person. But He will do miracles with a broken one.
Again, the point here is not to wallow in self-deprecation. It is to long for integrity and intimacy with God, to hate everything I do that separates me from God, and to join God in battle against my sin recognizing that He is my chariot. Apart from Christ, pursuing integrity in my life would be an unbearably dissonant cycle of self-hatred from which I would understandably tire and settle into complacent self-satisfaction. But in Christ, I discover my true self, and I stop trying to defend the dumb things that I do, because they are not me, but betrayals of who I really am.
So the question to ask ourselves is this. Do we really desire God’s mercy for ourselves or are we just saying that we do as a way of saying that we’re not like those Christians who don’t like mercy? Let us ache to be rid of everything except for the mercy that is an even greater joy to give than to receive. Much remains within me that blocks the perfect flow of agape love that God would like to instill. Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.