“Bad” Christians and their Good Savior

These are some things I started thinking about while writing this post. You can read the whole parable in context here.

The bookends to this parable are striking- Scripture tells us that Jesus addressed this parable to “some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else.” Jesus concludes by saying “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” So this is a parable aimed at teaching the self-righteous to be humble.

But who are the self-rghteous? After all, we’re all glad Jesus was able to love that tax collector, but what He really wants, and therefore what we should really strive to be, is obedient believers, right? Was that Pharisee really so far off what God wanted?

I mean, I know that to start off life with Jesus, I have to come to Him with empty hands. But after that, it’s time to get busy. It’s time to move forward, away from that initial dependency on Jesus into something else-namely, obedience. It’s great to acknowledge you’re a sinner in need of grace, but then, it’s pretty much time to stop sinning, right? To stop needing grace so much?

Jesus doesn’t make it nearly so easy on us. He turns this common narrative upside down when He says that the tax collector was justified, rather than the Pharisee. If He had said “Just like the Pharisee, or in addition to the Pharisee, this parable would be much more comfortable for us. But He doesn’t. Jesus stubbornly insists that the Pharisee wasn’t justified before God. This is scary as Hell, literally.

In Jesus’ mind, the tax collector was justified before God because he trusted God to have mercy on Him, amidst the hopelessness of ever making his sins right. The Pharisee wasn’t justified, because he “exalted himself.” What does that mean? In context, it means that he denied his need for God’s mercy-he denied his own sinfulness.

The same temptation can grip us. Many of the discipleship narratives we so readily and so often buy into are just like that of this Pharisee. Jesus said he prayed about himself. His prayer came down to thanking God for providing him with the means to not need God anymore. In fact, I think many of us love the Gospel so much because we mistakenly believe that it will do this for us. We come to recognize our need for something to be done about our sin, and we despair. When we encounter the Gospel we rejoice, because we think that in the Gospel, we have finally found the thing that will cure us of our need for the Gospel. But it doesn’t do that. It meets our need, but it doesn’t remove our need from us. Revelation tells us that the song we will sing for eternity in Heaven will come down to this: “Worthy is the Lamb Who was slain.” Even then, when all things are made right and we are no loner tormented by our own sins, the central focus of our worship will still be Jesus, precisely because He was slain for our sin.

In other words, God uses the sin in our lives to keep us focused on Jesus. The Pharisee wasn’t justified, because he wasn’t honest about his sin, and therefore saw no need to turn to God, and therefore didn’t. The tax collector had been brought to a place of honesty about his sin, and turned the only place he had left-to the mercy of God.

I’m not good at keeping me humble; but my sin is. Jesus seems to know this as well. A dear friend reminded me recently that Jesus will leave sin in my life for the specific purpose of showing me my own heart, and my own neediness. Sanctification is a process rather than a point for the specific reason that the Gospel only works for needy people, and I am eager to forget my neediness.

But God won’t let me, because as the Law exposes my sin, it breaks me open to the Gospel. My ongoing struggle with sin demolishes my hopes for my own righteousness, and leaves me with nothing to hold on to but the atoning mercy of Jesus. In short, it moves me from the attitude of the Pharisee to that of the tax collector. It tells me that true obedience isn’t merely a matter of outward acquiescence, rather it is an internal posture of honesty before God. It shows me that whether in my moments of extreme self-righteousness, or extreme outward sinfulness, I am equally unworthy. But that’s okay-because worthy is the Lamb.

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