To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men–robbers, evildoers, adulterers–or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. (Luke 18:10-14)
It’s interesting that the Lord seemed to be in such direct conflict with the Pharisees. On several occasions strong indictments were verbally thrown back and forth between Jesus and what was arguably the largest and most influential religious- political party of the New Testament era. In the book of Matthew alone, we have three different accounts of the Lord becoming angry enough to resort to calling them a “brood of vipers.” Throughout the gospels we find the Pharisees accusing Jesus of being lackadaisical in his adherence to the law and critical of his association with those deemed simply as “sinners.” Clearly he was no less adamant in his scathing criticisms of their synthetic form of religion and egocentrically driven interpretation of godliness. The scriptures seem to indicate that Jesus was consistently at odds with those he viewed as being “confident in their own righteousness.”
In contrast, we see many examples of the Lord demonstrating what could be interpreted as some kind of reverse favoritism to those deemed socially unacceptable by the “good” people of his culture. So much so that he was given the label “a friend of sinners.” The cheating tax collectors, the drunkards, the prostitutes… these were the types of characters he was most often found hanging out with. But why? Was it really that the Pharisees and other religious leaders were so evil? These men had given their entire lives to uphold and enforce the very commands laid down by his Father. The level of moralistic purity required by their sect would put most of us to shame. Is it possible we’ve given the Pharisees more of a bad rap than they deserve? Remember, they were just doing what they knew to do. Accepting Christ as the fulfillment of the law and adopting the new covenant would require a major paradigm shift and a complete 180 in some deeply ingrained thought patterns.
In truth, we all struggle with an inborn desire to be right. Righteousness, in essence, is about being right. We want to believe that our right thinking, right words, and right behaviors somehow earn us the ability to judge ourselves and others accurately. But what’s even more concerning is that, at least on a subconscious level, we’re still prone to think that our relative level of “goodness” is what makes us right before God. It will always make more sense to us to have clear cut rules and guidelines to follow. The lifestyle of being Spirit led is not nearly as well defined or consistent as living by the law. But this is precisely why Paul spent so many verses trying to enlighten the early church on the practice of applying lots of grace to ourselves and others. This is also why Jesus gave us so many object lessons and practical examples of God’s unconditional love and acceptance during his short public tour.
When accused of associating with the riff raff in attendance at his tax collector buddy’s party, Jesus retorts, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Does this mean Jesus is somehow more interested in “bad” people? No, it means he just can’t do much with us when we can’t see our need for him. He was offended by the Pharisees because their rejection of him negated the very purpose of his coming to earth. Because of their overly generous assessment of their own righteousness they couldn’t see their Messiah when he was standing right in front of them. We are no less guilty. If we’re not careful with our judgments, or if we continue to allow the subjectivity of our own opinions to cloud our thinking, we can become just as deceived as the man in the above parable. “Oh they’re just operating in a religious spirit” we say. “Thank you God that I’m not like those religious types, Pharisees, hypocrites, tele-evangelists… you can fill in your own soapbox issues and pet peeves here.
My wife and I have always seemed to gravitate toward real people. More accurately, we like to be in relationship with people who allow us to be real. The older we get, and the more years we spend trying to serve as leaders in the local church, the more we’ve come to appreciate qualities like genuineness, sincerity, and transparency. I really enjoy the friendships I have with the crusty bunch of construction workers I spend a lot of my time with during the week. Most of these guys aren’t the church goin type. But the low level of pretense and their relatively high level of humility makes them very easy to be with. For the most part, they’re also very aware of their need for forgiveness and have proven more than willing to talk about a God who accepts them as they are.
Like many of us, the pain we’ve experienced in ministry has often come at the hands of people who needed to be “right” about some issue or situation. We call this the gunslinger mentality. When faced with disagreement, we sometimes think it necessary to step out into the street and make sure one of us goes home in a box. “I’m right, you’re wrong and that’s the end of it.” BANG! The biblical reality is that we all “see in part” and that apart from the grace of God we’re all up that proverbial creek without a paddle. Francis Schaffer calls this coming to God with “the empty hands of faith.” In other words, we have nothing to bring to our salvation or redemption. The Lord alone is our righteousness.
Put simply, the Lord is drawn to brokenness, contrition, and humility. Any form of spiritual pride or self righteous comparison propels us into opposition with an omnipotent being. Think about it, who would ever want to be God’s opponent? As soon as we began to lean on our own understanding or our goodness we dramatically lessen the positive effects that he wants to release into our lives. But when we’re vulnerable and in touch with our need for him, he is right there for us, ready to step in and do whatever he can to help. I for one would rather be real than be right. It usually takes a lot less effort to be real anyway.
Lord, please forgive us for the harsh judgments we’ve made against others. Help us get a deeper revelation about the work of the cross and how to apply it. We receive your grace. We choose to freely extend it to those who need it the most in our circle of relationships. Thanks for your patience with us. We love you.