Wednesday, September 16, 2015

There's No 'Good Guy' in God's Eyes

We're familiar with the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (a.k.a. tax collector) in Luke 18:9-14. These two men represent two ways that people can try to be made right with God. We know that.

Where's the Umpf!?

I wonder, though, whether the story has become so familiar that we forget how shocking and even offensive this story is to our naturally humanistic sensibilities. We miss the umpf! of the story because we 'know' that the Pharisee is the 'bad guy,' and the Publican is the 'good guy,' right? Nope! We've got it backwards!

Who was the Pharisee? He belonged to a fraternity called the Pharisees, which observed very strict rules about purity. Even though there were only about 6,000 of them during the time of Christ, they were massively influential in shaping the beliefs and practices of the people. Their strong nationalism and religious convictions earned the people's respect. The Pharisees were devout, disicplined, self-sacrificing, as far as human standards were concerned.

Now, who was the Publican? Tax collectors were Jews who worked as agents of the Roman Empire in collecting tax from the people of Israel. Typically, they got rich by forcing people to pay more taxes than necessary. In other words, they were opportunists, parasites that victimized their own people. As a rule, tax collectors were covetous, morally loose, ungodly men whose first priority in life was to please oneself.

So, who was the 'good man,' and who was the 'bad man'? Knowing the information above, I'd say the answer is obvious, just as it was to Jesus' hearers.

And that's why the parable is shocking!

What Made the Difference?

But there's one more thing we need to understand from this parable. Jesus was not exposing 'false ideas' people had of the Pharisee and the Publican, so much as He was exposing the hearers' own false ideas about righteousness and forgiveness.

The point is not that the Pharisee was not really 'good' and that the Publican wasn't so 'bad' after all.

The point is that neither of them were really good. When we realize how holy God is, and how sinful we are as fallen human beings, the differences between one sinner and the next becomes pretty much meaningless! (Rom 3:23)

So, what made the difference? One of them – and just to make a point, Jesus chose the worse of the two – realized his utter sinfulness. He was humbled before God. He came for sheer grace. The other one, though the better of the two, continued in his blindness. And before the holy God, his 'betterness' counted for nothing.

I end with a verse from one of my favorite Hymns, “Rock of Ages”. It's saturated with enough Christ-exalting, man-humbling truth to make any humanist cringe!

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