One of the great dangers of the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18 is the likelihood that some will read it and think, “Aha! I know who those Pharisees are! I know those self-righteous folk! I’m so glad I’m not like them! I confess regularly, I suffer their offensive glances, their condemning words! Thank you God that I am not like them! I am one of those who will be exalted when the time comes!”
This isn’t a story about who gets “justified” in the end and who misses out. This isn’t about future rewards. It’s about knowing the joy of being in full relationship with the Father, and receiving fully His love and restoration. This is about knowing the joy of the Father in the present, not some distant future. Knowing what it is that God really wants for us, this is about how impoverished you and I are right now.
Jesus tells this parable to those who “trusted in themselves” and “regarded others with contempt.” Yes, these are folks you and I are likely to label “self-righteous,” but in doing that you and I fall into the very same trap! We regard the “self-righteous” with contempt, and so cut ourselves off from the blessing God desires to give us! No one can regard another with contempt except he or she think that it is by her/his own effort (trusting in themselves) that they are due the Father’s favor. Those who truly know His favor know better, and they have nothing but compassion for the other who has not yet learned this.
Jesus does not tell this parable to put those who trust in themselves under judgment, but because he desires that they recognize their poverty, and come to the Father for something better.
As I look at the Church today, I see so very few tax collectors, people who know their own blessedness, who rejoice in their “justification,” who know the joy that Paul knew when he said that he wanted to know only Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. That is to say, he wanted to know only the righteousness (another translation of the word sometimes translated justification) he gained through Jesus and His crucifixion.
Another way to say this is that, looking at the Church, I see so few who truly know their wretchedness, the “filthiness” of the “rags” of righteousness they wear (Isaiah 64:6) and in knowing this, become available to the righteousness that is theirs in Jesus. I can tell this because of the frustration and judgment so many of us (myself included) feel toward others in the church. We may know our own brokenness, but the others are worse! We may have sinned, but the self-righteous, they have to go home unjustified! One day, we might be exalted, those folks, they’ll be humbled! HA!
There is a prophet and missionary who works in Mozambique named Heidi Baker. One of her lessons to me has been a simple two word admonition, “GO LOWER!” If you are faced with condemnation, go lower. If you are faced with resistance, go lower. If you are threatened, go lower! If you seek blessing, go lower! To this lesson, I think she’d add, “If you seek to be justified, go lower!”
Heidi isn’t the least bit concerned with some future vindication/justification. She wants blessing now, for herself, for her ministry, for her friends, for her pastors, for her children (she has taken in thousands of African orphans). And she gets it. When she needs provision, when there seems no way to feed folks, she doesn’t presume on her own works (which are prodigious) but she makes claims on the Lord’s mercy. She admits her own inabilities, her own failings, and claims blessing based only on the love of God. She lives “in the dirt” (using her own phrase) and she’s the most joyful Christian you will ever meet. And the most victorious. She beats back the enemy time and time again, she sees the Lord’s victories over disease and even death, she sees countless conversions to Jesus from Islam, and she’s just the happiest, silliest “snockered” Christian you’d ever want to know.
Brothers and sisters, this joy isn’t just something you and I were meant to know in heaven. We can know the safety and security that the lowest know just by “going lower” ourselves. And God will meet us in those low places, and bless us, and then He’ll invite us to go lower, to give up more of our self-regard so that we might know even more of the power of His love.
And instead of judging our “self-righteous” friends, we’ll go running after them like joyful kids, saying, “Come with us! Come lower!”
Jeff Krantz is an Episcopal priest, and has been the rector of the Church of the Advent in Westbury, New York for 12 years. A lifelong Episcopalian, Jeff experienced a crisis of faith after his ordination that led him into a life-giving way of being in relationship to his “Father” that he now wants to share. His early email ministry, “Hearing His Voice,” grew into a soon-to-be released book by the same title. He leads retreats for men’s groups, parishes, and parish leadership groups. Jeff can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.