I keep coming back to this topic, because it keeps coming back to me. Perusing my old journals and listening to new preachers and spending way more time reading stuff on the Internet than is probably healthy, I keep seeing it. I keep being reminded of all the things non-Christians are hearing Christians say to each other. And, because I still think like an unsaved person, I keep getting discouraged by it.
My favorite of the four Gospels is Luke. When I’m listening to an audio Bible, that’s the book I always turn to first. I haven’t really spent much time thinking about why, but one reason is definitely because it contains all my favorite parables, including the one about the Pharisee and the Publican (Luke 18:9-14).
Funny thing about that parable: It’s one of the shortest, but I can’t think of a time I’ve ever heard it in church or in a Bible study class.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m certain it’s been brought up in plenty of churches. Maybe even the ones I’ve belonged to, on days I wasn’t there. The thing is, it just feels like one of those passages we try to quietly gloss over because it makes us uncomfortable, and rightly so.
Because it’s so short, I’m just gonna copy and paste the whole thing:
The Pharisee and the Publican
And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others:
Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican.
The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican.
I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.
And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.
I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted. (KJV)
That’s it. That’s the entire parable. And even in the archaic language of the King James Version, the message is loud and clear: Quit puffing yourself up. STOP IT.
Context is vital when studying the Bible. We need to understand, not just the culture of the time and place in which these ancient books were written, but also the intended audience. Letters and conversations that were directed towards Jewish people will have a different meaning than passages written with new converts in mind, or people who were speaking to non-believers.
In the case of this little parable, Jesus, a Jew, was speaking to fellow Jews. These people knew who the Pharisees and publicans were. Short version: Publicans were tax collectors, also Jewish, but despised by other Jews. They were seen as collaborators with the Roman occupation, collecting Caesar’s taxes. Pharisees, by contrast, were big shots at the Temple, holy men who knew the Law of Moses backwards and forwards.
Jesus loved to flip people’s preconceived notions upside-down, and this parable was one of many that did just that. His Jewish audience heard the word “publican” and thought “scumbag,” whereas “Pharisee” denoted “good guy” in their minds. But here, Jesus turns the tables and portrays the tax collector as receiving God’s grace, while the holy man everyone looks up to gets shafted. Why?
Because congratulating yourself about being so much better than “that guy”?
Missing God’s point.
I hear too many comments about “those stupid evolutionists” or “that evil abortion doctor” or fill-in-the-blank sin of your choice. And I’m guilty, too. Look at me right now, griping about “those other Christians and their crappy attitude!” All of this applies to me as much as anyone else.
Romans 3:23 reminds us:
For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; (KJV)
This means me, for sure. And yeah, you. And 2 Peter 3:9 adds:
The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. (KJV)
Whenever I hear somebody railing against gays or atheists or Mormons or whoever the villain of the week is in Christian circles, I want to scream the second part of that verse. “Not willing that ANY should perish, but that AAAAALLLLLL should come to repentance!” I still don’t know how to do this without pissing people off.
We’re called to be light in a dark world. We can’t shed light if we’re too busy thanking God for not making us idiotic and sinful “like those people.” We were those people before he saved us. He loves those people, and he wants to save them too.