You likely are familiar with the mixer game where a famous person’s name is put on a tag on your back. You don’t know whose name it is, so you have to ask yes or no questions of others in the room, in order to figure it out. Let’s say we switch up the mixer. You go to a party and you have to take a nametag for yourself. And you have only two choices: “righteous” or “sinner.” Then you have to explain to others why you chose it. Which would you choose and why?
I doubt he picked it up in a party game, but the gospel author Luke is drawn to those two terms or categories as he writes. And when he says “sinner”, he tends to mean a big time one. And no doubt where Luke draws this from: Christ’s strong heart for sinners is unmistakable in his life and teachings.
This major theme in Luke might be termed “God’s Love for Sinners” or maybe, the “Gospel of Great Pardons.” Luke frequently focuses his attention on those who are outcasts of the day, like lepers, Samaritans, tax collectors, and yes, even women in general. For example, in Luke we read the powerful story of the lost or “prodigal” son and we read about the sinful woman who anoints the feet of Jesus with perfume and tears.
Along these lines, on Sunday we looked at a parable in Luke usually termed “the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.” If you did miss it, you can listen to it here… And given that it was the end of spring break for many, don’t be shy about tuning in.
What we saw in this simple but emotional parable were two men and their short prayers in the temple. One views himself as righteous, the other as a sinner. As a reader or listener you are strongly affected by the pride and arrogance of the Pharisee. He views himself as in right standing with God clearly based on his works, his careful following of the law. He is most certainly in good enough shape before God. He has no worries, only great pride.
But then you have the tax collector who “…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.’ He did not live a faithful upright life. Like tax collectors in his day he likely cheated his own Jewish people. But his brokenness is unmistaken. (Take a few moments and read the richness of Luke 18:11ff.)
Jesus probably doesn’t surprise us with the ending of the parable. But his listeners at the time were stunned. Jesus said it was the tax collector who went home justified before God. It was not the law-abiding Pharisee.
What we have seen in this parable is how essential true humility is and how important our ability to recognize our own sinfulness before a holy God. Indeed, author Philip Yancey notes, “The proof of spiritual maturity is not how pure you are, but awareness of your impurity.” And he goes on to powerfully assert, “we in the church have humility and contrition to offer the world, not a formula for success. Almost alone in our success-oriented society, we admit that we have failed, are failing, and always will fail.”
It might be interesting to try that nametag mixer at a party and hear the conversation. But regardless of whichever nametag you might have taken at the party and why, let us understand our utter dependence upon God and his goodness, not on our own. We can never ever be close to good enough. And let us pray honestly today, like the tax collector, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”