Luke 18:9-14: “Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised everybody else. Two men went up to the temple to pray: one, a Pharisee, the other, a tax collector. The Pharisee stood apart by himself and prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like others who are, greedy, unjust, adulterers – and I thank you especially that I am not like this tax collector. I fast two days every week and I give you a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector stood a long way off and would not even raise his eyes to heaven. Instead, he beat on his breast and said, ‘O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.’ I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other: for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Now then. The first thing to get off the table is the notion that this parable is simply a lesson in the virtue of humility. It is not. It is an instruction in the futility of religion – in the idleness of the proposition that there is anything at all you can do to put yourself right with God. It is about the folly of even trying. The parable occurs after a series of illustrations of what Jesus means by faith, and it comes shortly before he announces, for the third time, that he will die and rise again. It is therefore not a recommendation to adopt a humble religious stance rather than a proud one; rather it is a warning to drop all religious stances – and all moral and ethical ones, too – when you try to grasp your justification before God. It is, in short, an exhortation to move on to the central point of the Gospel: faith in a God who raises the dead. That being the case, turn it around and look at it from God’s [view].
God is sitting there in the temple, busy holding creation in being – thinking it all into existence, concentrating on making the hairs on your head jump out of nothing, preserving the seat of my pants… And in come these two characters. The Pharisee walks straight over, pulls up a chair to God’s table, and whips out a pack of cards. He fans them, bridges them, does a couple of one-handed cuts and an accordion shuffle, slides the pack over to God, and says, “Cut. I’m in the middle of a winning streak.” And God looks at him with a sad smile, gently pushes the deck away, “Maybe you’re not. Maybe it just ran out.” So the Pharisee picks up the deck again and starts the game himself. “Acey-Ducey, okay?” And he deals God a two of fasting and a king of no adultery. And God says, “Look, I told you. Maybe this is not your game. I don’t want to take your money.”
“Oh, come on.” says the Pharisee, “How about seven-card stud, tens wild? I’ve been real lucky with tens wild lately.” And God looks a little annoyed and says, “Look, I meant it. Don’t play me. The odds here are always on my side. Besides, you haven’t even got a full deck. You’d be smarter to be like the guy over there who came in with you. He lost his cards before he got here. Why don’t you both just have a drink on the house and go home?”
Do you see now what Jesus is saying in this parable? He is saying that as far as the Pharisee’s ability to win a game of justification with God is concerned, he is no better off than the publican. As a matter of fact, the Pharisee is worse off; because while they’re both losers, the publican at least has the sense to recognize the fact and trust God’s offer of a free drink… What Jesus is saying in this parable is that no human goodness is good enough to pass… [God] will not take our cluttered life, as we hold it, into eternity. He will take only the clean emptiness of our death in the power of Jesus’ resurrection.
He condemns the Pharisee because he takes his stand on a life God cannot use; he commends the publican because he rests his case on a death that God can use. The fact, of course, is that they are both equally dead therefore both alike receivers of the gift of resurrection. But the trouble with the Pharisee is that for as long as he refuses to confess the first fact, he will simply be unable to believe the second. He will be justified in his death, but he will be so busy doing the bookkeeping on a life he cannot hold that he will never be able to enjoy himself. It’s just misery to try to keep count of what God is not longer counting. Your entries keep disappearing.
Now then. I trust you see that on the basis of the parable as told, God will not mend his divine ways any more than the publican did his wicked ones. He will do this week exactly what he did last: God, in short, will send him down to his house justified. The question is… do you like that? And the answer, of course, is that you do not. You gag on the unfairness of it. The rat is getting off free.
[But] Jesus came to raise the dead. Not to reform the reformable, not to improve the improvable… Let us make an end: as long as you are struggling like the Pharisee to be alive in your own eyes – and to the precise degree that your struggles are for what is holy, just, and good – you will resent the apparent indifference to your pains that God shows in making the effortlessness of death the touchstone of your justification. Only when you are finally able, with the publican, to admit that you are dead will you be able to stop balking at grace.
It is admittedly, a terrifying step. You will cry and kick and scream before you take it, because it means putting yourself out of the only game you know. For your comfort though… it will make you laugh out loud at how short the trip home was: it wasn’t a trip at all; you were already there.
Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment, pages 337-344.
2 Cor 1:9, 2 Cor 5:17-19, Col 3:3-4