The Tax Collector with the Pharisee’s speech in his pocket

I wanted to quote an excerpt from a piece of writing by Robert Farrar Capon, a conservative Episcopal priest and prolific author, and a huge proponent of grace. I absolutely love the little stinger of a question at the end!

9 And He also told this parable to certain ones who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt:
10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee, and the other a tax-gatherer.
11 “The Pharisee stood and was praying thus to himself, ‘God, I thank Thee that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax-gatherer.
12 ‘I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’
13 “But the tax-gatherer, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’
14 “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, but he who humbles himself shall be exalted.”
(Luke 18:9-14, NASB).

Now you ask yourself a question. Do you like that parable? Of course, you don’t like it. The point is that it violates every sense you and I have about the fact that we really are basically doing fairly well. If only other people were as nice and considerate and as wonderful as we are, the world would be a better place to live in and God says, “No. That will not work.” It can’t be done that way. It can’t be done by people who think they are winners. It can only be done by people who are willing to admit they are losers and then who are willing to trust God in the death of their losing to do it for them, to deliver them the gift of a reconciliation with God.

Again, I ask you the question. Do you like that? Once again the answer is no you don’t like that because here is this terrible tax collector who is really a monstrous character and probably rubs salt in everybody’s wounds. He drives around in a stretch limo with a case of Chivas Regal in the back of the trunk and several very expensive call girls with him at all times. He has just been skimming the cream off his neighbor’s milk money. The point is that the Pharisee is no less dead than that dreadful character.

(I skipped part)

Now you ask yourself the question, do you like that version of the parable? Again, you still don’t like it. I’ll prove you don’t like it. Suppose the tax collector goes home justified. All right. You want me to bring him back a week later. So, I’ll bring him back. The first trip back, the first week after this original experience, will bring him back with no changes in his life. Same stretch limo, same girls in the back, same expensive scotch and he comes in and he goes through the same routine. He looks at his feet and says, “God, be merciful to me. I am no good.”

What will God say to him? Well, in the way Jesus told the parable, God will say the same thing this week He said the week before. He will say, “This man goes home justified because he admits he is dead.”

He didn’t tell him the first week, “You are justified but don’t do it again.” He said, “I have raised you from your death. You trust that. All right. Go in peace.”

The second week with no changes, the same thing. Do you like that version of the story? No. You don’t like that. The rat is getting away with murder. So I will do something else. I’ll give you a second version. Bring him back yet the third week for another trip to the temple, but this week bring him back with some change in his life. That is what you are itching for me to say, I think, that you want me to say something that he really needs or change his way, mend his ways at least a little. All right.

So we bring him back the third week. We’ll bring him back. He is not driving a stretch limo. He is driving a Hyundai. He only has one girl in the car with him and he is drinking cheaper scotch and giving the difference to the Heart Fund.

Why would God listen to that list of two-bit improvements when He wouldn’t listen to the Pharisee’s list of really respectable virtues, a really solid citizen? The thing you have to ask yourself is, “Why are you itching to send the Publican, the tax collector, back with the Pharisee’s speech in his pocket?”

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