When Grace is Amazing
What is the most destructive activity to a church? To listen to the church’s rhetoric over the years, you would think that it was sexual sin. Now I don’t want to downplay that, as the Bible indeed describes that as serious. But the Bible talks just as much, if not more about the power of words, especially negative words. You would be amazed at how often the Bible talks about gossip, and in fact includes gossip with what we would consider the “serious” sins. And yet at most churches that I have ben a part of, gossip is openly tolerated and even considered normal.
I believe that gossip is one of the most destructive sins in the church. Most of the other sins that people commit are private and usually the church is completely unaware. But gossip within the church by definition is something that spreads within the church. It spreads like a cancer and it can kill a church.
I have thought about why people gossip. And when I say people, I include myself. I don’t believe that most people who gossip do it to be evil. They are not trying to hurt others and probably they are generally good people. So why do people gossip? I believe that gossip finds its root in personal insecurity. Think about it. Gossip is not about so-and-so is such a great person. Gossip is about pointing out and sharing the faults of another person. Gossip takes place when we are aware of our own faults and we try to make ourselves feel better by focusing on others. “At least I’m not as bad as that other person.” Even when we don’t go the whole way and gossip, we can feel a twinge of pride when a person we envy falls or makes a mistake.
The passage that we are looking at is not specifically about gossip. It is really about our relationship with God. But I believe that the principle found in this passage is toxic to the motivation that leads to gossip. Our relationship with God should shape how we treat other people as we will see in this passage.
Pharisee and the Tax Collector
We need to be careful when we look at passages about Pharisees in the New Testament. Many Christians see Pharisee as a synonym for hypocrite. Calling a person today a Pharisee would always be an insult. The truth is that there were good and bad Pharisees, just as there are of all people. In this particular parable, the Pharisee is the bad guy and the tax collector is the good guy. We wouldn’t go on to say that all tax collectors were good guys (they weren’t) and so we should say that all Pharisees are bad guys.
Jesus chose the characters in this parable carefully based on how they were respected in that culture. Rather than the negative views of Pharisees we have today, they were highly respected. Pharisees were people who took the Law seriously. They were known for being very careful to obey God’s commandments and for seeking a holy life. A Pharisee was someone the average Jew would look up to.
A tax collector was on the opposite end of the spectrum. The way the Romans collected taxes is that they hired people within the community. They would tell the tax collectors how much money was expected and anything collected over and above that would be their pay. Imagine if we had such a system here in Canada. Such people would not be very popular. For the Jews, they were particularly unpopular because they were seen as disloyal to their people and also greedy in the amount they collected. Tax collectors were probably less respected than prostitutes. A tax collector was someone the average Jew would look down upon.
Jesus asks us to imagine these two men coming to the temple to worship. The Pharisee begins by recounting all his religious activity and moral character. If you look carefully at all that the Pharisee says, he is doing some great things. There is no problem with being such an active religious person. But the Pharisee doesn’t just take pride in his personal piety, he compares himself favourably to the tax collector. He sees faith as a competition and the Pharisee is outperforming the tax collector by a long shot.
The tax collector doesn’t have the same sort of religious resume to offer to God. He was aware of his own shortcomings and had no chance of earning God’s acceptance or love. He threw himself on God’s mercy. Jesus in his typical way turns all expectations upside down. Even though society would see the Pharisee as the best, in God’s eyes it is the tax collector who was justified. This was a radical reversal.
What was the difference between the two men? Yes on one hand it is the difference between pride and humility. But it is much more than just personal characteristics. Underneath all of this is the difference in their understanding of how one pleases God. The Pharisee felt pride because he truly believed that God wanted exactly what he was doing. If you achieved enough religious milestones, God would be pleased and accepting. The tax collector had a different perspective. He knew he could not earn God’s love and so he threw himself on God’s mercy. He trusted in God’s grace. What is grace? Grace is when you don’t get what you deserve but get what you don’t deserve. The Pharisee didn’t see God in terms of grace and so he didn’t treat the tax collector with grace. For the Pharisee, grace was not part of the equation.
Grace and Grace
How we treat others is a reflection of how we understand God. So we need to ask, how does one enter into a relationship with God? I spent a number of years trying to earn God’s love. I had moved from atheism to theism but I was not yet a Christian. I wanted to be right with God so I started doing all the religious things that I could. I read large chunks of the Bible, not because I was hungry for God’s Word, but because I hoped God would notice and accept me. I cleaned up my life, gave up swearing and drinking. I did everything I could to make myself acceptable to God. But the harder I worked, the more discouraged I felt. It never felt as if it was enough. That is because it never was enough. Trying to earn God’s love is like trying to swim from Canada to England. It can’t be done.
But that doesn’t mean that there is no hope. There is plenty of hope because Christianity is built on grace and not effort. Remember that grace is getting what you don’t deserve. It comes from the same Greek word as gift. God welcomes us as an act of grace, his salvation is an undeserved gift. Being a Christian is sometimes described in the Bible as being adopted into God’s family. Our three youngest children are all adopted. We did not wait to see if they would be good enough or if they would perform a certain number of chores. We simply adopted them because we loved them. That is what God does for us.
But that doesn’t mean that works don’t matter. We shouldn’t hold onto this grace in such a way that we refuse to serve. Serving God is extremely important, but it is not the way we get adopted into God’s family. The things we do are a part of the way we express our love within the family. The other day, Justus was going to walk over to a convenience store to buy some snacks with his own money. As he was about to leave, he asked if I wanted a Diet Coke. He didn’t ask because I expect a certain amount of Diet Coke or else I will kick him out of the family. He did it because he loves me and wanted to bless me. It is the same with our relationship with God. We often speak of receiving blessings from God but did you know you can bless God as well? When we worship and seek to be holy and perform good deeds, we bless God. We should do these things because we love God not because we need to hit a certain standard of effort.
I said that grace is the foundation of Christianity. That refers to our relationship with God but also our relationship with others. How we see God shapes how we see people. If pleasing God is all about performance, than not only do we expect a standard for ourselves, we expect it for others. And when we don’t hit the standard, which we never will, we focus on the failings of others. We may not be great, but at least we are not as bad as that other person.
But what happens if we truly accept that God treats us with grace? Not just that we assent to the doctrine of grace but fully rely on the grace of God. How should that affect our relationships with others? The grace that we experience should spill out into the way we treat other people. God accepts me the way I am with all my faults. How can I reject another person because of their faults? Our relationship with God is never meant to be separated from other relationship with people. James observes, “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness.” (James 3:9) It doesn’t matter if we feel good when we talk about other people’s faults, it is not the way it is supposed to be. If we take God’s grace toward us seriously, then we better be prepared to treat other with grace in word and deed.
The worst thing we could do after reading this parable is stand boldly before God and say, “I thank you Lord that I’m not like this Pharisee.” A faith that is focused on comparing ourselves to others and rejoicing in their faults can never be right. Notice that the tax collector, in his humility, never commented on the Pharisee’s sinful pride.
There are two questions that we need to ask: 1) How do we see God and 2) How do we see other people. There are two options. One is that there is a standard to meet through human effort. We must be good enough for God and we should expect the people around us to meet that same standard. Or we rely upon the grace of God and in turn, show that same grace toward other people.
John Newton, who wrote the hymn Amazing Grace, said this near the end of his life, “Although my memory’s fading, I remember two things very clearly: I am a great sinner and Christ is a great Saviour.” The purpose of that statement was not to be overcome with personal sinfulness but to reach out and embrace the grace of God. May our attitude be the same.