We believe the doctrines and would die for them, but we don’t laugh much. Our faith is far too serious for that.

For instance, we teach, believe and articulate universal, radical depravity...but if we find any, we kick you out. We believe in sola Scriptura...but we spend a great deal of time explaining why the Bible doesn’t mean what it says. We believe in the doctrines of grace...but if you get out of line, God will break your legs and give you cancer (and of course, it will happen because he loves you).

We get theology, apologetics and exegesis...but we don’t get whimsy and often forget to laugh.

Grace isn’t a doctrine to be defended. It’s a hug that needs to be experienced. Frankly, if we got that, we would lighten up and laugh more.

What I want to do here is more whimsy than exposition. I trust that Jesus can use whimsy too as we look at the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector in Luke 18:9-14.

I’ve often wondered... What happened to those two guys after they left the temple?

In my mind’s eye, I’m there in the temple. I saw the two men praying. While I couldn’t hear all of what they said, I got the gist of it. Church is sometimes really boring, so at one point toward the end I slipped out the back to smoke my pipe and get some quiet (I’m the only smoker left in the church, so it’s very quiet).

As the service let out, I saw the elder who was praying. He walked right by me. He didn’t speak or acknowledge me and I got the feeling that he had more important things to do. But then the elder smelled my smoke. He stopped and turned around.

He said, “How could you, a Christian, engage in that filthy habit?”

“It’s easy. You get a good briar, fill it with fine aged tobacco, being careful not to pack it too tightly, and then you light it.”

“Very funny. What about your body, the temple of the Holy Spirit? What about your witness? And you call yourself a Christian...”

He then turned and walked away.

I had just decided that he was right and began to feel guilty when the other man I saw praying walked out of the church, saw me, and came in my direction. I was getting ready to say, “Okay, okay, I’m going to quit...” when to my surprise, he said, “That smells good. My grandfather smoked a pipe and the smell has some good memories for me.”

He introduced himself and we exchanged names. “You must be a visitor. Well, it’s good to have you here and I hope you come back.” Then he walked off humming a song. I’m not sure, but I think it was, “Jesus paid it all, all to him I owe, sin had left a crimson stain, he washed it white as snow.”

I kept attending that church over the next few years. I would see those two guys around occasionally. In fact, I was kind of curious, so I paid attention to the path of their lives.

One seemed to get better. The other seemed to get worse, at least for a while.

One of the interesting things about the Scripture and our heroes is the way God reveals the failure, sin and pain. Not only that. Those who are often seen as the most religious, committed and godly are not commended and sometimes even accused (Matthew 23).

Matthew 7:21-23 always troubles Christians: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”

So many say, “That scares me to death!” The fact that it scares you to death means that it doesn’t apply to you.

Jesus isn’t talking about working harder to do religious stuff so he will recognize you and not send you away. He’s talking about those who do all the right things, who are proud of it, and who think they don’t need Jesus, and his forgiveness and love.

If you know that nobody will love you like Jesus, nobody with forgive you the way he does, and nobody will accept you when you’re unacceptable to everybody else...he will never, ever, say to you, “I never knew you.”

Jesus will never leave you alone in the dark.

The elder in the story became quite famous and more religious. He didn’t have many friends—he was too busy doing God’s work. But he did remain faithful to the path of righteousness and committed himself to it. The sinner, on the other hand, didn’t get a whole lot better very quickly.

Jesus will never leave you alone in the dark.

What’s the difference? The righteous man was righteous and knew it. The sinner was a sinner and knew it. God’s favor was on the sinner. Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). Until you know you’re a sinner and sick, Jesus leaves the building.

Only people who are sinners and who know it are justified. The ones who are righteous and who know it aren’t. The sinner often went to the temple to ask for mercy. The elder went too...but mostly he just bragged.

One gave his money. The other gave himself.

The elder continued to be successful in his business and continued to be generous with the church. That was a good thing. Everybody told him how wonderful he was...and he knew it. The sinner didn’t have much money.

Do you remember the account in Acts 3:1-10? Peter and John went to the temple. There was a man there lame since birth. He made his living begging and managed to keep body and soul together. Peter said to the lame man, “Look at us.” The man looked up and Peter said, “I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!”

The sinner saw a lot of people dancing. There was just something about him—whether fixing the toilet in the church restroom, ushering in the worship services or just his encouragement—that made people feel good and thankful he was there.

One made me feel guilty. The other made me feel loved.

“The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Timothy 1:15).

Do you know why drunks hang out with other drunks? It’s so they won’t feel guilty. Do you know why gossips hang out with other gossips? It’s so they won’t feel guilty. Do you know why addicts hang out with other addicts? It’s so they won’t feel guilty. Do you know why thieves hang out with other thieves? It’s so they won’t feel guilty.

That’s one way not to feel guilty...at least for a while.

Let me tell you a better way. The church should be simply hanging out with people who have been and who know they could be there again and sometimes are drunks, gossips, addicts and thieves. We are people who know that there isn’t any sin of which we’re not capable.

Look for the broken, fearful and sinful, and invite them to church. The church is a place where wounds get healed.

One scared the spit out of pagans and made them angry. The other attracted people to Jesus.

Paul says, “Through us God spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved...” (2 Corinthians 2:14-15).

The sinner who prayed in the temple was like a blind man bringing other blind people to the temple...so they could see the way he now did.

***

Well, a few years later, I moved from Jerusalem to another city. Then one day on a visit back, I ran into the religious leader whose godliness and righteousness had defined him for so long.

Jesus loves arrogant and insufferable people too. I should know. I am one. So I was civil and asked him how he was doing. He said that he was tired. He told me about all the denominational committees he was a part of, the problems in the church, and the hard places where he was serving. Even as he talked, that spark of pride crept in and really irritated me.

Then I asked him about his family. He was strangely quiet. I decided not to pursue the subject, but I did say, “You know, if you had been a rebel all these years, had never worked for the church and had not even come to the church at all...Jesus would have loved you anyway.”

I expected anger, so I was really surprised when he started sobbing. I didn’t know what to say. Through his sobs, the righteous man said, “I’ve tried so hard and worked so long, and I’m so very empty and lonely.”

It may have been the wrong thing to do—he was not the huggable type—but I hugged him and let him cry.

I still didn’t know what to say, so I said it. “It’s going to be okay...it really is. Jesus knows your heart. Why don’t you go and ask the tax collector to show you how to dance?”

He smiled. (I don’t remember ever seeing him smile before.) Then he said, “Maybe...maybe I’ll do that.” And he walked away humming.

I’ve thought about those two guys a lot since that first day I saw them praying in the temple. I’ve decided that Jesus told us about the Pharisee so that no one would presume. And Jesus told us about the sinner so that no one would despair.

Read more from Steve Brown here