You know when Scripture just sinks down into your soul a bit deeper than other times? I had one of those this week. Jesus' beautiful words recorded in Luke 18 have been on my mind a lot. Yesterday I took some time to work through the text and decided to write some reflections. I didn't expect this to turn out as a post, but here it is!
“To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
— Luke 18:9-12
To some who enjoyed making sinners feel rotten on the inside because they just want to look good on the outside, Jesus told this story:
Two people sat down beside one another at the Sunday night prayer gathering at church. What should have felt warm, welcoming, and inviting; much like a comfortable living room turned out to be quite the opposite on this evening.
The two people sitting next to each other couldn't have been more different. (Difference can make some people afraid. But for those who love people, difference is the icing on the cake of life).
One was a Sunday School teacher. He was wearing pleated khakis, a heavily starched shirt tucked in, and expensive brown leather shoes. He had a massive Bible with all the tabs for quick reference. The one sitting next to him was a 16-year-old punk rock kid with gauged earrings, a backward ballcap, and torn up Vans. The man sat down, looked over and said with a smirk on his face, "I see you're wearing your Mom's earrings. You gonna wear a bra and panties, too?" The boy didn't say anything.
The Sunday school teacher clearly did not like the boy with his skateboard under the pew. The skateboard was worn out. The boy had been practicing all afternoon. As the man looked around, he noticed certain people of color coming in and finding their seats moments before prayer was to begin. Laughing with one another, anyone could tell they were so happy to be there... together...knowing that Jesus was close by, ready to remind them of his love for them.
The man, grumbling inwardly to himself and then nearly talk-whispering out loud to God, his heart came bubbling up like Colorado water spring:
"God, I thank you that I’m not like those n*gg**s in Ferguson, those wetbac*** in Mexico, or those f*gg*ts in Seattle. I've heard the recent stories you know who and how she cheated on her husband. I'd never do anything like that. God, I’m so glad I'm a Sunday school teacher who has his act together.
As you know, I read Leviticus this morning in my One-year-Bible. Psssh...I bet half of these people in here can't even find Leviticus in the Bible. Anyways, the two things I enjoy most about my life have a whole lot to do with you. I gotta hand it to ya, you really do know how to make this country-boy happy. First, I make a lot of money from being religious. I can play the part so well. In fact, it's like I don't even have to try. Shoot, being a religious worker for you comes as natural to me as rebellion comes to these degenerates in here tonight. So thanks a lot for the cash. I like it. Second thing, Big Fella, people around here really need me. Where on earth would they be if it weren't for me? Heck, I'm happy to do my part. But just look at em. They ain't got a lick reverence to em. That's why one of my favorite things is talking about your justice for sinners. When they squirm, I know that I'm really getting through to em. Oh, and one last thing my Man, I'm so glad I'm not like this stupid kid next to me. I've heard about his grades, the fighting, and his anxiety. What's his problem, anyway, Lord?"
““But the tax collector 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.’
— Luke 18:13
The boy scooted over providing a good bit of space between the two of them. He could tell how unwelcome he was by the teacher. But he stayed anyway. He needed the man of sorrows, the burden-lifter, the one who pulls for the underdog. Sitting on the pew with his weary head in his hands, he closed his eyes...
"Abba," the boy said, "I know how screwed up I am. I hardly need this religious teacher to tell me how bad I’ve been. My grades are terrible, and I'm going to tutoring, but it's not working. And the fistfights I've gotten into were because I was afraid. I got tired of being bullied. I was the only 7th grader in the 8th grade Phys Ed class. How does that even happen? So I started hitting back. I feel rotten about the fact that long after the fight was over, I kept pounding on Cory's face and slamming his head into the pavement. I could've killed him. I’m really sorry. Please don’t give me what I deserve. I know I should go straight to hell and be lonely forever. I get it. That’s what sinners deserve for breaking your laws. Abba, I know the cross wasn't just for people like me. The cross was for me. Thank you."
“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God.
— Luke 18:14
Just then Jesus looked around at the snooty religious folks and said, do you know how my Abba responded to that boy? I'll bet you don't. You see, my Abba can't resist a broken heart. That night, the Almighty spoke to the boy's heart and said
"Good evening, little one. I'm so glad you're here with me. Listen, I don’t you to worry about the man sitting next to you. The only time he prays is when other people are around- which isn’t really praying. He’s pretending. Grumps like that send themselves to hell right here in church. He thinks I have a bone to pick with everyone. That's why he's lonely. He doesn't like himself. That's why he acts so ugly toward you. I need you to know that I forgive you. In fact, I forgave you before you got into this mess called 'sin.' One day you will enter into the joy of your Master, and I'll say to you, 'It is now time to climb trees, eat ice cream, and fall asleep in the sun. You're right where you belong! Welcome home.' For now, get good at sitting still and being present with Me, other people, and especially your own self. I like you, and I love you."
That night, the boy went home and slept in peace.