In the course of some reading this afternoon in preparation for a blog post on Matthew 13, I read the following paragraphs from Capon’s wonderful book The Parables of the Kingdom.
These paragraphs speak to the untidy nature of the parables and strange nature of the God whose Kingdom is spoken of by Jesus. God, as it turns out, turns all of our notions about himself upside down and inside out. We do not get from him what we might expect, and he does not give to us as we might desire. Those who are first are last and those who are last are first.
It is this strange way of grace that keeps us anchored to him. It is his own strangeness that keeps us coming back to his well of grace. We know that even if all else fails, grace will not.
“In the eighteenth chapter of the Gospel of Luke, we find him addressing a group of people who are smugly content in their confidence that they are upstanding citizens—and who are convinced that anyone not exactly like themselves has no chance of making it into God’s guest register. So he tells them the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican. Note not only what an insulting story it is, but also how small the prospects are that his audience will ever be able to get past its details to its point. Far from being an illustrations that shines an understanding they already have on something they haven’t figured out, it is one that is guaranteed to pop every circuit break in their minds.
“God, Jesus informs them, is not the least bit interested in their wonderful lists of moral and religious accomplishments. Imagine the scene for a moment. You can almost hear the reaction forming in their minds: ‘What do you mean, God’s not interested? We have read the Scriptures—with particular attention to the commandments. We happen to know he is absolutely wild about fasting, tithing, and not committing adultery.’ But Jesus ignores them and presses the parable for all it’s worth. Not only is God going to take a dim view of all their high scores in the behaving competition; he is, in fact, going to bestow the gold medal on an out-and-out crook who just waltzes into the temple, stares at his shoelaces, and does nothing more than admit as much” (7).
So you can be reminded of what Jesus said that day and why Capon’s words are so important:
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody 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 up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”
“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.’
“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
The trouble with this parable is in the assumption that we know who Jesus is speaking to (‘those who were confident in their own righteousness’) and the assigning of roles. This is exactly what we must not do with this parable. It’s too easy to do so. It’s too easy to know exactly who is the publican and who is the sinner and the minute we start assigning roles we have ceased being a player (either a publican or a tax-collector) and started being the one who justifies one and not the other (i.e., God). It is only God who justifies and therefore only God who can assign roles.
Jesus didn’t tell this parable to us so that we would take it upon ourselves to assign roles. He told it to us so that we would recognize the grace of God. What is amazing is that the grace of God was available to both the publican and the tax-collector, but one understood it and the other did not. That is, the publican thought he deserved it because of all his righteous acts; the tax-collector did not even though he begged for it on the slim chance that there might be some for him.
Those who are warped by the grace of God get this, sort of. These are the ones who come before God singing ‘nothing in my hands I bring simply to the cross I cling.’ They recognize that they are broke, broken, and full of brokenness. They recognize that before God they are empty and need everything. These ones fall on their faces saying, “God what do you have for me?”
Those untouched by grace do not get it. They are the ones who come before God with a laundry list of their accomplishments and gifts and achievements talking out loud to God and saying, “God what can I give to you?” They have to do this because, as people who have everything already, there is nothing left for God to give them. They don’t need his grace because they don’t want it. They don’t want his grace because they don’t need it.
So God turns upside down and inside out notions of who he is and what his kingdom is like. It’s certainly nothing like we might expect. His is a kingdom where it is far better to be broke than it is to be fixed, far better to be empty than filled, far better to be the sinner than the righteous.
With each passing day, grace becomes more and more alive to those who are willing to cast all of their life on Jesus who can and does what we can’t and won’t. Grace. A sweet word. A sweet sound.