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All Christian History Church Development

The Power of a Story

Author: Charles Hegwood

There is power in a story. Stories can slip past our defenses and engage our hearts. In some ways, God designed us to engage with stories. It is no wonder that the gospel is presented as a grand story woven throughout all sixty-six books of the Bible. Jesus also loved to tell stories called parables. He used parables for a variety of reasons. Some of the parables were relatable to the culture. Others were only meant for His disciples to understand. And others were shock-factor parables, meant to expose sin in the listener’s hearts. Today let us look at one such parable. It is the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax collector. We see that God is merciful to those who come to Him in humility.

The Shock Factor

 In our modern culture, we lose much of the sting of this parable in Luke 18:9-14. If you grew up in the church setting you instinctively view the Pharisee as the ‘bad guy’ in every story. Even in the culture outside the church, the word Pharisee carries a negative connotation from years of Christian cultural impact. However, to Jesus’ audience, Pharisees were seen as the spiritual role models and the standard for whom God approves. In some ways, they were the highly esteemed spiritual rockstars of their day. Jesus, however, was not impressed. And that shocked the crowd. When Jesus then told a parable about a Pharisee and then contrasted him with a tax collector, it was jarring. They would have naturally picked the Pharisee to be justified. We must ask, why.

Shocking Characters

You see after the exiles returned to Jerusalem, they began to study the scriptures. The leaders realized that the reason they were exiled in the first place was because they disobeyed God’s commands. So, call it a slight overcorrection, but a group formed called Pharisees, who were determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past. They built fences of commands around God’s commands. And while their method missed the point of God’s Word, their hearts initially were in the right spot. However, over time the added rules became more important than God’s law. Their laws became a burden that God never asked His people to carry. By the time of Jesus, many Pharisees, though not all, had become arrogant and proud of their perceived ‘spirituality’.

By contrast, tax collectors were some of the lowest in the social order. The tax collectors were often placed below ‘sinners and prostitutes.’ They were seen as traitors for giving their countrymen’s money to Rome. They were also thought of as cheats, taking more than their fair share of tax money. So they were social outcasts. How could a tax collector even pray? And if he did, how would God listen? And yet we have this parable where the tax collector is justified over the Pharisee. They asked the same question we should be asking, “why would God listen to the prayer of the tax collector over the prayer of the Pharisee?”

The Heart of a Worshiper

Jesus was addressing a crowd, who as Luke stated trusted in themselves for righteousness. This context clue is key to understanding the ‘why’ of the parable. Jesus is telling the people and us what kind of heart a true worshiper of God must have. And we quickly see that job and behavior have nothing to do with it. I find this intriguing as a story. Back in the first century people were doing the same thing we still do today. We find ourselves trusting in our job status and morality. You may call it human nature, but Jesus called it sin. If you are trusting in your righteousness you are not worshiping God. The shock in this story sneaks past our defenses and self-righteousness and confronts us with the brutal truth.

We can dress well, say the right things, and show up to church every time the doors are opened, but none of these things will save us. If you trust in those things, you will find that the sin of arrogance and pride are quick to follow. The Pharisee is doing all the right things in life. He is somewhat generous, he is moral from an outside standpoint, he fasted twice a week, and gave the tithe. He was dedicated to His religious life. You would see him and think he is good and that God is with him. However, Jesus’ story has the Pharisees praying a prideful prayer. He trusted in all of those things to justify himself before God. While actions are important Jesus is saying that our ‘good works’ must come from a humble heart. We are justified through Christ’s blood as we seek God with humility.

Unlike the Pharisee, the tax collector does not even go into the temple. He would not even lift his eyes to God. He knew that he was a sinner and felt the weight of that sin. He felt the weight of shame that sin brings. And yet he was undeterred. He called out to God. It was not a flattering prayer, but it was a heartfelt and passionate prayer. He knew he could do nothing to redeem his state. So he called for the mercy of God. According to Jesus, and the shock of the crowd, God justifies the humble prayer of the tax collector because his heart humbly sought after God.

Bridge it

Now, this story has slipped by our defenses. We are face to face with a raw mirror image of our spiritual state. Maybe we see the Pharisee looking back at us. We know we must respond by crying for God’s mercy. When I see the Pharisee looking back at me, I become the tax collector calling for God’s mercy and forgiveness. If you see the tax collector staring back, what do you do? You do just what the tax collector did. Call to God for mercy. God seeks the heart that is humble before Him. Trusting in Him alone for grace, mercy, and hope. Stare into the mirror of scripture through this story today and have a humble heart. God seeks such people.

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