One of the most satisfying parts of any movie is when the bad guy gets what’s coming to him in the end. When Hans Gruber gets paid back for his crimes against innocent people in Die Hard, or when Thanos is put in his place by the heroes in The Avengers; or even when Gaston gets paid back in full for terrorizing Belle and trying to kill the innocent Beast in Beauty and the Beast. The trope of “bad guy gets what’s coming to him” is satisfying because, on some level, we all agree that bad behavior deserves to be punished.
And on the flip side, we also agree that good behavior deserves to be rewarded. When people work hard and do good, we expect and celebrate when good things happen to them. When you study for the test, you get the good grades. When you work hard and smart, you get the promotion. When you help others, somehow that good makes its way back to you.
Which is why this parable Jesus tells today should feel so wrong to us.
Now, over two millennia of telling this same parable, we’ve worn down the rough edges really well. Any time the gospels mention Pharisees, we instinctively label them the “bad guys,” and any time the gospels bring up tax collectors, we put them in the “good guy” box. They’ve become familiar reference points so we always know who we’re supposed to emulate and lift up, and who we’re supposed to assume the worst of. But that’s not really the case.
Look at what the Pharisee says in his prayer. He comes to the Temple to pray; he fasts twice a week; he gives a tenth of his income to the poor. This Pharisee was a good guy! He was the Sunday school teacher. He was the guy who was happy to fix his elderly neighbor’s broken porch. He was the guy who always rounded up the dollar at the grocery store to give to the children’s charity fund, always supported his local farmer’s market, and always diligently stepped up to chair the Lutefisk supper. As far as his actions went, this was the guy everyone admired.
But next to him was this tax collector. And tax collectors were unquestioningly bad guys. The tax collector was a traitor to his people, acting like a mob boss with a protection racket, extorting money out of his neighbors to line his own pockets and using Roman soldiers to enforce his arbitrary taxes. The tax collector was the insurance inspector who always denied your claim; he was the obnoxious patron who put a dollar tip for his fifty dollar meal; he was the guy who said he would help move furniture for the supper but never showed up. No one wanted to be him, and no one liked him.
When we think of the characters in this parable as they would have been perceived by Jesus’ original audience, we can start to get the really offensive nature of the gospel. If people get what they deserve—like they should—then the Pharisee who is the good churchgoer, who volunteers at the soup kitchen, who even helps old ladies across the street, would rightly be the one who is justified; and the tax collector who cheats on his forms, who lies to his neighbors about what they owe, who won’t even quit his job that he recognizes is sinful, wouldn’t.
But that’s exactly what God does.
So when Martin Luther reminded the Christian world of how God saves us by grace and not by works, this is part of the implication. If there is nothing that we can do to earn God’s grace, there’s also nothing we can do to dis-earn God’s grace. And that’s a super irresponsible way of dishing out salvation! I mean, what kind of fair God would decide to justify the unrighteous instead of the righteous? What kind of fair God would so level the playing field that my goodness is just as good as my neighbor’s wickedness to our chance at salvation?
It turns out God isn’t really that fair. Because a fair God would draw lines and put certain people on the outside of mercy—and coincidentally, I don’t think it’s inaccurate to say that we’d only consider it “fair” if God condemned the same people we did. But that’s not how God operates. God reaches far and wide with this blanket of mercy, lifting up those who think they’re too far gone to receive God’s grace, and reminding good people that mercy isn’t just for those who deserve it. In fact, God’s most frustrating quality is that God loves the people that you and I really don’t want to love.
That means God’s mercy extends to people like the tax collector. The people who have made a living off of exploiting others get God’s mercy. The people who lie and cheat and steal get God’s mercy too. The people who are so far on the wrong side of the line that we’ve drawn have God’s mercy extended to them. The people that, if it was up to us, would never get the chance to hear about God’s love because they are just so bad that there is no way we can imagine them being good.
And the reason is that God saves through grace and not works. No one can earn it, and no one can dis-earn it. Instead, it’s entirely up to God. Which also means that no one gets to look down on anyone else, or imagine that they can determine who’s in and who’s out. And that, really, is the one thing that the Pharisee did wrong.
Thanking God for the goodness that God empowered him to do was all well and good, but rather than simply sticking to that, the Pharisee had to go and look down on “other people,” like the tax collector. It’s a temptation we all face, to compare ourselves to one another. And when we think that our goodness somehow plays into our closeness to God, it becomes very easy to start reassuring ourselves and calming our anxiety by pointing out how other people aren’t doing the good that we’re doing.
Because we feel better when there are inside/outside distinctions. We don’t like to admit it, but we like being able to say we’re part of something that other people are not. We can be more certain that we’re in when we can point to who’s out. And like the Pharisee, we fall into the trap of trusting that there’s something we’ve done to get our place inside God’s mercy.
But instead, God calls us to see how the tax collector sees things. God calls on us to recognize that it’s nothing we can do that gets God’s mercy. Instead, we’re called to trust that what God has will be enough for us. We’re called to trust that God’s grace saves even when we can’t make our way out of sinful systems. We’re called to trust that when God promises us mercy, God will give us mercy. And then, when we can rest assured that it’s God who’s done all that’s necessary to save us, we can act.
So because we are saved, we can pray regularly. And because we’re justified, we can fast and tithe. And because we’re made right with God, we don’t have to get caught up on whether we’re good enough to be in or if others are bad enough to be out. Because God is gracious, we can focus on the real work that God calls us to—bringing the kingdom into the world. In the end, what justification by grace means is that this whole thing is not about you and me and what we’re doing—it’s about God.
Thanks be to God. Amen.