MICHAEL FEAZELL – Jesus once told an allegory (OK, a  parable) about two kinds of people who went to the temple to pray. One of them was Pharisee, and the other was a tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). Now, these days, 2000 years after Jesus told the story, we might be tempted to nod knowingly and say, “Yes, of course, the Pharisees were the self-righteous hypocrites, right?” Well, maybe, but let’s put that assessment aside for the moment and consider what Jesus’ listeners would have been thinking.

First, Pharisees were not thought of as hypocritical bad guys, as we “2000 years down the road Christians” tend to think of them. Pharisees were, as a matter of fact, the devoted careful, faithful religious minority of the Jews who were standing heartily in the breach against the growing tide of liberalism, compromise and syncretism with the Roman world with its pagan Greek culture. They called the people back to the law and committed themselves to faithfulness in obedience.

When the Pharisee in the story prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people,” he was not just whistling Dixie. It was true. His respect for the law was impeccable, and he and the Pharisee minority devoted themselves to keeping it in a world where its importance had become seriously eroded. He was not like other men, and he was not even taking credit for that –  he was thanking God that it was so.

Tax collectors, on the other hand, were notorious crooks – Jews who worked for the Roman occupation forces collecting tax revenues from their own people, and worse, men of few scruples who routinely inflated the bills for their own profit (compare Matthew 5:46). Those listening to Jesus’ story would have instantly pegged the Pharisee as a man of God — the white hat —  and the tax collector as the archetypal wicked man — the black hat.

But Jesus, as usual, was making an entirely unexpected point: God isn’t helped or hampered by who you are or what you’ve been up to; he forgives everybody, even the worst sinners. All we have to do is trust him. And equally as shocking, people who think they are more righteous than others (even with ample physical evidence of it) are still in their sins, not because God hasn’t forgiven them, but because they won’t receive what they don’t believe they need.

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