Not long ago, I had another encounter with a drunk man asking for money on the street, and this experience, like similar ones before it, was full of awkward silences and attempts at encouragement. The man grumbled something about “I know who did it,” and “You never know who’ll be in my house.” Not the type of talk normal for an unacquainted conversation. He looked down to his fist which clasped a couple of dollars and some change. “I just need a few dollars for a beer. That’s all I need.” Instead of seeing a man who was just as broken and sinful as myself, I saw moment to thank God for not being born like this man here. It’s quite amazing how quickly self-righteousness begins to stir. Like the spider sensing the tremble on his thread, or the snake hearing the slightest thump of a mouse, self-righteousness hears the smallest sin and threatens to strangle your heart.
And just as quickly as that self-righteousness rears its head, the Lord is gracious to ensure he is glorified, not ourselves. The man, with a broken-tooth smile, stepped forward and said, “I want to pray for y’all, let me pray for y’all.” But not quite as coherent. He stepped up, grabbed me around the back, and in the same mumbling, muttering voice he said, “Lord, you forgive us when we do wrong, and we ask you now for your mercy.” Debates could be had over whether this man was a believer or not, but one thing was sure: here was a more perfect picture of Grace abounding to the chief of sinners than I could ever conjure.
Reading Luke 18, I never got the sense that I could be the pharisee. In fact, the moral of the parable is to always be the tax-collector, right? Be careful of what you’re grateful for, always ask for mercy, always humble yourself. Seems like a pretty easy list. Very quickly after that, I see a pharisee emerge. The line between legalism and cheap-grace is a hair-breadth apart, and I often think that as I lean too much on one, a good recourse is a good hard over-correction onto the other side. To make a long point quick, it is only when I see Christ’s righteousness as my own do I begin to feel the freedom of the gospel.
Another World Is Possible
Artists and pastors and laymen and scholars have often talked about a brief moment where another world is opened to them. Similar to Orual in Till We Have Faces when she catches a glimpse of Psyche’s castle, and yet she refuses to acknowledge the truth of the matter. This was one of those moments. And the question for me now is, What do I do? When I think back on that man muttering those words, and remember that pull to run away on one side and to rejoice and praise God on the other, I can hardly believe that I have been called into grace. I can hardly believe that a pharisee such as myself has been given sight into the things of God. Still, that is the truth. And we praise God for it. We hold fast to the one who is the author and finisher of our faith: the one who was righteous when we were sinners, the one who died that we might live, the one who reigns that sin might fall.
There could be both some very beautiful and some very wrong theology (not one and the same, but separate strands) developed from this picture. It is not my goal to develop something which will most likely be very wrong. Rather, I want to encourage you. Christ died for you. And one day, he will return for those who are his, and those who are his might very well surprise us. May we all learn to say, “Have Mercy on me, a sinner.”