Stung Again by a Familiar Passage

When I was younger, I would see a tree and want to climb it. Now, a bit older I may consider the same tree useful to lean upon or as shade to rest. It’s interesting how our perspective changes with time.

I’ve noticed something similar now after 20-plus years of being a Christian. I come to familiar passages, and they strike me differently. Like a sturdy maple, the text presents itself to me in a different way. I realized this recently when reading Luke 18:9-15. The story is of a Pharisee and a tax collector. They both went to the temple to pray, and only one went home right with God. The surprise, of course, is that the contemptible tax collector was justified. It was he, the sinner, to whom we should look as an example. He was the humble one while the religious guy is proud, swollen with self-righteousness and self-deception.

Over the years I’d come to this familiar tree in God’s forest, and most often I’d gravitate toward the pertinent sinner. With a clenched fist he beat his chest and cried out to God for mercy. He was desperate. I too have gone hoarse crying for mercy. I can identify with him.

But recently I pulled into this familiar neighborhood of Scripture and was struck by the Pharisee. My face began to form and give shape as I peered into the mirror of the Word. Soon my reflection morphed into his. When I saw the man looking askance at the tax collector, I was cut. He had his perceived virtues on the tip of his tongue. He also had critiques of the other man at the ready. He dared to darken the door of the temple to pray while hauling behind him his trinkets of self-righteousness. And this is what got me: there is not a lack of religious activity among the self-righteous, just an absence of humility and self-awareness. This guy was all in. The problem was, he was all in on himself and down on everyone else (Luke 18:9).

There is not a lack of religious activity among the self-righteous, just an absence of humility and self-awareness.

I recently saw a boat in the harbor. Along the waterline, there were countless barnacles clinging to vessel. It had sat in the water for some time and acquired some accessories. As we sail about in the waters of discipleship we too begin to gain some works that cling to us—and we cling to them. Over time this seems inevitable. But, coming again to Luke 18, I am reminded that there is nothing for me to bring to God. There is nothing in me that merits my looking down on anyone else or looking boastfully upon myself. I’m reminded of what I heard one man say: I put all of my righteous deeds in a pile and all my unrighteous deeds in another, and fleeing them both, I cling to Christ. Clinging to Christ and him alone, there is sufficient righteousness for the unrighteous and the self-righteous.

Praise God for this living Word that serves as such a multi-faceted surgical tool on our hearts (Heb. 4:12).