An interesting conversation between two women occurred beside me at my super-secret restaurant hideout this past week. I was alone with a gift card, my phone, a chicken salad sandwich, and a desire to get a moment of solitude with some required reading materials.
You should know I don’t try to overhear anyone’s conversation. On the contrary, to avoid distractions of every kind, I prefer to sit as far from everyone else in the room as possible. And yet, you know the sort of dialogue to which I’m referring. No matter where you sit, one person is speaking with uncomfortable volume and animation—almost as if she craves the admiration of everyone within a ten-table radius. And the other person at her table isn’t saying a word, only bobbing her head in agreement with everything shared.
As it would go, the story she told was dreadful. She spoke of their mutual friend’s shortcomings in the worst ways, pinning this and that personal injury upon her, making her seem like a ruthlessly unfeeling villain. After a few minutes of unrestrained mockery, it became clear that the two conversing women were related, and the target of their ill-witted ire was also a family member. However, I couldn’t quite figure out the person’s exact location on the family tree. Nevertheless, so goes William Thackeray’s observation that if “a man’s character is to be abused, say what you will, there’s nobody like a relation to do the business.”
Amazingly disheartening. And vicious. I couldn’t imagine living in such a family.
If you recall, I began by calling the conversation interesting. I meant that. Nearly all the grievances described by the blustering woman (and heard by everyone else in the restaurant) occurred while serving together at their church. Fascinatingly, this woman was utterly ignorant of the Christian witness she was portraying. And the fact that a man wearing a clerical collar was sitting a few tables away betrayed her confidence in her behavior. She knew I was there. Usually when someone is misbehaving, so to speak, and a clergyman happens by, they tend to alter their behavior, if only to keep from embarrassment. They go from cussing about their neighbor to suddenly explaining how often they read their Bible. That happens in my presence quite often. Not this time. In fact, I think she was counting on my approval.
Firstly, I’ve learned over the years that people who speak about others this way are usually far more capable of the actual atrocities in any failing relationship. I’ve also learned that in the economy of offenses given and received, they always ensure the scales are tipped in their favor. In other words, their sins are never as horrific as those committed against them. They’re bad, but not that bad. In fact, they’re pretty good—much higher up the ladder of decency and deservedness than so many other wretches.
There’s a portion in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress that goes:
“He that is down needs fear no fall, he that is low no pride. He that is humble ever shall have God to be his guide.”
Saint Paul’s words concerning the truest depths of our guilt are Bunyan’s inspiration. He wrote, “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12). Of course, inspired by the Holy Spirit, Paul’s instruction is undoubtedly born from his Savior’s words, such as the Lord’s concluding remark to a parable about a wedding feast: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 14:11). Four short chapters later, Jesus would repeat this teaching word for word, once again demonstrating in unequivocally crisp detail what He meant by His preceding parable.
“To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 18:9-14).
I think what’s most interesting about this particular parable is the tax collector’s words. In English translations, he’s portrayed as humble, but it seems little more than humility that knows its sinfulness in a basic way. The English renders quite plainly, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” In the original Greek, it’s so much more than that. He doesn’t just call himself “a sinner” but refers to himself with the demonstrative definite article “τῷ,” which means he is calling himself what Paul called himself in 1 Timothy 1:15—the chief, the epitome, the sinner of all sinners. In other words, Jesus is portraying the tax collector as someone unconcerned with the sinfulness of everyone else in the room by comparison, preferring to take his place before God not as one of many but as the only one—and the worst one. No one is lower. No one is more horrible. No one is more deserving of God’s rightful wrath.
He is not a sinner. He is the sinner.
Jesus ends the parable so abruptly that it must have shocked His listeners. He didn’t describe a propitiating sacrifice, which would have been expected. He didn’t mention negotiations between the tax collector and God—that he would work harder to be a better person. Jesus simply describes the man as calling himself the worst sinner and then caps the parable by saying, “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God” (v. 14). A contrite confession born from faith was enough at this moment. Knowing his truest identity as a contemptible sinner, he asked God to give him something other than what he deserved, something he knew was relevant to God’s innermost character: mercy. And that’s what God gave him. The tax collector left God’s presence forgiven.
Bunyan’s words ring true. You cannot fall if you’re already as low as you can be. But you can be lifted. And for all who know their sins, as Jesus describes, God promises to be the One to do the lifting. Look to the cross. You’ll see the One who submitted Himself to depths far lower than any of us could imagine. That’s the mystery inherent to Paul’s words, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
I’ll never get my mind around what it means that Christ actually became Sin in my place. But I don’t have to understand it for it to be true. I believe it. That belief, established by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel, moves me to remember my place before Him. I was as low as is humanly and spiritually possible. He lifted me up. I was Sin through and through. He took my place in its dust. But then He went even lower, taking into Himself anything that Sin, Death, and hell could ever inflict. As He did this, He won my innocence before the Father. Humble repentance and faith receive this victory in its absolute fullness.
It’s much harder to pummel others for their crimes when we know this about ourselves.
I want you to know I did two things before I left the restaurant. First, I paid for the women’s meal. It wasn’t that much more than what I had left on the gift card. Second, I left a note for them. I wrote one thing on it: Luke 18:9-14. I don’t know if they read the text. I’m hoping my first gesture stirred them to at least consider it. If they do eventually read it, I don’t know if they’ll get the point. What I do know is that God’s Word is powerful. It has everything necessary for converting and convincing proud hearts. I also know that our reflection of the Gospel’s light before the world around us has muscle, too (Matthew 5:13-16). I hope they read the text, take a chance on what Christian humility truly is—what it means relative to Sin—and then beam that humble trust in Christ to others.