We tell stories for lots of reasons. We tell them to educate our children, to sell products, to illustrate how things work, to explain human behaviors, to reprimand, instruct, and enlighten. Jesus, the Master Storyteller, obviously included some of those objectives in the stories He told, but their overriding purpose was to illustrate spiritual realities that are eternal, to reveal truths about the Kingdom of God that are irrevocable . . . and ultimately to bring the hearers to a point of decision. The tendency of watered-down, self-centered, mainstream Christianity in the western world has been to treat them as little more than a religious version of Aesop’s Fairy Tales. Our culturally indoctrinated approach to Jesus’ parables might be to see them as a series of little stories told to highlight and reinforce a few classic moral truisms, but the Son of God had much more than that in mind when He told them.
Just Hearing Was not Enough ~
Jesus didn’t want his audience to simply hear the stories He told. Just hearing the dialog, viewing the scenes, and considering the outcome from a detached, objective point of view would never be enough to accomplish His objective. Jesus wanted the story to descend on them and absorb them. He wanted the scenes, the dialog, and the action to capture their minds and transform their concept of how God saw them. His stories were designed to overlay their lives, and captivate them in a way that rendered them incapable of extricating themselves from personal involvement in the outcome.
Jesus always employed scenes, plots, devices, and actions that His audience could relate to. The settings were familiar to everyone, but that didn’t mean the climax was predictable. After all, He wasn’t laying out a template for a series of Hallmark movies. The outcomes and conclusions in Jesus’ stories were unexpected and sometimes downright shocking. As His stories unfolded, the wraps came off the superficial, hypocritical, and spiritually bankrupt religious system they labored under. They were shown a way for the burden it imposed on them to be lifted, and offered access to redemption, freedom from fear, and love they never knew existed. His stories were not just relevant and desperately needed for the day and time when He told them. They are as eternally relevant as the God who authored them, and the truth they convey is as applicable to us as it was to those who first heard them.
The Master Storyteller at Work ~
A tone of arrogance and narcissism seems to have permeated the land these days, and one of Jesus’ stories seems especially needed. Here’s the Master Storyteller at work:
Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9–14 NKJV)
Like many of Jesus’ parables, this story is brief, only 136 words. It wouldn’t even qualify for consideration as a devotional by many of today’s religious publishers, but as editors remind people like me, sometimes, less is more.
A Dramatic Contrast ~
There are only two characters and the contrast between them could not be clearer or more dramatic. Both of these guys were public figures, and everyone in Jesus’ audience knew them and their professional personas well. Pharisees in Jesus’ day were the religious elite. They not only memorized vast portions of the Torah, they dissected every sentence, analyzed every word, and scrutinized every jot and tittle of the Law and the prophets. They were the “self-appointed arbiters of righteousness”, and everyone knew it.
As far as public image was concerned, tax collectors were the polar opposites of Pharisees. Like virtually all of the tax collectors of His day, the man in Jesus’ story was a Jew who was hired by the Roman authorities to collect revenue for taxes, tolls, and other fees. Anything they could extort beyond the levied amount was theirs to keep. Thus, they were often more despised than the Romans who oppressed them. No two classes of people could have been a more accurate description of the best and the worst than the two characters in Jesus’ story. There are many lessons to be learned and much to be explored in this simple story, but let’s focus on one simple question … Who is more righteous than whom; i.e., which one is better than the other?
A Story for Our Time ~
This story is important whenever it’s told, but it’s an especially vital piece of truth for us right now. I could never have imagined that our country would be subjected to an organized, extensive, concentrated, and determined effort to turn people against one another like we see today. The Marxist strategies being employed are obvious and as always, the objective is to put everyone in some generalized class and turn us against one another. One class is pictured as extravagantly favored and the other as horribly oppressed. The oppressed must be energized to push back. We followers of Jesus must not allow ourselves to be drawn into this divisive and deceptive movement, and Jesus’ simple story unveils some basic truth that we all need to absorb and apply.
Let’s ask a few simple questions, like who’s the righteous one, who’s the repugnant reject, and where would we fit in the story? Perhaps we might say that we’re not really one or the other, but the question is not how we feel about it. The question is how does God see us and what is His response? Here are a few simple answers:
- Neither one was better than the other. Both men were flawed, unrighteous sinners, and no religious performances or acts of contrition could ever change that. Who’s better? God’s judgment is clear:
What then? Are we better than they? Not at all. For we have previously charged both Jews and Greeks that they are all under sin. As it is written:“There is none righteous, no, not one (Romans 3:9-10 NKJV)
- The Pharisee was proud of his exalted position and happy to point out the qualities that distinguished him from such social rejects as the tax collector:
Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time. (1 Peter 5:6 NKJV)
- Both men went home after their meeting with God but their status before Him was radically different. The tax collector, who had no religious performances to claim but cast himself on the mercy of God went home justified; i.e. accepted by God, while the Pharisee, who thought he had more than enough went home as condemned as he was when he came. As God declared through Paul,
…We have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified. (Galatians 2:16b NKJV)
Putting Ourselves in the Story ~
In light of the divisive manipulations going on all around us, we need to let the Spirit of God draw us into Jesus’ simple story. The Pharisee and the tax collector were social opposites, the best and the worst of Jesus’ day. But from God’s perspective, their social status didn’t matter. Both were lost sinners and neither was acceptable. None of the good deeds and empty rituals the Pharisee could ever do would justify a single sin. Neither would adopting a posture of humility alone help the tax collector.
The Pharisee had a lot to say, but his words gained him nothing. There were only seven words in the tax collector’s prayer, but the faith in his heart turned those few words into a “less is more” story with eternal implication. May God help us to embrace that tax collector’s faith, join in his plea, and discover a Less is More story of our own.
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- “Jesus didn’t want His audience to simply hear the stories He told. They were designed to overlay their lives and captivate them in a way that rendered them incapable of extricating themselves from personal involvement in the outcome.” @GallaghersPen (Click here to Tweet)
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