Perhaps one of the most overlooked parables of Jesus is the one about the Pharisee and the publican.
The Pharisee was living an impeccable life. Many years later, Paul the apostle told of a time when he was such a man, and of himself he could say, ‘As touching the law I was blameless’.
But isn’t it interesting that he counted such a life as ‘dung’ in the KJV, ‘garbage’ in the New Living Translation, and he went on, ‘Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Jesus Christ.’
For me, the power of that parable is that the publican, would not even lift up his head, but cried, ‘Lord, be merciful to me!’ He went home justified, while the ‘blameless’ one didn’t.
Why might that be? I think it’s because the Pharisee didn’t need, or could not acknowledge his need for mercy. In his eyes, God was pleased with him because he was blameless.
Isn’t that what the Master had in mind when he said, ‘The healthy have no need of me, they do not need a doctor. I have not come to call those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are not.’
So why, in organised religion, is there such an emphasis on the need for us to live squeaky clean lives? Well, I am not suggesting for a minute that we disregard the biblical injunctions to ‘...be holy, for I am holy’, but I am saying that if we take pride in our righteousness, or if we think we can please God by our blamelessness, then Christ died in vain.
Richard Rohr, author and preacher, calls it ‘the spirituality of imperfection.’ He puts it thus: ‘We grow spiritually much more by doing it wrong than by doing it right.’
Why is that? Because it is only by our realisation of our need of mercy that we come to know God.
There’s a painting by Rembrandt called, The Return of the Prodigal.
On his knees at his father’s feet, dirty clothes, dishevelled hair, one shoe missing, and yet in his father’s embrace. Standing with his back to the wall, looking at the scene with indignation, is the elder brother, but which of the two was justified?
The good news of the gospel is that God does not love us because we are good. He loves us because he is good. We have turned the good news into bad news; God will love us and bless us if we are acceptable to him on the basis of our goodness. But wasn’t it ‘while we were yet sinners that Christ died for us’?