Justification: a parable of the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector

By John McKinley Dec. 9, 2011 6:00 a.m. Spiritual Formation, Theology

Two college students, Marc and Sue, sit together in the church on a Saturday evening service. It’s time to observe communion today. The pastor speaks slowly. “Let’s take a few moments to reflect on where we are with God and one another. Paul instructed the church at Corinth to examine themselves when they participated in the Lord’s Supper.” This invitation cast Marc into his memories of the past month. Like signs planted along a road that he drove along quickly, sins flashed to mind in rapid succession. Three weeks ago, he’d borrowed his roommate’s research paper from a geography class the semester before. Marc used the paper to write his own version for the same class this semester. He told himself that he was still learning by doing it, so it wasn’t really cheating.

Every day this month, Marc was still finding ways—almost as a game—to secretly check out pictures on the internet. Part of the thrill was the sexual charge it gave him, and part of the game was keeping his computer wiped of any signs that he’d indulged in an old habit. Marc had promised his girlfriend he’d never look at such things. That was a condition before she would date him. But, one month ago, he was bored and wandered his way back there after spending three months away.

Sitting in the church service, with his eyes shut, Marc saw more signs of his sins blur past him. Things he’d told himself were not wrong now appeared to him, unmasked, and they overwhelmed him with guilt. He felt despicable like never before. He thought about getting up and walking out, because he knew he was dirty, and he thought he was a desecration to stand before Jesus Christ and His Supper.

Marc opened his eyes while looking down. The Bible was still open across his legs, turned to the page where the pastor had preached his message for the evening. Marc hadn’t listened, but one sentence on the page caught his eye now. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24 ESV). He read it again and again slowly, staring in disbelief. He’d been a Christian for so long, all his life, but here he was seeing this verse as for the first time. Deep in his heart, he knew it was true of him, right now. Jesus had carried Marc’s sins on the cross. God gripped him now, and Marc felt all his regret and was reminded that all here was undeserved gift. God had saved him from all his sins, and Marc had done nothing for it.

Marc felt God’s hand upon him, weighty like a thick blanket, and he knew that God accepted him for Christ’s sake. Marc hungered inwardly for Christ’s power to live to righteousness as the verse said. He despaired of ever resisting any of his temptations, and clung to one thing only. God’s outstretched hand was power and acceptance for Christ’s sake. Marc belonged to God. In a whirl that made him dizzy while sat still in the church, the whole ritual of communion was an invitation by which Marc felt beckoned to live by new power. Jesus offered himself here as true food and drink, the stuff of new life.

Marc sank deeper into prayer from the center of his heart and said, “God, thank you for saving me and covering all my sin. Build me into a whole person who lives every day by Your power instead of feeding myself just my sins.”

At the pastor’s instruction, Marc took the piece of bread and the sip of juice, imagining them as symbols of Christ’s life truly present in him for righteousness, and assuring him of eternal belonging to God’s family. “God, you are merciful to us,” prayed the pastor. Marc echoed this in his heart, “Yes, God, you have been merciful to me especially.”

Next to him, Sue was bored. She thought she was supposed to feel guilty at this time, and repent of her sins. She’d always had trouble recalling anything she felt guilty about. She’d done well at having a quiet time every day to read the Bible and pray. She was a good student, keeping up with her class assignments and planning her time to be ready for major projects and exams without having to go into a frenzied panic. At church, she gave lots of time to serve in the nursery. She’d never been drunk or taken drugs, gotten a speeding ticket, or disobeyed her parents. Sue had never even kissed her boyfriend or any boy, because she was saving herself for marriage.

There were some things she thought she could do better at. Some times Sue told her roommates she couldn’t spend time with them because she had to study, but she knew at the time that it wasn’t strictly true. If anything, Sue was guilty of over studying. The real reason was that Sue didn’t like having to listen to her roommates complain about their dating woes, how another jerk had dumped one of them, and why they couldn’t seem to find the right guy. It was hard for Sue not to remind them that the way they dressed and acted on dates advertised a lot more sexually than the girls really wanted to do. But they never listened to her, Miss Pure and Perfect.

So she felt bad that she didn’t want to spend time with her roommates, and prayed that God would help her be more loving. She knew she’d just have to try harder to ignore all the things about them that bothered her. Sue smiled to herself. She knew she had done well so far as a Christian. She didn’t notice the parallel, but her feelings about herself as a Christian were no different from the satisfaction she felt at getting a new car from her parents when she graduated from high school. “We’re very proud of all you’ve accomplished and how you’ve been so responsible to obey what we’ve told you,” said her father. And she knew God was proud of her too, but then, here she was, feeling bored, wanting to get on with the rest of her evening. There was a movie she had wanted to see, and Marc was going with her tonight, if the church service ended in time.

She dutifully ate the bread and splashed the grape juice into her mouth. The matzo bread always threatened to choke her a bit because it was dry in her throat, and she needed a real drink to get it down. Sue closed her eyes while the pastor prayed yet again (!); she visualized the drinking fountain that she’d stop at on her way out the door.

She glanced at Marc when a quick hand movement had caught her eye. It seemed as though he had brushed away a tear. That was strange, Sue had never known him to be emotional at church. That even made her a bit uncomfortable. She had to marry someone who would be a spiritual leader for her. She’d hoped Marc could step it up, but maybe she’d have to find someone else.

Marc was sitting again while a closing song ended the service. The nearness of God to him was like a pressure at the center of his chest, pulling at him and propelling him with the challenge of a whole new way of living. He was meditative, peaceful, and resting in this deep sense of gratitude that he’d never known before. One day at a time, things would be different for him now. Marc felt as never before that he had something to live for—he belonged to God. He wanted to live with God. It made him feel dizzy.

“Look, if we hurry we can still make it, but I need to get a drink,” said Sue, jarring him with her whisper close to his ear. Marc blinked several times and stiffened until he remembered there were other people around, that he wasn’t just alone with God.

“Oh… yeah,” he spoke slowly, “but I don’t care if we miss it.” He had no interest in the movie, but it would give him time to think. He needed time to adjust, because things in Marc’s life were going to be different now. He was finished with trying to make something of his life. He had begun to realize that he belonged to someone. God had paid for him. And God was near to him. 

Comments

  • Joe Hellerman Feb. 21, 2012 at 11:03 AM

    McKinley, this is very moving and well done!

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