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Just as I am

Don’t you love a good story? Storytelling is a profound art. Music is also a vehicle through which stories get told, and the best of it travels with us in our hearts. Jimmy Buffett explains what he does by saying, “We entertainers get it. We are descended from the minstrels, the troubadours, the court jesters who existed to entertain. If the king came in from the battlefield, and he’d had a bad day — you’d better be funny!”

He is a musical storyteller. He knows how powerful that can be when done well. Jesus used inspired stories to teach us. A good story is clear and versatile. Jesus reaches into the everyday and pulls things out in front of us that will communicate in holy ways. 

What he left us here in Luke 18: 9-14 is a conversation about people who are too certain, and sometimes about all the wrong things. He often had a beef with the Pharisees, that much we know. Their job was to deal in certainties. What Jesus did in the Parables occasionally should leave cracks in some of the certainty we have. 

We are called to go into a world that God cares an awful lot about. That by necessity will ask of the Church and its people to also care about the world as God does. But do we? Some among us may prefer their certainties on pet issues over being faithful. Jesus told this parable and he wanted all those who trust in themselves to do so a little less. 

He wasn’t talking about appropriate self-confidence. He was talking about us being so certain we have God and the faith all figured out that our view of other people has been affected by that certainty. In their view, these other people were not as righteous or as committed, appeared not to be on the same level spiritually and didn’t have the same worth as they did. That is how many of those in the Church saw the poorer or more common people. I’m afraid that’s often still the case.

Life has so many detours. So many twists and turns. We can’t see around every corner. Here is the church we have and the world we live in. Here are the lives we have as individual believers. We’re never called to evaluate only by how many we have, how much we have, or who all we have. Instead, we are called to give away the hope that can be found in the good news of Jesus Christ.

The Pharisee and the Tax Collector come into the church. The Pharisee said, “I am thankful I’m not like that Tax Collector.” You know, there’s always a danger in praying with our eyes open and looking around at others. The Pharisee’s job was to make sure that things were kept right. That was what he was charged with doing. We’ve probably always been too hard on them. But what kind of prayer is that when you tell God that you aren’t like some other people, and you’ve got someone specific in mind? This is a problem in Jesus’ parable. 

At the same time, the Tax Collector here in Jesus’ parable was praying “afar off.” People being “afar off” is a literary technique that Luke used. The meaning here is that this Pharisee looked upon the Tax Collector and wondered why he even had to be in the same Temple with a person like that? He didn’t really know why he needed anyone else. He had become his own little god. 

Meanwhile, because of his self-awareness and humility, the Tax Collector was praying with his eyes relatively closed. Then, he beat his chest and cried out of his misery. He expressed his penitence at what he did to people that he knew was unjust. Maybe we should read the parables with our sympathy a little wider open, rather than our eyes, one preacher says. Because there are always Pharisees and tax collectors among us. 

I remind us on a regular basis that these parables aren’t real stories themselves. Then again, like so many stories that preachers tell, they are based on real life stories. So, we could do well to wonder how differently this parable might have gone if the Pharisee had invited the Tax Collector, saying “Come up here, sit next to me and let’s pray together.”

DR. CHARLES QUALLS is senior pastor at Franklin Baptist Church. Contact him at 757-562-5135.