One of the really interesting things about working at a mission-sending agency is that I have an excuse to be a global citizen. I participate in international conference calls and read blogs from far-off lands. I love hearing about what God is up to all around the world. It does, however, tend to produce a curious side effect.
While I have gained a little more intellectual knowledge about the rest of the world, I still don’t have very much relational knowledge of all of these communities. So when I hear stories of aggression and corruption, or hard-heartedness and cynicism, more often than not, my response is to offer a silent prayer along the lines of, “God, why don’t you change these people? What’s wrong with them!”
A few weeks ago, Jesus brought to mind a story from Luke’s gospel that felt as though it were told with my very issues in mind:
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up 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, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)
Jesus is telling the quintessential good guy vs. bad guy tale. To a first century, Jewish audience, the Pharisee represented everything that was good. Pharisees were the most holy, the most devoted, the most obedient to the law, and as a result they had a lot of social standing.
Tax collectors, on the other hand, were the worst of the worst. They were seen as traitors; working directly for the Romans who had invaded and conquered Israel. They made their living by greedy and corrupt means, taxing their own people for everything they could get their hands on, and were absolutely despised for it. So when Jesus lined up the Pharisee side by side with the tax collector and then pronounced the tax collector justified before God, it would have been a total shocker.
While there is a lot going on in this parable, Jesus’ main point is pretty straightforward. Despite external appearances, there are only two types of people in the world: sinners who know that they need God’s grace and mercy, and sinners who think that other people need God’s grace and mercy.
The reality of my spiritual life is that on any given day I’m both the Pharisee and the tax collector. I know I can’t get to heaven based on my own righteousness and am totally, utterly, absolutely dependent on Christ’s work for me. But in my day-to-day living, sometimes even in the space of a few minutes, I swing back and forth between being a sinner saved by grace and the jerk who thinks his actions make him a little bit better than everyone else.
Every day, I murder fellow motorists in my heart for their poor driving. I look down on those who neglect to put their shopping carts back in the cart corral. I communicate contempt and disgust to my family when they fail according to my exacting standards. So I guess the more relevant question isn’t, “God why don’t you just change these people?” but “God, won’t you please change me?”
The real challenge of bringing the gospel into the world is that it has to keep entering your own heart first. And that’s true whether you are a missionary or a stay-at-home dad. It really isn’t possible to love people in the name of Jesus when you secretly think that they need His help more than you do.
Check out Patric Knaak’s new book, On Mission. It’s is one-of-a-kind travel devotional to help any Christian—young or old—process and remember the life-changing lessons learned on a mission trip.