In the parable Jesus told about the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, who do you think is the most surprising character? William Willimon argues that "The most surprising character in the parable is neither the Pharisee nor the tax collector. The shocking character here is God." As the story comes to its unexpected conclusion, Jesus unfolds for us another aspect of the often-surprising but always-marvellous grace of God. But in looking for the right emphasis in our approach to life and faith, we might learn from the mistakes of the Pharisee.
The first mistake is to think of faith in negative terms. A professor once told his students of one who did not do this and did not do that, nor the other thing. When he asked them if they thought that this was a Christian person, most said "yes." He then went on to indicate that he had been describing his dog!
The second mistake is to be content with the outward form of religion. As with the Pharisee, there may be the appearance of following rules, but the right motivation is not found in a set of rules. It is a matter of the spirit. We need God to light a fire in our soul. When faith takes root in our inner being, what we have and do is not a burden to be borne, but rather like wings to a bird.
The third mistake is for us to set ourselves up as judges between ourselves and other people. We may assume that Jesus is talking about others, but beware the Pharisee lurking within our own spirits! The fourth mistake is to imagine that all God requires of us is a personal piety understood in individualistic terms. 1st John 4 puts it rather bluntly: If we do not love our neighbour whom we have seen, we cannot love God whom we have not seen. If we want to receive mercy and forgiveness, then we must give it as well.
There is only one way our value is measured. It is not in how clever we are, or how good we are, but in how much we are loved; and “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son….” The right emphasis in our Christian Faith is the sheer grace of God that alone leads to a right relationship with God and therefore with other people. In other words, life quality follows relationship, and not the other way around. It is about the realisation that God does no love us because we are good, or bad, or busy. Rather, God loves us with no strings attached, and we are able to enter into this relationship built on grace when we come with the right attitude. Such an awareness is the starting point in the Christian pilgrimage of discovery and growth.
Clive W Ayre