Archive for February, 2013

The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector

This post is a bit long. If you wish to skip the story behind the question that instigated this post, feel free to move down to the tweet that is embedded below and begin there.

Last night I went to be in the live audiance of The Late Debate, a local political radio talk show. I walked in a few minutes after the show started, and they were discussing gay “marriage”, which is a hot-button issue right now in Minnesota. (Last November, a ballot initiative to amend the state constitution to forever define marriage as between one man and one woman was defeated, and the Democrats took control of both houses of the legislature – already controlling the Governorship, and it’s presumed that they will pass a bill to redefine marriage to include same-sex couples).

As I walked in, their liberal guest, known to the Minnesota politcal world as “Two-Put Tommy” (Google it, I’d rather not reward him with a link), was in the middle of a screed against Christians, the primary opponents to the bill. He was chastizing Christians for cherry-picking the Biblical commands that they wish to “enforce” on everyone. His opinion seemed to be that homosexuality was only really discussed in the Old Testament, and the Old Testament (if I understand his thinking correctly) should have been made null and void by the New, which he asserts doesn’t address homosexuality.

When I got home, I posted a series of tweets addressing my frustration over such argumentation, which certainly isn’t unique to Tommy. It’s actually pretty much standard fare for non-Christians (or nominal Christians) who take issue with the moral views of Christians. There is nothing that frustrates me more about non-Christians than when they make Biblical arguments with Christians. It’s is extremely rare that they’ve ever actually read the Bible, and if they have they don’t make any effort to understand it in any meaningful way. Ask them what kind of Systematic Theology they subscribe to, or the Hermeneutical method they use to understand scripture and you’re likely to get a blank stare as an answer. Clearly they use the hostile Liberal media Hermeneutic of “it means what I think it means,” and their approach to Systematic Theology is similar.

Specifically what I proceeded to address in my Twitter posts was that there are actually three different forms of Law in the Bible: Civil, Ceremonial, and Moral. The Civil Law was their governmental law. It applied to that people at that time, in that place. It does not apply to anyone today, anywhere in the world, not even modern Israel.

The Ceremonial Law was their religious law. It involved things like animal sacrifice, dietary restrictions, and circumcision, among other things. That is what defined Judaism then, and still defines Judaism today. This is the Law that “went away” under the New Testament (it was always intended as a means of showing that we can’t acquire salvation on our own, we’re dependent upon the grace of God – Galatians 3:23-24).

The Moral Law is what Christians refer to in public discourse. The Moral Law applies to all people, at all times, and in all places. The foundation for the Moral Law is the Ten Commandments, though even they are divided in their application. The first tablet (commandments 1-5) reflect the nature of how man is to relate to God. If we’re going to talk about “separation of church and state”, these are the prerogative of the church. The second tablet (commandments 6-10) reflect the nature of how man is to relate to other men (I’m using “man” and “men” generically, of course, women are included). These commandments are: 6) Do not murder; 7) do not commit adultery; 8) do not steal; 9) do not lie; and 10) do not covet (often addressed in civil law under various conspiracy laws).

There is a lot more to be said on this, but my point is to set the stage to answer a question that was asked of me in response to my series of tweets. Jack Tomczak, one of the hosts of “The Late Debate”, and I have been following each other on Twitter for some time, and have conversed on many issues via Twitter. He takes issue with my understanding of morality and moral law (religiously he is a cultural Catholic, and politically he has strong Libertarian sympathies – we’re similar politically, but differ over issues like marriage). Jack subscribes to the main-stream Libertarian view on marriage that marriage is a religious rite and institution, and it would be better for the state to cease involvement in marriage altogether- stop issuing marriage licences and stop offering special benefits to married people such as tax credits. Because he sees it as a religious affair, he sees all arguments for the preservation of traditional marriage, and state recognition thereof as ultimately being religious in nature.

My view is that religion and morality have a lot of overlap, but morality is not necessarily religious in nature. Religious values are a subset of morality. Everything religious should be moral, but not everything dealing with morality is necessarily religious.

Because Jack doesn’t see homosexuality as immoral, and I do; coupled with his view of morality and religion being indistinguishable from each other, he asked the following question:

I think Jack meant Luke 18:9-14, which says, in the English Standard Version:

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.”

I can only presume that Jack is asking if I’m being a bit self-righteous in my views on homosexuality. I understand that thinking, but let me address it why that is not the case.

First of all, I’d like to point out that this is a parable. A lot of people have opinions on what parables are supposed to mean, but let me quote Jesus himself rather than giving my opinion. In Matthew 13, Jesus’ disciples ask him why he speaks in parables:

Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says:

   “You will indeed hear but never understand,
     and you will indeed see but never perceive.”
   For this people’s heart has grown dull,
     and with their ears they can barely hear,
     and their eyes they have closed,
   lest they should see with their eyes
     and hear with their ears
   and understand with their heart
     and hturn, and I would heal them.’

But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.

In other words, it was meant to be confusing. Also, those who do understand it do so not of themselves, but because God himself has gracefully given them understanding. I have no grounds to boast to Jack that I understand this parable while it seems that he does not.

The parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector is one that goes straight to the heart of the Gospel. The Pharisee represented a religious system that says “do x and you’ll be saved.” That runs antithetical to the Gospel, which says that you can’t do anything to be saved, your salvation is a gracious and unmerited gift from God.

I understand my own sin. Like every other Bible-believing Christian, I hate the sin that is in myself more than anything else in the world. I hate the sin in myself more than the sins of other people. I understand that because of my own sin, I am not righteous, and I deserve the judgment of God.

The people in my discussion with Jack, those who are irreligious, homosexual, and wish to marry, are not represented at all in this parable. The Pharisee is the religious institutional leadership who arrogantly believe that their position within the religious system makes them better than everyone else, and worthy of Heaven. The tax collector is the repentent sinner who knows that he’s got an appointment in God’s courtroom, where he’ll be found guilty and punished. He calls out to the Judge for mercy, which is what the Judge is looking for. The irreligious person isn’t in the parable at all. He just doesn’t care. He lives his life as he sees fit and doesn’t consider the consequences. He’s not up at the Temple praying as these two are, he’s down in his house fornicating with his neighbor’s daughter.

I’m the tax collector in that parable. Not only am I grateful for the unmerited salvation that I have been given through Jesus Christ, I want others to come to the same knowledge of salvation as well.

And Jack, I’d love to explain the Gospel in full to you sometime. Perhaps next time I am able to join the Late Debate crowd on a Friday evening, we can discuss it in more depth.