How great is it that we can go again to see the Braves play? With so many of last year’s lineup back and some fresh arms, the Braves have a great chance to go far this year. Wouldn’t it be so great to see Atlanta win the World Series again at last?
I love to experience baseball in the ballpark with family and friends. One time, however, I had to go to a Braves game alone. At the last minute no one was willing to try to get tickets downtown for this afternoon game that I really wanted to see.
So I went. I bought a ticket from a man who had an extra seat right next to him.
The game was an outstanding pitching duel, which went into extra innings. We enjoyed the game and finding out about one another. Late in the game, I had the opportunity to find out about his spiritual condition. Like many people in the South, he assumed that since he works hard at his job, doesn’t cheat anyone, and occasional shows up for church that he was okay in God’s eyes.
I told him the story that Jesus told to people in my new friend’s shoes. In Luke 18:9-14, the Lord described an account of two men who went to the temple to pray. One of the men would have been expected at the temple; he was a Pharisee. The Pharisees were the ultra-religious party of Jews that tried to outdo everyone in their religious activities.
The other man would have been a surprising sight to onlookers at the temple. He was a tax collector. Taxmen in those days were especially despised by Jewish society. They bought collection booths from the Roman government and kept all they could collect above what Rome required. They were often greedy extortionists, and were viewed as traitors to their nation.
The two men offered two prayers. The Pharisee thanked God that he was not “like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax gatherer.” He began by addressing God, but quickly moved to his true love, himself. He foolishly compared himself with others, especially the conveniently close by tax-gatherer.
He went on to extol his own virtues, “I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.” The Pharisee even went beyond the standards of the Law of God and he was quite proud of it. He came only slightly short of congratulating God for having such a wonderful servant.
Not far away the tax-gatherer also offered a prayer, but its contents were very different. He was not even willing to look up to heaven, and stood off in a remote place in the temple. He said, “God, be merciful to me the sinner.” He distinguished himself like the Pharisee, but his mark was that he was THE sinner.
Was the tax-gatherer a sinful man? Absolutely. But the key is that he realized his spiritual bankruptcy before God and humbly asked God for his just wrath to be satisfied. The tax-man came like the hymnwriter who said, “Nothing in my hand I bring, Simply to Thy cross I cling” (A. Toplady “Rock of Ages”).
The two men who offered two different prayers from two different heart attitudes experienced two different results. Jesus concluded his story by declaring, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other, for everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, but he who humbles himself shall be exalted” (Luke 18:14).
Even though the tax-gatherer was probably much more sinful than the Pharisee on the outside, Jesus declared the tax-gatherer to be righteous. God heard his plea for mercy and granted his request. Justification is God treating the sinner as if he was as righteous as Jesus Christ was. He is able to do that justly because he treated Jesus on the cross as if he had committed the sins of those who would believe in him.
I told my friend at the Braves game that the good news is that God is still offering that same mercy the tax-gatherer received. If he would recognize his spiritual poverty, the riches of God’s mercy and grace were available to him as well. We parted with him seriously considering his sinfulness and the need for God’s grace. I suggested that he read through the Gospel of John, asking God to help him see his spiritual need, and exactly who Jesus really is and what he did.
Perhaps you are in this story today. Have you come to feel your spiritual bankruptcy? Do you realize that your good works are never going to outweigh your sinfulness (even if they could, they would not cancel out all of your former sins)?
Are you pretty religious, thanking God for how great you are like that Pharisee? Or are you broken before God, recognizing that all of your religion won’t add up to righteousness in God’s eyes? Be like the tax collector, beg God for his mercy. Today, you can experience the same result as he experienced in Jesus’ story—justification before God.
Like I assured my friend, I will assure you as well, God delights in showing mercy to those who turn from their sins and seek him by faith. You can never earn God’s favor, but the offer of forgiveness is extended to you this very day. Will you receive what God offers you right now?
By John Crotts