There are certain people in the Gospel that Scripture calls us to identify with; more often than not, the people that Christ exalts, forgives, and heals—both physically and spiritually—are not model citizens. They are not well-liked and are often relegated to the fringes of society. Some common examples come to mind: prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers. They are both people with whom Christ interacts and characters in his parables, and through both examples we learn how to become righteous and how to interact with God. It is these broken, dirty, unjust people to which Christ tends specifically, and they become models for all believers.
For example, in Luke 18 Christ tells the parable of the Pharisee and the publican. The first, an allegedly knowledgeable, righteous, religious leader; the second, an untrusted, widely disliked tax collector. Christ tells the parable as follows:
Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise 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, and he who humbles himself will be exalted. — Luke 18:10-14
It’s interesting that the Pharisee lists off the very types of people Christ spent so much time with as counter examples to his self-righteousness. But Christ teaches us through this parable that true righteousness is not achieved by surpassing others on the morality scale. We are called to be humble, like the tax collector. We must recognize our sin, and then we must also recognize our great need for God’s mercy, which he offers freely to all. As Psalm 51:19 reminds us,
A sacrifice to God is a broken spirit,
A broken and humbled heart God will not despise.
The parable of the tax collector teaches us that we are lost, but also that we are not without hope. This the Pharisee did not understand.
I think also of the thief on the cross who was crucified next to Christ. Luke 23 recounts:
Then one of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed Him, saying, ‘If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us.’ But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.’ — Luke 23:39-43
Again, we see the dichotomy of unrighteous and righteous, with the second thief gaining righteousness through his humility. Through such examples, Scripture teaches us that we ought to identify not with the self-righteous or those that society may exalt; but again, the point is not to be hopeless. Rather, we are to recognize our sinful state and approach God with humility to receive mercy and become sanctified. As my priest says every Sunday before communion: “With the fear of God, faith, and love, draw near.” The first thief did not understand.
I felt particularly convicted by these truths during one of the Holy Week services in the days leading up to Easter this year. It’s a well-known and saddening phenomenon that churches seem to fill up the closer we are to Christmas and Easter. I never see the church more full than I do at Good Friday and Easter. Praise God for a full church during such an important time for our faith, but it’s deceptively easy to fall into the mindset of the Pharisee from Christ’s parable. I may not be perfect, but at least I’m in church every Sunday. Similar thoughts crossed my mind as I noticed more and more people I did not recognize filling the pews. In such moments, I am no better than the prideful Publican or the scornful thief. I do not understand.
But it was one reading in particular that pierced my heart that week. A little ways into the service, I read the following words in my service book:
Let us present our senses pure to Christ, and as His friends, let us offer our souls to Him. Let us not, like Judas, choke ourselves with the concerns of this world, but from our innermost depths, let us cry out: ‘Our Father, in Heaven, deliver us from evil.’
In my experience, at least, I have not often been called to not be like Judas; beyond a basic understanding of Judas as evil, I’ve more or less discarded him from my thoughts. But these words abruptly reminded me how easy it is to be like Judas. I’ll be the first to admit that I “choke” myself “with the concerns of this world:” work-related stress, pining for worldly success and accomplishments, fretting over day-to-day struggles, and forgetting about God. It is not far from the truth to say that I often feel choked by such anxieties. I’d never before considered such things as similar to Judas’ sin, or considered myself similar to Judas in any way at all, and the comparison was almost shocking. Perhaps the underlying reminder is that it is through concerns of this world that Satan works himself into our hearts. Concerns like status and outward perfection (and who’s got higher church attendance), like those of the Pharisee. Rather, our concern should be for our souls and how we stand before God.
Our Father, deliver us from evil.
The service continues:
‘Be vigilant and pray, that you not be tempted;’ You, our God, were saying to Your Disciples; but the lawless Judas was unwilling to understand.
And so, this reading teaches another lesson about what we are called to be by reminding us who we are not to be—Judas. Reflecting on these lessons, I pray first for myself: Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, the sinner. Our Father, in Heaven, deliver us from evil. Lord, help me understand.