Righteous as a Sinner

Rembrandt, St. Peter in Prison (1631), oil on panel, 59 x 48 cm, The Israel Museum, Jerusalem 

One of the best ministries I ever had was when I served as the brig chaplain in Camp Lejeune, NC. What the Navy and Marine Corps call a “brig,” the Army calls a “stockade” and everyone else, a jail. The inmates were all marines and sailors. After being arrested, they were stripped not only of their freedom but also of their pride. All of the masks were gone. There was no pretending, no playing games. The prayers I heard in that chapel behind bars were some of the most contrite and humble I have ever heard. Nothing sounds as beautiful as the song of a broken heart. Jesus too listed to prayers of sinners and found them beautiful. He must have done some eavesdropping at the Temple, listening to people pray. In Luke 18:9-14, he used the prayers of the unrighteous and the self-righteous to teach a lesson about the importance of humility. Only Luke records this parable; it is not in the other gospels.

Jesus told this story “unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous” (9). Most of us think we are righteous, at least when compare to another sort of people. Those people, you know, the ones who . . . fill in the blank. Well, in Jesus’ day the ones with the best reputation for piety were the Pharisees. That was before Jesus turned the word Pharisee into an insult. In the parable, a Pharisee stood at the Temple and thanked God that he “was not as the rest of men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican” (11). The “publican,” a tax collector, “standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes to heaven” (13a). Ancient Jews and early Christians usually prayed with outstretched arms and eyes lifted up. This man was not just praying with his head hanging down but he was also beating himself up, literally. As he beat his breast, he begged God, “Be merciful to me, a sinner!” (13b). By this point in the story, I imagine Jesus’ hearers shaking their heads and clicking their tongues. In a typically Christ-like Judo flip, Jesus gave them a punch line they were not expecting: “This man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone that exalteth himself shall be humbled; but he that humbleth himself shall be exalted” (14).

Jesus was put off by the self-righteous prayers of the Pharisee but encouraged by the repentant cries of the publican. I wish I could say I’m like Jesus, but I tend to identify more with good, religious people than sinners. And it’s been a long time since I’ve overheard people in church mixing hot tears with their petitions at the altar. But I have heard it before, behind the steal bars of an old military jail where the people in church knew they were sinners and were set free.

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