Re-Offending Taxmen and the Outrage of Grace

Here’s a zinger on the scandal of grace from Robert Farrar Capon’s Between Noon and […]

Matt Johnson / 4.24.12

Here’s a zinger on the scandal of grace from Robert Farrar Capon’s Between Noon and Three: Romance, Law, and the Outrage of Grace (pgs 161-163) – a book full of such zingers. Dr. Capon is commenting on the parable of the self-righteous Pharisee and the repentant Tax Collector from Luke 18:9-14. It’s a familiar parable and upon first glance, most of us would agree that self-justifying religious behavior is ugly, and that the humility of the tax-man is a virtue. But what if a swindling IRS worker came back into your church a month after a seemingly legit show of repentance with no personal reform to show for it? I don’t know about you, but I think I’d probably be hacked and my guess is, you would be too. Self-justification is intuitive and it runs deep. A repeat offending tax-man should get a stern talking to while the religiously faithful should get an honorary plaque under some stained glass. Of course, grace is a little more counter-intuive and unfair than that.

beatles-taxman-ep…while we sometimes catch a glimpse of it, our love of justification by works is so profound that, at the first opportunity, we run from the strange light of grace straight back to the familiar darkness of the law.

You don’t believe me? I’ll prove it to you: The publican goes “down to his house justified rather than the other.” Well and good, you say. Yes indeed.  But let me follow him now in your mind’s eye as he goes through the ensuing week and comes once again to the temple to pray. What is it you want to see him doing in those intervening days? What does your moral sense tell you he ought at least to try to accomplish? Aren’t you itching, as his spiritual adviser, to urge him into another line of work—something maybe a little more upright than putting the arm on his fellow countrymen for fun and profit? In short, don’ t you feel compelled to insist upon at least a little reform?

To help you be as clear as you can about your feelings, let me set you two exercises. For the first, take him back to the temple one week later. And have him go back there with nothing in his life reformed: walk him in this week as he walked in last—after seven full days of skimming, wenching, and high-priced Scotch. Put him through the same routine: eyes down, breast smitten, God be merciful, and all that. Now, then. I trust you see that on the basis of the parable as told, God will not mend his divine ways any more than the publican did his wicked ones. God will do this week exactly what he did last because the publican is the same this week as he was last: he’s still dead, and he simply admits it. God, in short, will send him down to his house justified. The question in this first exercise is, do you like that? And the answer, of course is that you don’t. You gag on the unfairness of it. The rat is getting off free.

For the second exercise, therefore, take him back to the temple with at least some reform under his belt: no wenching this week, perhaps, or drinking cheaper Scotch and giving the difference to the Heart Fund. What do you think now? What is it that you want God to do with him? Question him about the extent to which he has mended his ways? Why? If God didn’t count the Pharisee’s impressive list, why should he bother with this two-bit one? Or do you want God to look on his heart, not on his list, and commend him for good intentions at least? Why? The point of the parable was that the publican confessed that he was dead, not that his heart was in the right place. Why are you so bent on destroying the story by sending the publican back with the Pharisee’s speech in his pocket?

The honest answer is that while you understand the thrust of the parable with your mind, your heart has a desperate need to believe its exact opposite. And so does mine. We all long to establish our identity by seeing ourselves as approved in other people’s eyes. We spend our days preening ourselves before the mirror of their opinion so we will not have to think about the nightmare of appearing before them naked and uncombed. And we hate this parable because it says plainly that it’s the nightmare which is the truth of our condition. We fear the publican’s acceptance because we know precisely what it means. It means that we’ll never be free until we are dead to the whole business of justifying ourselves. But since that business is our life, that means not until we are dead.

It is, admittedly, a terrifying step. You will cry and kick and scream before you take it, because it means putting yourself out of the only game you know. For your comfort though, I can tell you three things. First, it’s only a single step. Second, it’s not a step out of reality into nothing but a step from fiction into fact. And third, it will make you laugh out loud at how short the trip home was. It wasn’t a trip at all: you were already there.