As an opening question to the often overlooked parable of the Pharisee and the publican, Jesus asks “when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?” He then goes on to compare a self-righteous Pharisee, who thanked God that he was better than other men, to a publican (a tax collector) who pleaded with God to “be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:10-14). We are left to consider the great significance of the faith of a sinful man who seeks the mercy of Heaven.
For many Christian faiths – including Latter-day Saints – it is a troubling thought to imagine that we are so depraved. Yes, we recognize that the Lord is capable of saving us from our fallen and depraved condition. But we have no desire to dwell on our imperfect natures. Clearly we are better off enjoying the optimism of Christ’s “good news”. This parable, however, is a warning lest we deceive ourselves. Optimism is one thing, forgetting our dependence on Christ is something very different. When our optimism turns into self-justification – as evidenced by the Pharisee – it’s time to take a closer look at our faith. For this parable – shockingly – teaches us that the faith required for salvation is a faith that achingly recognizes our own unworthiness before God.
In this parable Jesus taught that the outwardly righteous Pharisee was not justified; whereas the humbled publican was. There is no statement indicating that the publican was really free of sin, or that he had only committed minor sins. We are left to conclude that he was, in fact, a sinner as he freely admitted. Nonetheless Jesus is clear in this particularly paradoxical case that, in the end, it is the humble that will be exalted.
And then, as if to answer Jesus’ initial question by implication, we ask ourselves how it is that a humble sinner has this kind of saving faith. And maybe more tellingly, we ask ourselves, how it is that a devoted religious man ended up lacking this faith.
It would seem that there is a particular kind of repentant self-abasement that wins the approval of Heaven? The self-possessed seem to lack this divine favor; whereas, the most disadvantaged among us often don’t. I am reminded of one line in my Grandmother’s favorite scripture: “And if men come unto me [meaning Christ] I will show unto them their weakness” (Ether 12: 27 – in the Book of Mormon). The scripture then goes on to show that weakness can lead to humility; which, when affected by Christian faith, can then lead to strength.
In both of these examples, it is our own deficiency and recognized dependence upon the grace of Christ that wins Heavenly favor. We seem to appreciate the comforting promises of God that come to those with faith. But this is a different sort of blessing. It is a promise that God will lead us to the point of failure if we are serious about following Him.
This is a doctrine that is noticeably sequestered (or frankly denied) in most Christian congregations these days. I suppose this is indicative of the spiritually shallow world we live in. And I find it somewhat unfortunate considering the fairly unambiguous statements about human depravity and sin that are present in both the New Testament and the Book of Mormon. Among the religious descendants of Calvin it ought to be much more apparent - because the Geneva reformer had so much to say about human failings. Following is a typical statement of his regarding depravity and improper desire (concupiscence):
“...our nature is not only destitute of all good, but is so fertile in all evils that it cannot remain inactive. Those who have called it concupiscence have used an expression not improper, if it were only added, which is far from being conceded by most persons, that everything in man, the understanding and will, the soul and body, is polluted and engrossed by this concupiscence; or, to express it more briefly, that man is of himself nothing else but concupiscence.”
Part of our misunderstanding stems from doctrinal history and the confusion surrounding the idea of depravity and free will. Augustine, in his zeal against Pelagius, made much about the works needed for salvation. And it was the hopelessness of ever being able to overcome human depravity with works that ultimately lead Luther to his understanding of faith alone (sola fide) as the way to salvation.
This is a complicated issue over which much ink (and blood) has been spilt. I do not intend to recapture this doctrinal history here (I am not well-enough read to do so). But I do want to point out that this simple parable of the Pharisee and the publican obviates so much of the confusion over this issue. In spite of centuries of controversy, this parable makes clear that a particular kind of faith is necessary. It is the kind of faith that accepts God the Father and recognizes how utterly dependent we are on His grace for our very existence. It is a faith that is humbled before the majesty of the Father and the Son.
And yet, this humility before God can (and has) been grossly misunderstood. Our total dependence upon Him can be considered in a number of ways. For some, this dependence has been seen as the dependence of a puppet on a puppeteer. For others it is the relationship of a creature and its creator. For Latter-day Saints, the relationship is more appropriately that between a child and a loving Father.
There are differences, of course. Children grow up and become less dependent upon their parents. While there is no indication that our dependence upon the Father or upon the Son will ever be less than it is now. This should be something we think about a bit more than we do. In our focus upon overcoming the world – of keeping the commandments and our covenants – we very often forget that we still stand helpless before God.
This can begin to sound like we are mere puppets in the hand of God. And, in fact, it’s easy to see why many bright thinkers have fallen into this trap. There is no easy line to draw between an exalted view of man and the depravity of the publican. And yet both views are correct. This seeming conflict helps explain why we are forever coming up short - and why the need to be ever watchful lest we allow pride to blind us from our sin.
In Shakespeare’s King Henry VIII, Cardinal Wolsey is forced to confront the grim reality of a lifetime of pride when his secretive scheming against the King, and even against the Pope himself, has finally been discovered. Says Wolsey:
Vain pomp and glory of this world, I hate ye:
I feel my heart new open'd. O! how wretched
Is that poor man that hangs on a prince's favours!
There is, betwixt that smile we would aspire to,
That sweet aspect of princes, and their ruin,
More pangs and fears than wars or women have;
And when he falls, he falls like Lucifer,
Never to hope again.
Hopefully, we have less to be worried about then conspiring against a king or a pope. But nowhere in scripture is there any indication that sinning against a high official is any less severe than sinning against our neighbor. The grim reality is that we are not capable of escaping the “wretched” world of our fallen existence. In fact, we can’t escape from it on any given day.
I know this sounds quite medieval – so contrary to our traditions of humanist emancipation. Our world has conveniently forgotten the sinful publican because he reminds us that happiness and sin cannot co-exist in the same soul. Our modern myth, on the other hand, is based on the fiction that they can.
We need Christ. He alone can make things right. He alone is the “High Priest of good things to come” (Hebrews 9:11). No, we never have been divine puppets. And we do have the potential of being like our Father in Heaven. Even so we are nothing without Him. Neither are we capable of anything at all without the mercy of Christ. We are so much more dependent on Them then we can possibly understand.
In the end, it takes faith to understand this. It sometimes takes a falling away from the light that is in Christ to recognize how much we need Him. But when we get to this point, it makes perfect sense that we would join the publican and beg for help – “again and again”. This, after all, is the kind of faith the Lord wants us to have.
Cardinal Wolsey’s soliloquy is found in Shakespeare’s King Henry VIII (Act III, Scene 2). The quote from Calvin is from his Institutes, Vol. I, Bk. II, Chap. 1, Para. 8 – cited in: The Five Points of Calvinism by Herman Hanko, Homer Hoeksema, and Gise J. Van Baren, 1976 (Reformed Free Publishing Association). For a masterful discussion of “again and again” see Craig Cardon’s talk in General Conference (of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – April, 2013).