Jesus was and is a Master Teacher. None has ever surpassed Him in His ability to communicate truths about the Kingdom of God and men’s relationship to the Creator (Himself). My recent Scripture memorization brought me to 2 passages in the Gospel of Luke. One of the things that I find so valuable about Scripture memorization is that it causes me to deeply contemplate and meditate on the passage I’m trying to memorize. I really need to understand the meaning of each word as I memorize. One of these passages I memorized was a historical event, and the other a parable. But both accounts present a contrast in how men relate to the Kingdom of God and the claims of Jesus Christ. The first one is the parable of the 2 men going to the temple to pray (from Luke 18:9-14):
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men–robbers, evildoers, adulterers–or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
The second passage is the historical account of Jesus being crucified between 2 criminals (Luke 23:39-43):
One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. ” Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”
I find it very instructive to look at each of the 2 men in these passages and see why it is that Jesus speaks favorably about or to one of them and is either condemning or silent about the other. In both of the stories, it appears that only one of the men is saved and the other is apparently not saved.
In the parable of the 2 men going up to pray, the first man – a Pharisee – was a deeply religious man. Certainly he would’ve been seen by those in his culture as righteous, law-abiding, and pious – a “spiritual giant”. The problem is in the way he prayed to God, which showed what was in his heart. Here is his prayer: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men–robbers, evildoers, adulterers–or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” By reading this short prayer, I think it is obvious that the Pharisee thinks he is a good person. I don’t see any acknowledgment of him being a sinner. I see no confession of sin, admission of guilt or repentance. In fact, it sounds like he’s recounting his spiritual résumé to God! If he were talking to a boss, it would sound like he’s getting ready to ask for a raise! He even compares himself with the tax collector to make himself look favorable. Why would a person like this even feel the need to have a Savior? He’s got it all together, and as far as he’s concerned, God is lucky to have him on His team.
Now the tax collector, on the other hand, is completely different – a picture of humility and repentance. Here is his prayer: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Short, simple and to the point. In one little sentence, he:
- Acknowledges he’s a sinner
- Acknowledges that he needs mercy, and because of #1, doesn’t deserve it
- Acknowledges that God is God and therefore has the power to extend him that mercy.
What a powerful prayer this tax collector prayed! This is the type of prayer that will always be answered in the affirmative! His prayer reminds me of the verse from the hymn “Rock of Ages”:
Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling
Naked come to Thee for dress, helpless look to Thee for grace
Foul, I to the fountain fly, wash me, Savior, or I die!
So, these are 2 opposite prayers – one from a person who, apparently doesn’t feel he needs a Savior, and another from someone who feels that all he needs is a Savior. And how does Jesus respond? He tells the hearers of this parable that the tax collector, which in the mind of the Jewish people of that time was considered a most vile sinner, he is the one that will go home justified before God! Now that would’ve been a shock for His hearers! So, the prideful religious guy is condemned and the humble and repentant sinner is shown mercy – that’s God’s heart and His way of looking at mankind.
The other account, where Jesus is being crucified (Luke 23:39-43), presents a different type of people. There are no “religious people” involved here. Just criminals. They are at the other end of the spectrum from the Pharisee. The Pharisee had religious pride, but these guys had no reason for pride. They were the low lives of society. One of these criminals had a good assessment of his situation – he knew the trouble he was in and why he was there. The other criminal just sounds like a cynical skeptic. He’s moments, hours or days from death, and yet is hurling insults at Jesus – his Creator and (potential) Savior. We know that he knows who Jesus is – purported to be the Christ, and so he’s demanding that Jesus perform a miracle (get them down from the cross) to prove who He is and help him out, though he is an undeserving criminal. But I like the sequence of things the other criminal says, which shows his heart:
But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. “
Several things are evident in reading what he said:
- He fears God – this is evident because of the way he asks the same question to the other criminal. This is ALWAYS a good place to be – fearing God. Proverbs 9:10 says “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom…”.
- He repents by saying “We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve”. That shows a true change of mind about his crimes. The other criminal only wants to get off scott-free! But this criminal knows that they are just getting what they deserve – nothing more, nothing less.
- He uses a logical argument to try to convince the other criminal! “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
- He does apologetics! Yes, he defends Jesus, by saying “this man has done nothing wrong”. So, he’s giving the other criminal a reason for the trust that he has in Jesus – His sinlessness. In John 8:46, Jesus had said “Which one of you convicts Me of sin?”, and the writer of Hebrews says “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet was without sin.”
- He acknowledges the Lordship and Deity of Jesus by acknowledging that He will be coming into His Kingdom.
- Finally he asks Jesus to save him. Romans 10:13 says “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” So, he’s acknowledging a few things:
- There is life after death
- Jesus has ultimate power and controls exactly who enters His kingdom.
- The same Jesus who is hanging on the cross next to him is the same Jesus who will come into His kingdom (i.e. He will be able to “remember” the criminal he was with in this historical account).
So, Jesus assures him that he will be with Him today in paradise. That validates the teaching of Titus 3:4-5a: “But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of His mercy.” This is in effect a validation of “death-bed conversion”. This is the same thing Jesus was teaching in Matthew 20:
The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard
1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard.
2 He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
3 “About the third hour he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing.
4 He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’
5 So they went. “He went out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour and did the same thing.
6 About the eleventh hour he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’
7 ” ‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. “He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’
8 “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’
9 “The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came and each received a denarius.
10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius.
11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner.
12 ‘These men who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’
13 “But he answered one of them, ‘Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius?
14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you.
15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
One day we will see the criminal who repented in heaven, along with many other criminals who’ve repented in prison, on death row or in life sentences! We’ll also meet many like the tax collector in heaven – like me – I’m like the tax collector! At a point in time, I acknowledged I was a sinner and asked God for mercy – I’m no different than the tax collector. At that very instant I “went home justified before God”. Praise God for His mercy! And let me learn a lesson from both the spiritually prideful Pharisee and cynical criminal. And also, let me never forget that no one is out of the reach of God’s grace – not even condemned criminals or the most vile of sinners that are “legal in the eyes of the government’s law”.