Jesus is the greatest preacher of all time. He told stories and preached sermons the whole world needs to hear. The genius of Jesus is that he often preached one message with two punchlines. If you were confident of your own righteousness, you got law, but if you were not, you got grace.
Consider Jesus’ story of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9–14). Both men went to the temple to pray. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself. His prayer was a résumé. He thanked God that he was not like other men and bragged about his fasting and tithing. But the tax collector stood at a distance and prayed just seven words: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Jesus ends the story with a bombshell: “The tax collector went home justified before God.”
How does this parable make you feel? Does it fill you with joy or resentment?
Your response to the story is your response to the gospel. If you identify with the sinful tax collector, then this story is good news. Really? He went home justified? That’s the scandal of grace right there. God justifies sinners (Romans 4:5). Search the parable for evidence of the tax collector’s good works or merit, and you’ll find nothing. Grace is for the undeserving. It’s for those without résumés.
But if you are confident of your self-righteousness, this story is not good news at all. “Wait a second. I fast. I tithe. I am better than other people. Jesus, what are you saying?” Jesus doesn’t mince his words. “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled” (Luke 18:14). That’s a hard word for a hard heart. It’s a word that condemns the self-righteous and silences the boastful. It’s a word of law for those who don’t see their need for grace.
Jesus is brilliant at giving people exactly what they need. Consider the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11–32). Some people love this story, others hate it. I’ve had people tell me, “I feel bad for the older brother. He worked so hard.” They say this because they are working hard. They are good and decent and can’t understand why Jesus would throw a party for prodigals and not for them. It troubles them that we are inside whooping it up while they’re outside working on their résumés.
The story is real. Every one of us is in it and everyone is invited to the party. Grace is for all. But you’re going to have trouble receiving it if you think of your heavenly Father as an employer. And that’s the whole point. You’re going to have to change your mind about God or you will never enjoy his love.
Words mean different things to different people. If you identify with the tax collector or the prodigal, the words of Jesus are packed with radical grace. You’ll read them with praise and thanksgiving and whoops of joy. But if you identify with the Pharisee or the older brother, his words are extremely unsettling. They are serious words, not fun at all.
Yet if you allow them, the words of Jesus will change you. They will strip you of your religion and reveal your need for grace.
[Extracted from chapter 7, “Should we do everything Jesus said?” in The Gospel in Twenty Questions]