In reading Luke this week, I saw something that struck me in a new way that I thought I’d share. In Luke 18, Jesus tells a parable about two men who came to the temple to pray. He specifically calls out that the story is meant to highlight the critical difference between the Pharisees “[those] who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and treated others with contempt” (Luke 18:1) and the sinners with whom He (Jesus) was so frequently accused of fraternizing. Here’s the story…
“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” — Luke 18:10-14
I remember a time in my life where I barely understood anything Jesus was saying in this parable. Eventually God revealed to me / really impressed upon me what spiritual poverty is. I’m still learning that, but at least I am now full-on moved every time I read the tax collector’s plea to God for help. I can imagine his being trapped in sin. I can imagine his feeling totally overwhelmed and defeated. I can imagine his being able to articulate what the Lord is telling him, but being too afraid to act. I can imagine his heart’s acknowledgement of spiritual bankruptcy, contrasted against what is likely significant material wealth. Not comparing him to me in the specifics at all, and this is all supposition, but the point is that I can relate. It’s clear to me that he has assessed and is deeply in touch with his desperate need for God. In observing that this man goes home justified before God, Jesus is simply rewording one of the beatitudes, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:3; Luke 6:20). The man who believes he is righteous on his own is condemning himself in that belief. The man who acknowledges how desperately he needs the Lord will be shown mercy, and not just mercy, but will be “exalted”.
And there’s the new insight this week…
I’ve always glazed over the last word in this passage. Those who humble themselves before God will be “exalted”. Or “lifted up” (James 4:10). I think what I (we?) have fail to realize is that just being with God will be more glorious than we can possibly image — better than anything in this world, no matter how seemingly wonderful. Being “exalted” might not be intended to mean anything more than simply being invited to dinner and seated at God’s table (Luke 13:29). And if so, that would be more than enough, wouldn’t it?. Obviously more than we deserve.
Still, reading passages like this, I always had flashing thoughts of thrones and glory, and didn’t give it much of a second thought. I get that there are passages in the NT about our “reigning with Christ” (particularly in Revelation, but also 2 Timothy 2:12 and others), but I wonder if much of God’s language about “exalting” is less about some kind of glory we’re going to have, and more about the glory (His glory) that we will then more fully experience. We simply cannot fathom the awe and joy we will experience in just being with God. Nothing in this life can possibly compare. But I think our culture and our privileged lives rob us of connecting with thoughts like this, because we have so much. Our expectations of this life have gotten so high and large, that we have a hard time processing Jesus’ offers of a better life to come.
In thinking about it this morning, I wrote down this cheesy-but-probably-pretty-close-to-home adaptation of a warning Jesus once gave to his disciples about materialism… It’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a person who thinks having an iPhone is amazing to enter the Kingdom of God. CS Lewis was right that we are far too easily pleased. And, after reading Jesus’ story in Luke with fresh eyes this week, I wonder if that low bar of gratification makes it harder for us to marvel at how utterly mind-blowingly awesome it’s going to be to simply recline at God’s table with Him someday.