By Bob Hiller –
Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is an acquired taste. I must admit I do not watch a lot of UFC or MMA. Not really my cup of tea. But, I have great deal of respect for both the craft and the fighters. To the casual observer, MMA just looks like a bunch of muscle-heads beating the living snot out of each other. Without taking the time to study the fighters, the intricacies of their style of combat (mixed martial arts is exactly what it says: a mixture of different fighting styles set against each other), and the style of fighting itself, MMA can appear to be mere brutality. But, upon closer examination, these men and women in the ring are masters of their craft. They view their fighting as more of an art form than a glorified after-school altercation between bullies. What they do is violent and aggressive, but when you take the time to really examine the sport, you will see that this fighting requires a tremendous amount of skill and athleticism.
This surface level flippancy that dismisses MMA as mere violence reminds me somewhat of how many read the Bible. For example, I sometimes wonder if we do not treat the parables of our Lord in a similarly flippant fashion. The pastors in our circuit are preaching through the parables of Jesus for our Lenten worship services. Too often, we don’t give them the devotional examination they require. How often have you heard parables described in such a way that makes them sound as though they are nothing more than insightful sermon illustrations? “Oh”, it is suggested, “these parables are just Jesus’ way of using stories to convey difficult theological concepts to the simple masses. So, pastors, you should use illustrations too, just like Jesus did. That way, the truths of God’s Word will be easier to grasp and apply.” The parables are treated as nothing more than Christian versions of Aesop’s fables, given as moralistic life lessons for those simple Christians who aren’t yet ready for the solid food of God’s Word.
Such thinking about the parables of Jesus is like some casual observer at the bar saying, “Oh, these MMA guys are Neanderthals. Anybody could get in there and fight!” That kind of thinking will get you killed!
Far from being moralistic stories intent on teaching life lessons, the parables are an all out assault by Jesus on self-righteous sinners! These things aren’t safe! They are the death of us! In preaching parables, Jesus is like an MMA master, skillfully and exactingly decimating those who seek righteousness in anything other than His blood. Yet, at the same time, He is artfully giving life and hope to those desperately in need of His mercy.
Consider, for example, the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. The Pharisee was everything right about a good, religious society. He didn’t drink or smoke or go with girls who did. The tax collector, on the other hand, paid for those girls to stay the night. These guys go up to the temple to pray. The Pharisee thanks God for giving him the ability to stay on the straight and narrow, to not give in to the wiles of the devil. He reminds God of just how faithful he has been with his life. The tax collector cannot even look up to heaven. He just does his best to hide in the back (though the smell of cheap, second-hand perfume was still on his clothes) and he cries out, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
Jesus has the gall to say that the tax-collector goes home justified! God said that dude was righteous. And the Pharisee? Well, he probably went home righteous too…just not in God’s eyes. “For,” Jesus says, “whoever humbles himself will be exalted and whoever exalts himself will be humbled.”
Now, the moralist who thinks MMA is nothing but a grown-up after school fight reads this and says, “Ah, yes! Humility is a great virtue! Oh, I should be more like that tax-collector! I shall strive to be more humble. Now, I just need a sermon with steps on how to be that way.”
But don’t you see? You are the very one Jesus is punching in the nose! (OK…maybe this takes the illustration a bit too far…) The whole point of this parable is to destroy any attempt at doing anything at all before God. This parable is an all out assault by Jesus on what we hold most dear: namely, our righteousness. Jesus is saying to you who love to walk into church and show off all of your pharisaical accomplishments, that you are dead in your sins. He is telling you that all the work you do to prove you are a good Christian is just a tuxedo on a corpse. Your best works are your greatest sins because you trust them more than Jesus.
Jesus isn’t telling you to be more humble in this parable. He is humiliating you. He isn’t telling you to become more sinful like the tax collector so that you can then receive justification. He is telling you that you are already that sinful. He’s telling you to stop trying to prove how alive you are in your marvelous obedience. He’s telling you that your own righteousness is your death. Have you ever considered the fact that you may be so caught up in your own moral performance before God because you don’t believe Jesus’ blood is enough to get you right with God? You think you need to add more, just in case God is holding something back. You think that biting that fruit of works-righteousness will get you closer to God! And, with this parable, Jesus is calling you to the carpet for it!
The tax collector goes home justified, not because he is so good at being humble and a top-notch repenter. No, he goes home justified because he has no righteousness of his own at all. Jesus isn’t telling you to be more like that guy, he is telling you that you are that guy! You have no righteousness of your own!
We hear the parables, or any Law, as merely moral advice only when we don’t take our sinfulness seriously enough. We hear this as life advice on humility because we actually think we are doing okay in our “walk with God.” But, Jesus tells the parables and proclaims God’s Law in order to bring moralism into the ring and kill that sucker dead. Your only hope in your walk with God is in the mercy of that God Himself. Your only hope is in the God who sends His Son to pour out His lifeblood for Pharisees and tax-collectors. Your only hope is in God’s answer to the tax-collector’s prayer “God merciful to me, a sinner.” “I am merciful to you, sinner!” God says, “I have shed my Son’s blood for your sins. I have no condemnation for you. I justify you. So go home, you righteous sinner. You are free!” That is your only hope. And that is a hope that has been sufficiently secured for you by the shed blood of Jesus. So, don’t read these parables as life lessons. Repent and believe the good news! Jesus sends you home justified.