Getting what we deserve?

Step 3. Realize that we detest mercy being given to those who, unlike us, haven’t worked for it and don’t deserve it.

The classic illustration of this attitude of the Pharisees is seen in a parable Jesus told about a landowner who hired workers for a day job, and because the job turned out to require more workers than he originally expected, he had to hire additional people to finish the job, right up to the last hour of the day (Matthew 20:1-16). When it came time to pay the workers, he started with those who had worked the least amount of time down to the first, and paid everyone the same thing — a full day’s wage. You can imagine what those workers who had been hired first thing in the morning thought about that. “You have made these guys who have only worked an hour equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day!”

But the landowner replied, “Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t I pay you what we agreed upon? If I want to give the man I hired last the same as I gave you, that’s up to me. Don’t I have a right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous? You got what you worked for; take your pay and go.”

This parable reveals both the heart and the fate of the legalist. The heart of the legalist is always to exact payment down to the last penny; the fate of the legalist is that it will never be enough. What you earn is all you’re going to get, and what you can get by earning your way will never be enough for eternal life. There is no law you can follow that will get you there. Oh, you’ll get something — some brownie points, perhaps — but it will never be enough to get you to heaven. So Jesus said, “Here, take what you worked for and enjoy it while you can, because that’s all you’re going to get. Meanwhile, I’m going to be as generous as I want over here to these other people and you won’t have any part of it, because you didn’t want any part of it.”

It’s important to see that legalists always get what they bargained for; it’s just that it will not get them very far.

From Step 3 to Step 4 is the most important transition for the Pharisee. This is where the Pharisee who is recovering turns the corner. He decides he doesn’t want what he deserves after all for two reasons. One, he realizes it’s never enough, and two, it’s worse than that. What we all really deserve is death, because we are all sinners. “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 3:23) So the recovering Pharisee who turns the corner from Step 3 to Step 4 is saying, “I’m a sinner just like everyone else. I deserve to die. My only hope is to throw myself on the mercy of God and hope He feels generous.” At that, the Pharisee and the sinner are both on their knees before God, and it is then that they both receive God’s mercy. Truly humbling for the Pharisee, but full of rejoicing for the recovering one.

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