The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed:
‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people –
robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.
I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
I once heard a story about Charles Spurgeon that, apocryphal or not, says something of the wit and wisdom of the man. As the story goes, Spurgeon would invite young ministers and seminarians to deliver sermons in front of him and other seasoned clergy, who would then offer valuable and constructive feedback. One day, a young peacock of a man strutted up to the podium. On his way, though, he stumbled and…tumbled. His notes went flying and landed scattered across the floor. He hurriedly picked them up, cleared his throat, and began his sermon before he realized his notes had gotten out of order. He mumbled, stuttered, and grimaced his way through the message. Then, with head down and eyes averted, he scurried off the stage, humbled beyond all recognition.
Spurgeon summoned the flushed minister over. Dead man walking. Spurgeon kindly advised him,
If you had gone up the way you came down, you might have come down the way you went up.
This sounds very much like Jesus, who after hearing the Pharisee’s prayer above, said, “For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 18:14b).
God: The Thought Police?
Humbling the self-exalted is not uncommon in the Bible, but some instances of it are so subversive that they are often missed. For example, a dominant theme in the Sermon on the Mount is the disregarding of external appearances and the leveling of playing fields. Jesus constantly described the Pharisees and other uncompassionate religious tyrants as “whitewashed tombs,” meaning they appeared spotless on the outside but internally they were full of cobwebs and the stench of death—there was no life, no light, in them. Instead of praising the Pharisees for the false appearance of godliness, Jesus praises those who don’t wear their righteousness on their sleeves, those who know that they are lost and that he is their only hope of godliness. Jesus knew that many of these mercy-hungry people may have been in their situations not because they were wicked but because they were desperate or didn’t know any better, and there is at some level a qualitative difference. Whereas the Pharisees are concerned only with external appearances at the expense of their true righteousness, Jesus is much more concerned with the heart. Thus, the self-exalting heart is humbled, but the humble and contrite one is exalted.
We see this theme in other instances in the Sermon on the Mount. To the one who looks down upon the adulterous (such as women who may have felt forced into prostitution or concubinage) as people of lesser value, Jesus elevates the thought of lust to the level of adultery. To the one who looks at the murderer as a person of lesser value, Jesus points out that the thought of hate can be just as deadly in the long run, if not more so. Do we need more proof from history that a lifetime of oppression can lead to a type of slow death of the heart and soul that does not require the traditional form of “murder”?
Jesus continually looks at thoughts as the beginning of sin and sin itself. It is not what goes into a person’s mouth that defiles them, Jesus says, but what comes out of their mouth, for what comes out of their mouth “comes from the heart, and these defile them” (Matthew 15:1-20).
The idea of thoughts themselves—which admittedly can sometimes feel out of our control—being sinful has its fair share of critics. The late atheist firebrand Christopher Hitchens often liked to cite passages like these, railing against Jesus’s allegedly Orwellian police-state over our thoughts. “I am born under a celestial dictatorship that I could not have had any hand in choosing,” Hitchens defiantly remarked. “I don’t put myself under its government. I am told that it can watch me while I sleep. I am told that it can convict me of—here’s the definition of totalitarianism—thoughtcrime for what I think. I may be convicted and condemned.”[i] In one sense, Hitchens is right: God’s standard for us is unreachably high, which is why we need Jesus. But in another sense, I think his own insecurities got in the way (as do all of ours when approaching God), and he missed the forest for the trees.
The Heart of the Matter
Jesus certainly understood the dire situation vulnerable people were in during that time in Israel. It is why he cleansed the temple of the dishonest moneychangers (Mark 11:15), it is why he foretold of destroying the temple of those who “devour widow’s houses” (Mark 12:38-13:2), and it is why his church remembered to care for orphans and widows (James 1:27).[ii] This does not necessarily mean that being affluent or powerful makes you inherently more sinful than others, for as Luther reminds us on his deathbed, “We are all beggars, this is true.”[iii] The difference is that some beggars recognize their state and beg for help while other beggars oppress their way to forgetting their beggar status. Benito Mussolini is often attributed with the saying, “It is better to live one day as a lion than one hundred days as a sheep.” What he and many others fail to realize in their self-exaltation is that everyone is a lost sheep, surrounded by wolves, wandering the mountainside for their Shepherd.
When Jesus speaks of our murderous and adulterous thoughts, he is in essence saying that a murderous or adulterous heart is not so different than a murderous or adulterous action. In fact, the difference is probably just a matter of means, opportunity, necessity, and risk-reward most of the time. Would the Pharisee have acted differently in the prostitute’s shoes had he been in her situation? If he had been raised in her life? Would the Pharisee have done much worse than the murderer if he had known he might get away with it? Do the religious authorities do worse anyway, but in more insidious and untraceable ways? Jesus seems to have more compassion on those caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11) and culpable in murder (Acts 9:1-19) than he does those temple authorities who “devour widow’s houses” (Matthew 23:14; Mark 12:40; Luke 20:47), for instance. In Luke, Jesus contrasts the contrite heart of the tax collector—who prayed for mercy—with the self-righteousness of the Pharisee—who contrasts only his outer self with the outer self of others (Luke 18:11-12). He proclaims of the lowly tax collector, “I tell you that this man, rather than the [Pharisee], went home justified before God” (Luke 18:14).
This examination of the heart is not thoughtcrime; this is the true justice that we desire, that only God can provide. Hitchens was passionate about justice. He no doubt had a heart for the innocent sufferer whose own crimes of desperation are decried by the sanctimonious people who have often left them with no other choice. He would also no doubt disparage religious people as “hucksters” who level charges of evil against others while, with all their powers of casuistry, redefining evil to avoid the charge themselves. Jesus’s greatest anger is nearly always leveled toward the religious elite who create ways to justify their own disobedience and (mis)lead others into despondency and disobedience. In other words, God’s people who knew the truth but had no love, those who turned the truth into an ever-tightening noose around the neck of God’s Beloved.The god Hitchens rails against is a god that does not exist—and Jesus is the God that does, the God whose love is so deep that it penetrates even our deepest thoughts, changing us from the inside out. Jesus is no thought-tyrant; he is thought abolitionist.
C. S. Lewis once wrote about salvation itself in quite beautiful and compelling words. In Mere Christianity, he writes:
We see only the results which a man’s choices make out of his raw material. But God does not judge him on the raw material at all, but on what he has done with it. Most of the man’s psychological makeup is probably due to his body: when his body dies all that will fall off him, and the real central man, the thing that chose, that made the best or worst out of this material, will stand naked. All sorts of nice things which we thought our own, but which were really due to a good digestion, will fall off some of us: all sorts of nasty things which were due to complexes or bad health will fall off others. We shall then, for the first time, see every one as he really was. There will be surprises.[iv]
Our God has an all-seeing, all-knowing, all-searching love. He understands the complexities of life. He does not remove moral agency, but he is compassionate toward us in the difficult situations we are sometimes in. It is not that Jesus loves us despite seeing us as we are. He loves because of who he is and because he sees all. What was, what is, what will be, what could have been, what could be. How we have sinned, why we have sinned, how sin performed on us has shaped and scarred us, how it has obscured our vision, blunted our sense of taste, how it has crushed us. He sees it all and has compassion on those whom the world considers less-than for essentially having harder lives. But God loves and has compassion on those with hard lives who have been born into—or have fallen into—lowliness. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes,
God is not ashamed of human lowliness but goes right into the middle of it. God draws near to the lowly, loving the lost, the unnoticed, the unremarkable, the excluded, the powerless, and the broken. What people say is lost, God says is found; what people say is ‘condemned,’ God says is ‘saved.’ Where people say ‘No!’ God says ‘Yes!’ Where people turn their eyes away in indifference or arrogance, God gazes with a love that glows warmer there than anywhere else.”[v]
In the Old Testament, we read that justice should be “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” (Exodus 21:23-25; Leviticus 24:19-21) For some reason, we tend to assume the worst of God’s word, and so most people read this as an affirmation of bloodlust and revenge. “If you do this, I’ll get you back!” In reality, it is about commensurate justice. If you commit a crime that fosters death, then you may be put to death. But if you commit a crime that does not foster death—such as knocking out someone’s tooth—then the worst that can be done to you is to lose your tooth in return. In other words, it functioned to limit what someone could extract in their attempt to reestablish shalom after a loss.
I would like to suggest that a similar misunderstanding has taken place with regard to the alleged “thoughtcrime” accusation Hitchens has made concerning Jesus’s statements in the Sermon on the Mount. Yes, what we see here is an elevation of moral responsibilities to not only what we do but what we think. This should be taken as a wake-up call concerning our fantasy lives, whether those fantasies deal with sexuality, revenge, schadenfreude, or something else. These are corrupt wasting diseases on our hearts and minds, and they often become self-fulfilling prophecies just as soon as the opportunity to stray presents itself. As Sam Allberry once wrote, “It’s going to be much harder to physically resist a sin that you’ve been mentally rehearsing.”[vi] But Jesus is saying much more here.
What we also see operating here, and within the context of everything else Jesus said, is not a desire to punish you for every wayward thought but a leveling of justice. Jesus promises to look at the heart, not just the external manifestations of waywardness. It means that he sees the unfairness in the world, too, far more than we do. It means that the contrite heart of one who felt they had no other option to support their family than to enter into prostitution is an acceptable sacrifice before God (Psalm 51:17). It also means that for the one who passively sins by not using what God gives them to support others, or actively sins by enacting harsh policies that forces others to unnecessarily suffer and stumble, “It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck” (Luke 17:2). Jesus puts forward justice that goes deeper than external appearances—he levels justice by starting at the heart.
Our God is a God who seeks to protect the vulnerable, humble the self-righteous, and hold everyone accountable with both justice and mercy. In Jesus’s words while on earth, he elevated the moral law while also sowing his grace farther and wider than ever before. And for all those in need of this grace—Publican and Pharisee alike—there it is on the cross, arms outstretched to all, for all, forever.
[i] Berkley Center, “Poison or Cure? Religious Belief in the Modern World (with Christopher Hitchens and Alister McGrath),” YouTube Video, 1:39:57, July 22, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xc0kbM4tBYE.
[ii] New Testament scholar Craig A. Evans writes about the famous “widow’s mite” narrative in Mark 12. Mark frontloads the narrative with Jesus’s charge against the scribes “who devour widows’ houses” and “will receive the greater condemnation.” When Jesus comments on the widow who gave “out of her poverty,” Evans writes that Jesus’s words are not necessarily a word of praise for the widow, as it is often understood. “This is no word of praise; it is a lament. Instead of being assisted by the temple establishment, as the Law of Moses commands, the poor widow has been exploited by the temple establishment and reduced to abject poverty.” Craig A. Evans, “Social Justice or Personal Righteousness? What Jesus Has to Say in Matthew and Mark,” in The Bible and Social Justice: Old Testament and New Testament Charges for the Church’s Urgent Call, ed. Cynthia Long Westfall and Bryan R. Dyer (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2015), 90.
[iii] Martin Luther cited in Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2013), 105.
[iv] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity in The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics, (New York: HarperOne, 2002),80.
[v] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “My Spirit Rejoices,” in Isabel Best, ed., The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012), 117-118.
[vi] Sam Allberry, Twitter post, November 12, 2020, https://twitter.com/SamAllberry/status/1327071737494859776. Accessed October 30, 2023.