ROY CLEMENTS ARCHIVE
Publications: A Sting in the Tale
The paradox of pardon
Jack and Joe went to church one evening. Jack knew his way around. Well, he’d been brought up in the place, hadn’t he? Sunday school from the age of three, and all that. He knew his parents would be there, too, in one of the other pews, watching him proudly. He wanted to make sure they saw him. So he walked right up to the front and sat in the first row. He bowed his head and shut his eyes for a few moments. He’d seen dad do that; he knew it looked holy.
Jack, you see, took his religion very seriously. He carried a big Bible and knew all the latest choruses. He liked the image of being a highly principled young man, too. Unlike many of his peers he never consumed alcohol or cigarettes. He was also extremely self-righteous about sex. No messing around behind the school bike sheds for him. He and his girlfriend had intellectual conversations about vegetarianism and the nuclear issue. Instead of going to discos they went to prayer meetings at the youth leader’s house.
As Jack reflected on his life in those few moments before the service began, he glowed with inward satisfaction. How reassuring it was to know that you were a good Christian! Nothing to confess, nothing to feel ashamed about, nothing . . .
Good grief, it couldn’t be! Out of the corner of his eye he caught sight of a familiar figure who had just entered the church behind him. ‘It’s Joe,’ he thought incredulously. ’What on earth is he doing here? He’s no right to come to church, the old hypocrite!’ But if he had been able to read Joe’s mind he would have realized that precisely the same thoughts were going through his head too.
What right, Joe thought, did he have to be in church? He hadn’t been in church for years. In fact he felt thoroughly uncomfortable in the place. He kept looking around nervously as if he expected somebody in authority to appear at any moment and tell him he had no business to be there. He was unsure where to sit, or if there was some special ritual he should observe before committing himself to stay. Didn’t Christians cross themselves before they sat down in church? Or was that Muslim? He really couldn’t remember. In the end he slid cautiously into the very back row. ‘Oh no,’ he wailed inwardly, ’that’s Jack in the front, and he’s seen me. I’ll never live this down in the neighbourhood now.’ He crumpled up, his legs tucked under the pew, his head sagging down between his knees, trying to hide.
As you may have guessed, Joe was not the religious sort. In fact he had a reputation as a bit of a lad. If there was trouble with the police on the estate, you could bet on the fact that he’d be involved. Nicotine stained his fingers and there was a distinct smell of beer on his breath. In fact he’d been in the pub down the road only fifteen minutes before.
Why on earth had he come to church? Was it because of the row he’d had that morning at home, thrown out on his ear for stealing his mother’s housekeeping again? Or was it because of the sense of humiliation he was feeling as a result of Julie slapping him around the face last night and telling him in unambiguous four-letter words to get out of her life, just because she discovered he was also sleeping with Karen? Yes, it was both those things and neither of them. Somehow, as he tried unsuccessfully to drown his sorrows in that pint, he’d just been overcome with a sense of how dirty he was, and what a mess he’d made of things. Suddenly, sitting in that back pew, guilt and shame brought tears to his eyes, a blush to his cheek and a lump to his throat. ‘Oh God,’ he sighed quietly, into clenched fists. ‘Oh God.’
I tell you, it was Joe who went home a believer that night, not Jack.
For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.
From Chapter 6 The paradox of pardon
a study based on the parable of the Pharisee and the Taxman from Luke 18.
A Sting in the Tale copyright Roy Clements 1995
Published by Inter-Varsity Press (UK) ISBN 0-85110-881-4