In the great film, Shawshank Redemption, Morgan Freeman’s character “Red” comes before the parole board three times. In his first two appearances, he recites his memorized spiel about the totality of his rehabilitation.
Parole Board Member: “You feel you’ve been rehabilitated?”
Red: “Yes sir, without a doubt. I can say I’m a changed man. No danger to society; that’s the God’s honest truth. Absolutely rehabilitated.”
In both of those encounters with the parole board, Red leaves with “rejected” stamped on his parole request. The board apparently finds his claimed rehabilitation unconvincing.
In our sin, we are guilty of coming before God just like Red came before the parole board. And as such, we’re not unlike the pharisee in Christ’s parable of the pharisee and the tax collector. We come to Christ seeking to convince him of our total rehabilitation. The difference is that occasionally a parole board will be fooled by an inmate’s feigned righteousness. However, the God of the universe is never fooled. The Pharisee in the parable confesses nothing but his own righteousness and superiority to others.
“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” (Luke 18:11-12).
Notice that the only sins the pharisee confesses are those of his neighbors. He has an opportunity to speak to the creator of heaven and earth, and he uses that opportunity to recite to him his religious resume. Unlike Red in Shawshank Redemption, this Pharisee isn’t confessing his rehabilitation. He doesn’t even think he has any areas of his life that need to be rehabilitated. The only aspect of himself that he confesses is his own sparkling righteousness.
He is marked by textbook “self-righteousness.” In other words, his righteousness doesn’t come to him from outside of himself. It is not imputed to him. Rather, he is the source of his righteousness.
Parole boards only meet occasionally, and an inmate has to work really hard to get a hearing from them. That’s what makes the “rejected” stamp across Red’s parole request so disheartening. But God arraigns us, into his church, into his courtroom week after week. He doesn’t do it so that he can throw the book at us and increase our punishment. Rather, he calls us to gather that we may once again confess all of our sins. That we may confess that we haven’t loved him with all of our heart, soul, mind, or strength. We haven’t loved our neighbors as ourselves.
I hope you’re involved in a church that affords you the opportunity each week to both corporately and privately confess your sins. And I hope that confession is followed by absolution delivered to you by your pastor. The forgiveness that your minister delivers to your ears didn’t come cheap. It is a forgiveness that Christ died to purchase for you. And God the Father raised Christ from the dead so that he may sit at his right hand and intercede on your behalf.
“Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Heb 11:25).
I love the phrase: “lives to make intercession for them.” Some people live to play golf. Some people live to play the piano or paint portraits. They would say that it is their life’s work. But Jesus lives to intercede. So we needn’t bring him our feigned righteousness or our faux rehabilitation.
Spoiler Alert! At the end of Shawshank Redemption, we see Red appear again before the parole board. It is now 20 years later. He answers their question about his rehabilitation quite differently:
“Not a day goes by I don’t feel regret, and not because I’m in here or because you think I should. I look back on myself the way I was...stupid kid who did that terrible crime...wish I could talk sense to him. Tell him how things are. But I can’t. That kid’s long gone, this old man is all that’s left, and I have to live with that. Rehabilitated? That’s a bullshit word, so you just go on ahead and stamp that form there, sonny, and stop wasting my damn time.”
That’s the spiel he gave when he’d finally given up on showcasing to the board his “rehabilitation.” This time he came before them, hiding nothing. He shared regret, honesty, and candor. Fortunately for Red, the board found this speech to be believable.
Red’s final talk before the parole board is not a blueprint for how we come before the Lord. Scripture gives us many simpler examples for us to follow. Namely, the second half of Christ’s parable in Luke 18:
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 18:13-14).
To say “this man went down to his house justified” is to say that the tax collector left his hearing before God with “Forgiven” stamped across his paperwork. The forgiveness he (and we) received is more glorious than any liberation from any penitentiary that any inmate can ever receive. It is cosmic. It is eternal. It is total. It is earned wholly and completely by Christ.
“If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36).