The story was from Luke 18:9-14 – The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. Pastor Heath told the story and did a message about it. He had two chairs up front, each one depicting the tax collector and Pharisee. One key point was being honest about which one we are like: the Pharisee or the tax collector. Far more of us are in the position of the Pharisee where we compare ourselves with others (tape measure) and hold up our accomplishments (resume).
In my small group that night, I was ready to engage with the 8th grade boys. The story was very concrete and simple.
Surely our conversation could be simple and powerful in scope, right?
There were 7 guys in the group that night…
…and we actually started out really well. I asked them which chair they saw themselves in. Most of them said they sat in the Pharisee chair. They use their resume often and their tape measure frequently. I asked them if they knew of anyone who might sit in the tax collector’s chair. Actually I asked them if out of the 450 people in their middle school, how many might be like the tax collector. Very astutely a few of them said, not many at all. I thought, that’s great! At least they’re getting the idea of the significance of what Jesus was referring to when he told this parable.
This led me to briefly share another word picture of Jesus’ in which he said that narrow is the way that leads to life and few people find it, while the path to destruction is wide and many people are on it. It illustrated how few people will actually admit that they are at the end of themselves and seek out God’s help.
Once we got to this point in the conversation, about 4 of the boys in the room could care less about what is going on in the circle. They wanted to leave and go to snacks, and we still had about 10 minutes left. I had been working my magic to try and redirect their attention and try to keep them on task (or at the very least, quiet so the ones that did care could engage in the conversation).
Seeing that my effort wasn’t working, I remembered another one of Jesus’ famous lines. He would often say to people “He who has ears, let him hear.” I told that to the group, and the 4 who weren’t paying attention, didn’t pay any attention, but I looked the other 3 boys in the eye and asked them if they understood what I just said. At first they were confused, but then it dawned on them the meaning of what I was saying.
So then I thought: I should allow those who don’t care about this conversation the choice to leave so the remaining students who do care can actually get something out of the small group time. Here is what I said next:
“If you don’t care about this conversation you can leave and go to the gym.”
Because it was such a direct statement, the 4 distracting boys sat up and attempted to pay attention. They thought I was at the final stage of getting mad at them and kicking them out. That wasn’t what I meant, so I clarified:
“No seriously. If you don’t care about what we’re discussing, you are free to go to the gym. I’m not mad at you. I’m not frustrated. You’re not getting kicked out. I just want those who want to talk about this to stay. It’s okay. Really. You can go if you don’t care.”
An adult would never say this, right? Surely I had some kind of angle. Actually, I did have an angle, it was to let them leave if they wanted to without any consequences. I wanted to talk seriously about the Gospel with those who wanted to hear it.
Well no one moved. They were just looking at me trying to figure out if I was serious. One boy looked me squarely in the eye and asked:
“Honestly? We can leave if we don’t want to? Are you sure?”
“Yes,” I said. “Honestly. You aren’t in trouble. You’re free to leave with no strings attached.”
This young man’s eyes never left mine as he slowly got up out of his chair, backed his way to the door, opened it up, continued to back out, and faced me until he shut the door. All the while, I smiled with no judgment and let him go with no trick. Seeing how I responded the first one who left, another young man got up and said:
“Okay. I’m leaving, too.”
To which another boy said:
“I really want to stay, I just can’t focus, sorry Jeremy.”
I told him no worries, that I was honestly allowing them to leave if they didn’t want to be in the room.
The last boy to leave was the most interesting. I could tell he really wanted to leave, but he really didn’t want to leave either. What he said out loud as he got up to leave was telling:
“I feel really guilty, Jeremy.”
I told him he really shouldn’t feel guilty as I was giving them complete freedom to make their own choice and I wouldn’t be mad, frustrated, or hold it against them later. And he left.
What followed was nothing short of amazing, I had, in my presence, three 8th grade guys who wanted to be in our small group and wanted to talk about what it meant to do what the tax collector did. We talked about what it looked like to come to the end of yourself and trust in God to run your life instead of yourself. It is not about being perfect or not doing a bunch of bad things. It’s recognizing that you are a sinner and it is only the Lord God who can justify you. It’s about where you get your significance from: you and your accomplishments, or not you and only righteousness from God. It was great.
One of the remaining boys at the end of our talk asked if we could ask the boys to leave who didn’t care every time. I’m still thinking about how that works out organizationally.
One more significant thing happened. I went and talked to the last boy who left the room. I wanted to ask him why he felt guilty. He said he didn’t really know… he just did. I told him to ask himself “why” he felt guilty and that their might be a real reason he should have listened to that still small voice in his mind about staying in the room. I wondered if this last boy really did care about what we were talking about, but he also cared about being with his friends, which is what won out in the end.