~ Luke 18:9-14/2 Chronicles 7:9-14 ~
Sometimes I’m tempted to pray…OK, I confess, I have prayed such a prayer: “I thank you, God, that I’m not like those people who thank God they’re not like other people.” Ah, the seduction of spiritual pride. In the volatile, outrageous, and angry climate of our times, the line can be quite thin between prophetic duty and hubris. I really want to speak out against falsehood and injustice but sometimes I find myself praying the wrong prayer. It is easy to slip into self-justifying bravado. There is good cause for righteous outrage. Much to be legitimately angry about. We must not be afraid to speak truth to power, call a spade a spade, speak prophetically. Yet, I, we, can, often, find ourselves giving in to the seduction of spiritual pride in our efforts.
Instead, I wonder if maybe one of the most important weapons we have in our battle against evil in this world is our own repentance of sin? That maybe we should start with the prayer, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” What if that were the place we started in our quest to repair the world. Maybe, as our reading from Second Chronicles suggests, some humility is called for. Or, maybe I’m asking the wrong question.
These questions are prompted by today’s gospel reading from Luke 18: The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. Let us listen for God’s Word to us today.
Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Holy Words, Holy Wisdom.
Thanks be to God.
A simple lesson in humility, right? The spiritually prideful one is not justified; the horrible, yet humble, sinner is justified. End of lesson. But, maybe not. Indeed, I say forget the whole notion that this parable is a lesson in the virtue of humility. It is not. Rather, it is a lesson in the futility of religion – in the mistaken idea that there is anything at all you or I can do to put ourselves right with God. It is about the folly of even trying. It is, indeed, a warning to drop all religious pretenses – any and all moral and ethical pretenses in trying to justify our standing before God.
Let’s take a closer look and consider the characters of the story. Now, true, Jesus often had some harsh things to say about Pharisees. But you have to give this Pharisee some credit. He is, after all, a good man. To begin with, he’s not a crook, not a scoundrel, not a womanizer. He is honest in his daily affairs. He is faithful to his wife, patient with his children, a good and loyal friend.
He is not at all like this publican, this tax collector – the worst kind of crook: a legal one. He’s a mafia-style enforcer working for the Roman government in a nifty scheme that warrants a pretty healthy income. His job is to go around and shake down his fellow Jews for taxes – he knows them, knows the language, knows where they might be hiding. Then he bleeds them for all the money he can squeeze out of them, usually considerably more than they actually owe the government. So, he gets to keep a tidy sum for himself. He’s been living for years on the cream he’s skimmed off the top. He is a fat cat who drives a stretch limo, drinks only the finest whiskey and always has two or three beautiful women in arms when he goes to parties. In short, a despicable person.
But, going back to the Pharisee, he is not only a good person; he is also religious. And not hypocritically religious, either. His outward uprightness is matched by his inward spiritual discipline. He fasts twice a week and he puts his money in the offering plate, generously. In short, he is the kind of person any minister would love to have in their congregation.
But not only all that, as his prayer indicates, he is thankful to God for his happy state. Luke introduces the parable by saying that it was about people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous. But Jesus shows us the Pharisee in the very act of giving thanks to God.
Yet, what does Jesus tell us about this good man, about this entirely acceptable member of any congregation whom we would love to have in our midst? He tells us that he is not only in bad shape but that he’s in worst shape than the despicable tax collector who is as rotten as they come and who just strolls into the temple and does nothing more than admit that, yes, he is despicable. In short, Jesus tells an entirely unacceptable parable.
Consider this: We probably would – I know I would – gladly accept the Pharisee’s pledge card and welcome him in our midst, even if he was a bit overbearing in proclaiming his goodness. The other guy, the guy who until just yesterday was flaunting his ill-gotten lifestyle, comes in, prays a “God be merciful to me a sinner” prayer and we’re supposed to accept this guy with open arms? And, what’s more, he hasn’t done anything to demonstrate he is sincere, that he is going to change, that he will now live a straight-and-narrow life. Yet, Jesus says he is the one who “goes down to his house justified rather than the other.” What gives? Might this just be an example of “cheap grace,” as Bonhoeffer wrote. Surely some rehab efforts are called for!
We might imagine a sequel to the parable in which we send the tax collector back to the temple a week or two later with some proof that he has indeed begun to turn his life around. We would want to see some progress. That he has begun to rid himself of his former life and has started on the road to a reformed life. In other words, we might expect him to pray to God more along the lines of the Pharisee, with a list of some accomplishments.
The honest answer is that while we get the thrust of the parable with our minds, our hearts have a desperate need to believe the exact opposite. We all long to establish ourselves as being approved in other people’s eyes. We want to be seen as good. We work at that image. We pity the poor person who never seems to get it together. But even more we despise the blatantly brash sinner who thinks he can just waltz in here, say a mea culpa, and that’s it. Fully justified! That perspective is just too hard to accept because it means that all my sincere efforts to be a person of good standing and integrity are for naught. We don’t like this parable, really, because it plainly speaks to the truth of our condition. We fear the tax collector’s acceptance because we know what that means. It means that the whole business of justifying ourselves before others, but especially before God, amounts to nothing. It means acknowledging the fact that we will never be free until we realize we are dead.
For Jesus came to raise the dead. Not to reform the reformable, not to improve the improvable. To raise us from the dead into new life. That is the gospel! Our struggle with that truth is like the Pharisee to somehow believe we are alive in our own eyes. Thus, we resent God’s seemingly cavalier acceptance of the despicable sinner without any guarantee of improvement. He “went down to his home justified rather than the other.” That’s just not acceptable.
So, the lesson of this parable is not a lesson in humility (although admitting you are dead does require some humility). It is a lesson in admitting that we are dead. And, in so doing, maybe stop resisting the grace that raises us from the dead. Admittedly, it is a terrifying step to admit you are dead. We will cry and kick and scream before we take that step, because it means taking yourself out of the self-justifying game, the game we’ve been playing all our lives. But, if it brings some comfort, here are three things I’ve learned about taking this step. First, it is only one step. Second, it is not a step out of reality into nothing, but a step from fiction (our self-justification) into fact (God’s grace). And third, it might make you laugh, out loud even, at how short the trip home was. Indeed, it wasn’t a trip at all; we were already there.
So, as I said at the beginning, forget the whole notion that this parable is a lesson in the virtue of humility. It is not. Rather, it is a lesson in the futility of religion – in the mistaken idea that there is anything at all you can do to put yourself right with God. It is about the folly of even trying. It is, indeed, an encouragement to drop all religious pretenses – any and all moral and ethical pretenses in trying to justify your standing before God.
When Jesus says that the tax collector went home “justified” it means that his posture of genuine brokenness in prayer meant that God would be able to make him just. He would be in a position to receive God’s mercy which in turn would make him whole.
The reason the Pharisee was not justified is because he didn’t think he needed God’s mercy for anything. Indeed, for too many of us, “sin” refers to the things we thank God that we don’t do like other people, whether that be some sort of “immorality” or “bigotry” or whatever. So, the question to ask ourselves is this: Do we really desire God’s mercy for ourselves or are we just saying that we do as a way of saying that we’re not like those Christians who don’t like mercy?
Chad Holtz, a United Methodist pastor and a recovering addict makes a distinction between being “sorry” and being “broken.”
An unbroken person will still try to justify themselves. They will offer what seems to them a good reason for being who they are and for doing what they do. They will blame their history, their culture, their parents, their church, their spouse, their kids, their job, and on and on…While doing all this they may very well say they are sorry. But being sorry is not the same as being broken. And being sorry makes you, just, well, sorry. God can’t and won’t do anything with a sorry person. But [God] will do miracles with a broken one.
God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Amen.