By a series of divine accidents we find ourselves at this morning’s gospel passage, and it might sound familiar. It IS familiar – it is part of the same passage we heard last week! Perhaps the holy spirit has something she wants to convey in these verses, so let’s have a look.
The pharisee is standing by himself and praying aloud – God I thank you I am not like other people; thieves, rogues, adulterers, or this tax collector…I fast, I tithe… basically, I’m pretty great. The tax collector – who calls himself a sinner – stands far off and can’t even dare to look towards heaven and Jesus says he is the one who went home justified – all who exalt themselves will be humbled, he says, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
A quick read of the text might lead us to think this parable is only about being humble. Be humble and you will be exalted. Be like the sinful tax collector. He is the goody and the pharisee is the baddy. But it’s not as simple as that.
In this story we have two of 1st century society’s baddies; the pharisee knows his scriptures inside out – and he knows how to use his scriptures to oppress and corrupt and extort money…and all in the name of religion.
And the tax collector isn’t much better. He doesn’t earn enough to live on so he has learned to extort his customers. At the lower end of the elite he isn’t high enough to be high but he’s damn sure he won’t be counted among the low so he tricks and bullies and takes from those he looks down on.
So Jesus can’t be saying don’t be like the pharisee…be like the tax collector. He isn’t setting one man against the other because, if we wander too far down that line, we fall into the trap where we become the equal but opposite of the pharisee and we also find ourselves praying, Thank you God that I’m not like other people – those pompous, puffed up ones who pray aloud outside of temples about how great they are. Thank you God that I’m so humble! But that’s not humility, of course.
So, what might this parable mean?
You see, what the pharisee says is partly true – he probably does fast twice a week and give a tenth of his income. But the problem is his prayer is all about him. He’s addressing the most high God and telling God all about himself. He tells the almighty that he is so grateful – thank you God, that I am so great; He is the source of his own gratitude. How wrong his attention has become – he chose a path of righteousness out of devotion to God and his focus has slipped from heaven to himself. He believes his own goodness is enough and that is never true. Not then, not now. Not for him and not for us.
And equally, what the tax collector says is true too; God be merciful to me because I am a sinner. He’s right, he is. They both are! But here is the contrast; the first man makes his claim to righteousness based on what he has achieved and the second man relies entirely on the goodness, grace and mercy of God.
Rather than be grateful for his blessings, the Pharisee is grateful for his own greatness. He has become self-admiring to the point of despising others. In his mind there are two kinds of people: the righteous and the immoral, and he is smack bang in the middle of the righteous.
The tax collector, on the other hand, isn’t so much humble as desperate. He is overwhelmed by his own sin in the face of such holiness that he can’t even look up. All he recognizes as he stands near the Temple is his own great need. So he stakes his hopes and claims not on anything he has done but entirely on the mercy of God.*
At the end of this story, the tax collector went down to his home justified. How has this happened? The tax collector hasn’t made any of the temple sacrifices. He hasn’t even promised to change his ways! So how is he made righteous? Purely on the basis of God’s love and grace and mercy!
So the parable isn’t saying be more righteous. It’s not saying be like the tax collector. It’s telling us to recognise who and what we are and to pray.
Pray – but focus on the divine, not on yourself.
Pray – but don’t distinguish between us and them – whenever we concentrate on our own greatness over someone else’s lack of perceived greatness – or consider one group to be in and another group to be out – we fail to recognise the outrageous grace of God.
Pray – and never think that there is anything you’ve done, or anything you are that means God won’t be utterly delighted to hear from you.
Pray – and don’t worry if the only words you have are ‘have mercy on me’ – because that is enough.
Pray – and never worry about whether you’re far off or right here at the front.
Pray without fear that you are better or worse than anyone else. There is no such thing.
It’s not that the tax collector was more loved by God or that the Pharisee’s prayer was left unheard, or despised. Every prayer is heard. Every prayer is received. And every pray-er is loved. It’s just that the tax collector left changed and the pharisee’s heart got a little harder that day.
Prayer, in a really large part, is for the benefit of the one who prays. God doesn’t need us to pray in order for Him to feel bigger and better and more loved and more adored. God is not arrogant or needy. God invites us to speak with Her because of our own need – praying does something to us – it melts and breaks and changes our heart and helps us to see the world and others differently.
The pharisee left the temple that day just as he arrived; feeling righteous and full of contempt. The tax collector left, justified and exalted.
So throw yourself on the grace and mercy of God. Recognise that you are a sinner and God is pleased to hear from you. And, at all times, pray. Amen.
* at this point I abandoned my script and went off piste, talking about prayers in prisons and the floodgates of heaven being flung open. To hear the full version, you can click here… https://fb.watch/glNi-BHY_G/