I am so happy this week! We have an easy one!! YEAH! A nice easy to understand gospel reading. Not even a lot of interpretation to be done. Pharisees are bad and tax collectors are good! Just be nice and humble and everything will be a-ok! I like scriptures like this. I don’t have to think too much about them and neither do you! We can just sit back and pat ourselves on the back and be oh so proud of how humble we are. We aren’t like that nasty, self-serving Pharisee. We are not all kinds of self-righteous. We can thank God that we are not like other people.
Yes, we could feel that, but you know, if we listened to ourselves, we really aren’t that much different than the Pharisee. The Pharisee is praising himself on how righteous he is and how he keeps all the laws. The Pharisee is praising himself on how he is just so much better than the tax collector. The Pharisee is just lifting himself up, telling the whole world how wonderful he is.
But we can get into a similar situation by thinking we are just so much better than everyone else because we are just so humble. I have heard it once described as “conspicuous non-consumption.” We look at ourselves as being so much better by what we don’t have. Or I have heard people in churches get into “I was a worse sinner than you” competitions. If we look at this parable as just a platitude to be humble, we can get into all kinds of weird behavior. These must be something more here than just a simple exhortation to not think too highly of oneself.
Humm…Maybe this is not as simple as it would appear to be!
If we think about it, everything the Pharisee was saying was most likely true. I am sure he did fast twice a week. I am sure he did tithe. I am sure the Pharisee was of upstanding character; he was a righteous man. The Pharisee was not lying when he said all of these things. So the problem Jesus had with the Pharisee was not his truthfulness, it was something else.
The tax collector was also being truthful. We are not going to whitewash him and make him into something he was not. The tax collector was, truly, a sinner. So, again, the difference cannot be made on their truthfulness. They both were being truthful.
Maybe it was repentance! Was the tax collector repentant and the Pharisee not? We know that the Pharisee doesn’t seem to think there is any need for repentance; why should he? According to his standards and his laws, he hasn’t done anything worthy of repentance. But if we look, the tax collector does not repent either! We are not told that the tax collector says, “I’m sorry” or “I will try to do better.” The tax collector shows no sign of repentance. So repentance cannot be the thing that separates the two men praying in the temple.
Well, you probably have it figured out by now; the difference is that Pharisee does not see any need for God in his life. The Pharisee sees his place in life as his own doing. He has the good things in life because he has been righteous and has followed the law. Now the tax collector, he has no illusions; he doesn’t even approach the temple, he just throws himself down and begs for forgiveness. The tax collector just begs for mercy. The tax collector makes no pretense of being righteous. He doesn’t even promise to be righteous in the future. All he does is realizes his place in life and realizes that he needs God’s mercy.
The Pharisee doesn’t realize that his need for mercy. The Pharisee cannot even look at the tax collector and say, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” The Pharisee does not see that his life could be any other way than the way HE made it. According to the Pharisee, everything he has he deserves; he earned it. According to the Pharisee, he has no need to be thankful because he is just getting paid back for his righteousness.
But the tax collector sees his need for mercy. The tax collector does not make any assumption about his state of being. The tax collector is desperate for mercy. The tax collector realizes that any blessings that he has in his life are all a gift from God. Where the tax collector shows true dependence on God, the Pharisee just appears smug.
The Pharisee divides people up into two groups, those who are righteous, like himself, and the immoral people like the tax collector. Although the Pharisee says “Thanks,” it is more a perfunctory sort of “thanks.” He really doesn’t see that his life and all he has is a gift. He just sees it as part of his own righteousness. He sees all he has as being due to him; not a gift at all. He sees himself and others as righteous and deserving, and the others as immoral and therefore undeserving of what they have.
But the truth is that neither man is deserving of the gifts they have been blessed with. And justification is not from our recognition of the gifts, but our recognition of our need for God’s mercy! God does not see the divisions that the Pharisee is making. God does not see us as primarily righteous or immoral. God sees us as God’s children and wants us to look to God for our daily needs. It is in our recognition of our need for God’s mercy that we find our true humanity. It is in our recognition that all of us need God’s mercy that removes the divisions that separate us and move us into our own little worlds.
In the adult class on Wednesday night, we are reading the book, The Great Divorce. In this book, by C. S. Lewis, Hell is populated by people who are totally separated from each other. They can create what they want just by thinking it. There is no reason to need anyone else. And it is this belief in self-sufficiency that keeps the people in the book out of Heaven. It is not supposed righteousness or immorality of the person that keeps them out of Heaven, it boils down to the person’s realization that they NEED God. Those that realize they need God are justified; those who feel self righteous are allowed to return to their own little Hells.
Can we ever move beyond our need for self-righteousness? Can we ever see ourselves as gifted from God while totally dependent upon God? Can we ever move beyond our need to separate ourselves into “Us” and “Them” groups? Into “Me” and “Them” groups? “God loves me” and “God doesn’t love you” groups? Truthfully, I don’t think we ever can. I think it is part of being human to divide people up into “Us” and “Them.”
But God is asking us to just rely on God.