Summary: The Tale of the Two “I” Exams 1) “See me, God? I’m not like him.” 2) “Save me, God! I’m not like you.”
When is the last time you had an eye exam? Eye care experts recommend that we should have our eyes checked every one to three years depending on age, risk factors, and physical condition (allaboutvision.com). Regular eye exams are important because experts estimate that one in four school-age children have an eye problem that could cause permanent vision loss if left untreated. I don’t know about you but I like being able to see and because it’s been well over three years since I’ve had an eye exam, I better book an appointment soon!
There is, however, an even more vital kind of “I” exam we should be regularly undertaking. This exam is not an assessment of one’s sight but an evaluation of one’s standing before God. Through the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector Jesus describes two such “I” exams: one led to God’s judgment, while the other led to the peace of forgiveness. Let’s turn now to the Tale of the Two “I” Exams.
In this parable Jesus spoke of two men who were complete opposites – a Pharisee and a tax collector. The Pharisees were a religious group that dedicated themselves to keeping God’s laws. They were regarded as shining examples of religious devotion and holy living. Tax collectors, on the other hand, were considered traitors for working for the Roman government. They not only helped the Romans they helped themselves to whatever extra money they could squeeze out of their countrymen and so were despised as nothing less than legalized robbers.
In the parable a Pharisee and tax collector both went to the temple to pray. The Pharisee’s prayer started out well enough, “God, I thank you…” (would that more of our prayers started that way), but he might as well have concluded: “…in my name I pray.” Here’s why. “The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get’” (Luke 18:11, 12).
What did the Pharisee observe when he did his “I” exam? When he inspected himself the word “saint” came to mind but when he scrutinized others the word “sinner” spat from his lips. The Pharisee didn’t think he was like robbers, adulterers, and other obvious sinners like that tax collector in the back. “See me, God? I’m not like him,” the Pharisee said. “In fact, Lord, you ought to thank me. I fast twice a week, a hundred times more than the yearly fast you demand of your Old Testament people. AND I give a tenth of all my possessions not just a tenth of the things you said Old Testament believers were to tithe.”
The problem with the Pharisee’s assessment is that it wasn’t much of an “I” exam. It was a “they” exam. The Pharisee was like the 13-year old who brags about striking out the side at his 7-year old little brother’s peewee league game. Now if he had struck out the side at a Major League All Star game he would have something to brag about, but not for going up against little kids who have a hard enough time hitting a baseball off a T.
Friends, is it our habit to do “they” exams when God calls for “I” exams? Ever smugly comment on how your neighbour’s car is never home on Saturday nights when it’s party time, but is always parked comfortably in its place on Sunday mornings during church? Ever come to an outreach event and ask: “Where is everyone?” annoyed that you seem to be among the few that takes evangelism seriously? Ever piously shake your head at a classmate who is talking back to the teacher? Or have you ever thanked God that you’re not like the self-satisfied Pharisee in this parable?
We may show up brightly compared to the dark background of another’s sin but what do we look like compared to the brilliant background of God’s white-hot holiness? That’s what matters. The tax collector understood this so while the Pharisee thumped his chest the tax collector beat his breast praying: “God, have mercy on me, [the] sinner” (Luke 18:13b).
While the Pharisee boasted about how much God needed him the tax collector confessed how much he needed God for he knew he was a damned sinner. It wasn’t just because enough people had told him so. If a boss were to accuse you of being a worthless employee, you’d be quick to give him examples of how you do contribute to the company’s well being. And so it would have been easy for the tax collector to admit: “Yes, Lord, I have stolen from your people. I’m a sinner…but at least I’m here in your temple to worship!” The tax collector doesn’t mention this “good work” because he knows that it’s not good works that save. Only God saves. And so he cried out: “Save me, God! I’m not like you.”