Summary: At the Temple were two men, two prayers, and two faiths. One trusted in himself and his righteousness. He went home dead in his sin. The other humbly confessed his sin and believed in salvation outside himself. He went home justified by God’s grace.
At the Temple were two men, two prayers, and two faiths.
The first man was a Pharisee. He’s the good guy. He’s respected. He’s forgotten more about the Scriptures than most of us can remember. He’s an example of how to live an upstanding life. Do as he says and does and everything will go well with you.
The second man was a tax collector. He’s the bad guy. He’s reviled. He’s the thief, skimming as much money as he could get away with to make himself rich. But even worse, he’s a traitor. For the tax collector took in money for the Roman Empire, the foreign power occupying Israel.
So now we get to the prayer of the Pharisee. “O God, I thank you that I’m not like other people.” You’ve prayed that before. You may not be perfect, but thank God that you’re not like the welfare queen you despise, or the bum who’s too lazy to work. I’ve said aloud that I’m glad I’m not like the lazy person at the Walmart parking lot. He’s too lazy to put his shopping cart away after he’s walked around with it all over the store.
You know the splinter in your eye is small next to the beam in his. Your goodness came the hard way. You worked hard to get that way. You’ve got something to boast about before the Lord.
There’s just one problem: the proud saint is not of God but of Satan. And the Pharisee in today’s Gospel reading is the perfect picture of the proud saint. For his words reveal the greatest sin of all: the damning unbelief in his heart. He says, “O God, I thank you that I’m not like other people--greedy, unrighteous, adulterers, or even this tax collector.”
The Pharisee wasn’t simply content to hold others in contempt. He had to spread his sickness around, giving it voice. He had to go even further and attack the tax collector. It would have been better if he had just left the tax collector alone. But no, that wasn’t enough. And so--in one sentence--he wounds the only person within earshot.
You are a proud saint when you point your fickle finger at someone else without first turning that finger back on yourself. Pride is contempt of God. Pride is crediting the goodness within you--not to God--but to yourself. That’s a denial of God. That’s a denial of your sin, as well.
When you pray in the liturgy, “Lord have mercy,” do you know what you are praying? Did you know you are already praying for something that God already gives? Yet, you pray for the Lord’s mercy to come to you anyway! That’s what faith does. That’s what faith recognizes.
Faith knows that, without God’s mercy, you’d stand condemned before the all-righteous, all-perfect, all-holy, and all-knowing God. Without God’s mercy, you are eternally dead. Your pride becomes a sinking boat on the river of life, pulling you deeper and deeper into a watery grave.
Did you ever notice that nowhere in the liturgy do you ever thank God that you are not like someone else? That’s one reason the gift of the liturgy is such a blessing. It’s God’s Word distilled, in content and form, to give you the right words to pray and believe, even if your heart feels otherwise.
On your own, you often get it wrong. The Pharisee prayed from the heart. But what was in his heart was not worth praying. What was in his heart was sinful. Sometimes, you need to pray what isn’t in your heart--because what is in your heart may be despicable to God!
Let the Church’s liturgy shape and form you with God’s Word, so you can believe and pray as you should. For the thanks you pray in the liturgy is thankfulness to God for everything He did, does, and will do to save you.
The key to grasping today’s parable is to remember to whom Jesus is speaking. Jesus spoke this parable to people who trusted in their own righteousness, those who despised others for not making the grade. Remember this warning from Jesus: “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).
When you trust in your own righteousness over--not only the Lord, but also your neighbor--you despise both God and neighbor. You walk in the footsteps of Cain, who murdered his brother because he wanted to worship God in his own way. You walk in the footsteps of Saul, before he became Paul, and persecuted the Christian Church.
The man who returns to his house justified is the man least likely to win any popularity contest. The tax collector is right there with common, everyday sinners at the bottom of the list. Hearing Jesus say the tax collector is justified, instead of the Pharisee, is scandalous. That’s what makes this parable so ironic. That’s what makes this parable so sweet.