In the last few weeks, we’ve dealt with some difficult topics.
We’ve looked at what it means to be truly rooted in the living waters of Christ’s blood, and to have a faith that can withstand the storms of life. We’ve looked at how even the smallest of faiths can proclaim the kingdom of God in mighty ways. We’ve seen the depths of the Father’s love to welcome home the prodigal son, and to reach out to the older son in his anger. And, we’ve seen how God continually seeks the lost in order to bring them home.
All of those are difficult aspects of faith, and I hope we are still wrestling with what each of these mean for us. But, we’ve saved the hardest for last.
At first glance, our passage for today offers something that may be easy to understand. It would seem that Jesus is setting up a classic contrast between two people and their prayers. One person’s prayer is off base, while the other is the way God intends. Yet, this may just retell the problem Jesus is addressing.
What if this parable isn’t about who is “in” and who is “out?” What if Jesus is conveying a radical message about how God’s love truly works? What if this passage points us to a radical reversal that wasn’t just a for moment, but for all times?
To answer these questions, we need to paint the picture of the parable’s scene. Place yourselves in the Temple, which was the center of activity in Jesus’ time. It was where people went to pray and to join in community with others. In those times, there were regulations about who could come into the Temple to worship, to pray, and who had to stand on the outside. Those who were righteous and those who were among the people of Israel were in, and those who were Gentiles, or outside the community of Israel, were out.
The first person we see in the Temple is the Pharisee. We’ve talked a lot about Pharisees in this series, and when we hear the Pharisees being mentioned we have some pre-suppositions. They are the ones who opposed Jesus for the majority of His earthly ministry, and were the group we see Jesus criticizing the most. Automatically, we want want to see the Pharisees as the “bad guys.” But, who were the Pharisees? They were a group that believed in the Torah, the Law of Moses, and wanted to make sure it was followed by all of Israel. They believed in a strict following of Scripture. They believed in the resurrection of the body and judgment. There were many areas where the Pharisees and Jesus often agreed, but often Jesus seeks to engage this group to help them to move from some of their “hypocritical” attitudes.
So the Pharisee walks into the Temple. He knows he is “in” because he is righteous. He makes his way to the center of the Temple and he prays, “I thank you God, that I am not a sinner like everyone else. For I don’t cheat. I don’t sin, and I don’t commit adultery. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.” The striking thing about the Pharisee’s prayer is that is true. There is nothing false about what he says. He talks about those things that he has stayed away from, and those things he has done as a form of spiritual discipline.
Perhaps, we would call him a righteous person, or maybe even someone who has gone “beyond the call of duty.” Even though there was only a requirement for a yearly fast on the Day of Atonement, this Pharisee was going to do more. He tithed more than what was required. The Pharisees righteousness came from his own work, and by his own hands. He wasn’t at the Temple to seek God. He came to seek the praise and approval of those around him and who could hear him speak.
This Pharisee might be like a modern-day Christian who believes “if I do good work, God will honor me,” “if I tithe the right amount, God will find me righteous,” or “if I do a lot for the church, God will welcome me into heaven.”
The expectations of Jesus’ times, and perhaps maybe for us today, was that good works are what God honors. We believe those who do good things, and practice good practices, are deemed righteous by God. We expect the Pharisee, and this modern-day Christian, to be declared justified by God.
But, Jesus doesn’t follow our expectations. He instead gives us another character to help us to understand this parable.
Into the Temple, we see this tax collector. The tax collector is different from the Pharisee, but he is no hero. To understand the parable, we have to understand the Pharisee’s “good works,” but also the tax collector’s sins. As we have said previously, the tax collector would take the people’s money to fund the Roman government, while funding their own wallets in the process. They were immoral. There was nothing that would make you want to associate with the tax collector. There is nothing that this collector did that was worthy of merit or honor. He was almost like the most immoral of our society – a child abuser, a rapist, or even a murderer.
On this day, the tax collector stood outside of the Temple. He comes to the Temple to pray, but notice he doesn’t attempt to enter the Temple. He stands back. He doesn’t feel worthy to enter the Temple. That’s not all. Even though the practices of the time would allow for people to lift their eyes toward heaven in prayer, the tax collector looks to the ground. Here, he does something odd. He begins to beat his chest. While doing this, he passionately prays, “O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.”
The tax collector seeks God in his prayer, while the Pharisee has no need of God. He recognizes he is nothing without God. The tax collector knew he was unworthy of being deemed righteous, and he threw himself at God’s mercy. In this moment of deep emotional remorse, the tax collector, and perhaps our modern-day sinner, is saying “God save me.” He knows that without God there is no hope for him.
How do we expect God to respond? Our expectations might be that God will turn a deaf ear to the tax collector’s prayer, and only hear the Pharisee’s prayer. We wonder how could God love someone so vile to offer him mercy and forgiveness. God offers mercy to the tax collector.
This is the radical nature of the Christian life. God offers us, we who are sinners, forgiveness and mercy. When we recognize our sin, humbly repent, and truly God’s mercy, we find forgiveness in the eyes of the Lord. It is the tax collector who is justified, and not the Pharisee. It is the sinner’s humble words of repentance, and not the righteous Pharisee’s good works, which leads to someone being forgiven and brought back into a relationship with God.
The Pharisee didn’t believe he needed God’s mercy, and the tax collector knew he could not live without it. The Pharisee wanted to be justified “because of” what he has done. He is the picture of a works righteousness that says what we do matters. It says our works brings us into relationship with God, as if we can earn God’s love. Yes, what we do matters, but only out of response to God’s love and our utter dependence on God’s mercy. We are all sinners in need of God’s love. No amount of good works can separate us from the fact that we are sinners who must find ourselves at the foot of the cross and say, “Christ have mercy on me. I am a sinner.”
But, let us not fall into the parable’s potential trap. We should not be like the Pharisee and say “Thank you God, that I am not like the Pharisee,” or “Thank God, I am not like that dead beat, that murderer, or that vile person.” If we do, we will find that we’ve missed out on God. As Fred Craddock says, “It is not those who think of themselves as saints who are vindicated but those who confess they are sinners.” We must recognize our need of God, and that God is the reason for the blessings in our lives.
The tax collector, our modern-day sinner, recognizes his position in God’s eyes. He knows there is a distance in the relationship, and he seeks God’s mercy and reconciliation. God hears this prayer, and he calls him justified “in spite of” what he has done. As Paul writes in Romans 3, we have all fallen short of God. We have all done things in our lives that places barriers between us and a deep relationship with God. Yet, we are “made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ.” We are justified not by our works, but by our faith in Jesus Christ. God looks into the depths of our hearts and judges us. When we place our faith in Him, God offers his grace and calls us “forgiven.” We are saved not by what we do, but because of our utter dependence on the blood of Jesus Christ. My friends, “this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are.” It was true for the tax collector, and it is true for even the most vile sinner we could imagine today. God’s mercy is there for us, if only we will humbly confess our sin and place our faith in Christ.
Christ’s blood and the free act of God’s grace is the ultimate reversal of our expectations. God doesn’t play by our own expectations of who is in, and who should be declared righteous. It is not those who exalt themselves through their “good works” who will find forgiveness and God’s grace. God says it is the humble who are forgiven. Those who find themselves at the cross, no matter what they have done, will be exalted and forgiven. Those who believe in their own self-righteousness will be humbled by God, and will find that they are outside, from a true relationship with God.
At the end of the day, both the Pharisee and the tax collector went home. The Pharisee felt no different. He received what he wanted. He was justified in the eyes of his fellow man for his good works, and for his faithful service. He felt good. Yet, he was not justified in the eyes of the One who truly matters. When the tax collector went home, he was a changed man. He had admitted his sin, felt the need of God, and found God’s mercy. His life would never be the same.
My friends, how will we go home today? Will we go home as the Pharisee and say, “I’m good?” Will we say “Thank God, I’m not like that other person?” Or, will we find our place at the cross, once again, and say “God, I am a sinner in need of your continued grace in my life. Have mercy on me?”