The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
October 24, 2021
Jesus aimed the parable we just now heard, both read and sung, at those who trust in themselves and regard others with contempt – such as the Pharisee in the parable, and the Pharisee who resides within each of us.
So we each must ask: Do I trust in myself most of all, or in God? Do I bank on my righteousness or on God’s? Do I serve my pride and regard others with contempt, or serve God’s purposes and regard them with His compassion?
Each of us has to answer these questions for ourselves. How we do, by the life we lead, determines whether we are humbled or exalted in the one way that matters. This parable about two men who went up to the temple to pray illumines the fork in the road before us all.
We like the honest and humble tax collector more than the smug and self-satisfied Pharisee; but we can’t deny the Pharisee was the moral and spiritual better of the two. Yes, Jesus criticized Pharisees sharply and frequently; but I suspect He did because He saw their goodness and expected more of them.
In Jesus’ day no one surpassed the Pharisees in fervent, resolute religious devotion. No one studied God’s word more vigorously, engaged in the practices of piety more diligently, or gave money more generously. For example, this Pharisee tithed all his income, and fasted twice a week – when most Jews fasted but once a year! All could see the Pharisees’ righteousness.
Conversely, it was hard to see any righteousness in the tax collector. His very line of work compromised him ethically. He extracted money from his own people for those who oppressed them; and, like everyone else working in Rome’s revenue service, his low pay forced him to cheat folks in order to line his pockets and make ends meet. He was stealing from his own to support their worst enemy!
But good, upright folks like the Pharisees also have special temptations which, if succumbed to, make them go bad. They are so celebrated for their virtue that they grow prone to get overly impressed with themselves; and, relishing the feeling of superiority comparing themselves to others grants, they’re tempted to think more poorly of others just to think still more highly of themselves.
Both men prayed. But, in the spiritual life, the great treason is to do the right thing for the wrong reason. The Pharisee did the right thing by starting his prayer with thanks; but he thanked God for his being “not like other people”, and happily contrasted himself with bad sinners. He perverted worship. He made it less about looking up to the Lord in adoration than looking in the mirror in admiration!
How differently the tax collector worshipped! While the Pharisee prayed “standing by himself”, as if he thought himself too classy to associate with regular folks, the tax man prayed “standing far off”, as if he thought himself unworthy to be in the company of decent folks. And while the Pharisee basked in his overblown self-esteem, the tax man floundered in his shame, so that “he would not even look up to heaven” but beat his breast in guilt. And while the Pharisee was hoping to get his just desert for being so very good, the tax man, given his sorry record of conduct, wanted no part of justice. He acknowledged his only hope lay in God’s grace; and pleaded for mercy.
And because this man, the less ethically and spiritually accomplished of the two, trusted not in himself but in God, it was he, Jesus said, who went home from the temple “justified” – that is, made right with God. As Jesus said in summing up the parable, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” The better man didn’t want grace but justice; and he got it. He didn’t want to give grace to others because he thought they didn’t deserve it; and he didn’t want to receive grace because he thought he didn’t need it. The lesser man didn’t want justice but grace; and he got it – for no good reason but the goodness of God and his openness to relying on it.
To the surprise of many, the Pharisee proved to be the lost soul because he, who had started out all about God, had lost God. He had lost God by putting people down. For putting people down puts them at a distance, and putting people at a distance puts God at a distance. Since God is love, since you can’t love God without loving others, and since you can’t love others without drawing near to them in a desire to help, those who keep themselves above others step away from them – and thereby step away from God.
To be exalted in God’s unwarranted and thus unlimited grace, two things must happen: We have to admit we need it, and we have to share it with others. To admit we need it, we must acknowledge we’ve no rightful claim upon God and still so believe in God’s goodness that we hope to receive grace as a gratuitous gift of unconditional love. And to share His grace with others, we have to refrain from holding others in contempt and instead hold them to our heart in care and concern.
We all have an inner Pharisee to watch out for. He shows up, say, when we view those with a different political vision for our country’s welfare not just as wrong but as morally inferior to us in character, when we work hard to show others the love of Christ and can’t let go of resenting those who don’t do their fair share in the cause, when life gets hard and we think we’ve been wronged as if we’re so exceptional we should be spared the common lot of humanity, when we puff ourselves up and put others down.
This parable brings home two points: First, we should not think more highly of ourselves than we ought. Second, we could never think too highly of God’s great grace. If we humble ourselves and hang our hope on it, we will be exalted in the exultation of our salvation!