The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
October 23, 2022
On whom do I ultimately rely to make my life what I want it? On myself? On friends and/or family? On God?
It’s a good question to ponder, and where we land determines the quality of our life.
Jesus is here continuing his teaching on prayer by telling a second consecutive parable about it. The first encouraged determination because there is promise in persistent praying. This second one encourages humility because there is peril in presumptuous prayer.
We prefer a story to have a clear villain and a clear hero. But in this story both men are mixed bags. Yes, the Pharisee is an obnoxious, haughty, self-flattering egotist who is more in love with himself than with anyone else and who looks down his nose at everyone else. But to his credit, he is admirably devoted and self-disciplined in his adherence to his moral and spiritual code. He not only avoids committing big blatant sins – a husband would trust him alone with his wife and a homeowner would never worry about having him as a next-door neighbor – but he also carries out exceptional actions above and beyond the call of duty: he fasts twice a week (when the law required a fast only once a year), he generously tithes all his income (when the law required tithing only some forms of income), and he gives God thanks for His good gifts (albeit thinking himself the best gift from God of them all!)
Meanwhile, the tax collector – while exhibiting admirable honesty about himself, a becoming modesty before God and others, and a righteous awareness of his need of mercy and grace– every day betrays his own people and his religious heritage. He’s a political traitor who collaborates with an occupying, oppressive foreign government, serves its cruel and corrupt tax system, and cheats both the poor and the rich.
We clearly like the tax collector better. But it is not at all clear he’s the more virtuous of the two.
The distinction between them lies elsewhere: in where they rest their ultimate reliance, on whom they hang their hope first and foremost. The Pharisee represents those, Luke says, who “trust in themselves” and who, to keep thinking highly of themselves, “regard others with contempt”. Verse 11 says that, when he stands at the temple to pray, he stands “by himself”, as if to show he’s too good to be seen as on the same level as the rest. (By the way, Luke’s original Greek text here, translated in many Bibles as “he stood by himself to pray”, could be equally well translated as “he stood to pray about himself” – which he surely did! After a quick thanks to God for his being a superior human being, his prayer consists of a string of “I” statements in which he applauds himself!
The way the tax collector prays makes for a sharp contrast. He also prays off by himself – “far” off, verse 13 says. Yet it’s not because he thinks he’s too good to rub shoulders with others, but because he doubts he is good enough to do so. He calls himself a “sinner” and begs for mercy, kindness he knows he has no right to. He cannot trust in himself and thus he cannot hope in himself. His only hope arises from outside of himself: in the grace of God, in the possibility of God’s being gratuitously good to him beyond anything he deserves. For him he’s either got the grace of God, or he’s got nothing at all.
Jesus spells out the point of the parable, saying, “This man went down to his home justified rather than the other.” Their different standing with God has nothing to do with their comparative virtue and everything to do with the comparative location of their ultimate reliance. The Pharisee wants to stand on his record; the tax collector wants to hang on to God’s mercy.
We are pleased to see the Pharisee, that puffed-up pill of a person, put in his place; but Jesus meant for this parable to address an issue that pertains to all of us. That’s why He sums up its lesson in terms that apply to everyone, and not just to certain people. Jesus concludes here, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
It would be a shame then if any of us today went down to our home praying, “God, I thank you that I am not like that Pharisee who thanked you that he was not like that tax collector.” We’d do better if, with tax collector honesty, we each asked, “How can I rid myself of anything of the Pharisee in me?”
For Pharisee-ism can sneak into any of us. Let us explore just two instances.
First, do we, though we never suppose ourselves perfect, dwell on the thought that the world would be a better place if everyone would be like us: as fundamentally decent, as considerate of others, as aware of the duty to end injustice? That thought may in fact be true; but, if we think too long about that fact or think wrong about that fact, self-righteousness and its bosom buddy, contempt for others, can creep in. We come to overestimate the good God has built into us and forget that it was God who built it into us. We then start trusting in ourselves, and our trust in ourselves eclipses our trust in God.
Second, when we’re hit with setbacks or suffering, do we protest, “Why me?” Might we not wonder, “Why not me?” Do we see ourselves as such an asset to God, or such a favorite of His, that we should be exempted from the common lot of humanity? And why, when others suffer, do we not ask, “Why them?” Are we OK with their unjust pain but offended by our own? Do we think we’re special and God owes us special protection from the hard knocks of life?
It is urgent we hold on to the wisdom of the tax collector who knew that, if God gave to him in proportion to how good he was, his life would be over. He knew better than to trust in himself as the Pharisee did. He knew he could only hope in the mercy and grace of God.
Such hope will ever exalt the humble; and, because the love behind God’s mercy and grace is unconditional, the benefit of relying on it is unlimited.
Let us then place our ultimate reliance on God. By such faith we will be uplifted with unlimited joy, peace and strength to love others as God has loved us!